Monday, September 26, 2011

Musings of a GCPEDIAC: Wikicommunity

I once remarked on Twitter: "Our internal SharePoint doesn't excite me the way GCPEDIA does. The SP is useful, but it doesn't have 'community'". A community—a unique culture; a perceptible camaraderie; an interest in watching, learning from, and helping others—is what transforms a software platform from a tool of potential productivity to an ecosystem of thriving creation.

I still struggle to stay attached to our internal SharePoint. It's a tool that I know I should use, and one that I know how to use, but not one that I really feel drawn into using.  I know there are others out there that have this same feeling about GCPEDIA.

When I think back to the first time I edited a wiki, I can pinpoint the moment where I felt like I'd stumbled across something great... something that I really wanted to remain attached to.  Actually, there were several key moments, but each was of the same theme: Someone noticed that I was there, and spontaneously made contact.

I was brand new to editing a wiki, and writing my very first article. After I'd let it sit for awhile I noticed that another user had created a custom graphic for the article and had inserted it without asking.  I could have been annoyed by this. I've observed over the years that some wiki users regard a wiki simply as an editable website.  They place large banners at the top of their pages asking them to be left alone. Some even ask administrators to lock pages down so they can't be changed anymore.

Not me. Even then, I really understood that the whole point of a wiki was spontaneous collaboration... reaping the benefits of un-requested and unexpected expertise.

I was thrilled.  I went to that user's talk page and left them a thank you message. We continued like that for some time, trading edits and messages.  Seven years later he is still a friend of mine.

Meanwhile, another user—an administrator—noticed that I was working  diligently but that my user page was pretty bare.  He left me a small contribution award template for me to add to my page.  It was another small but significant push: someone else had noticed what I was doing, and even though they couldn't contribute to my work, they let me know that my work was noticed.

Without really saying an anything, these two users really illustrated what was great about wikis as a platform: the capacity for spontaneous collaboration, observation of what others are working on, and potentially instant recognition, feedback, and communication.

It was all the example I needed.  I threw myself into helping and contacting others in just the way that I'd been helped. I made more friendships, I created much more content, I learned more about the wiki software as people began to approach me with more complex problems.  I also continued to rely on my own contacts who had been there longer and who knew much more than I did.

The roots grew underneath me and took firm hold without me realizing it.  Suddenly, I had a reason to come in everyday even if I didn't have a project to work on that day: I had friendships, and mentorships, and a sense of belonging.  I had expertise I knew I could share, provided I had a look around to find someone who needed it.  Some days I was too busy and I only had the time to login and respond to my talk page messages, but I still had the will. After all, my colleagues were there. All of my best work was there. All of the information and inspiration I needed was there, growing and changing every day.

A collaboration platform is just software. The wiki was my virtual office,  my boardroom, my classroom, my water cooler, my community.

GCPEDIA already has a good core of sysops and a community of peer helpers. Collectively, we need to be more proactive. At present, there is a "New user message" welcome script that leaves an anonymous welcome and help document on the talk pages of new users.  I think a spontaneous personal greeting to anyone new you notice would go a long way.  If you have a block of time, check out the New user log and leave a personal welcome for a new user. Scan Recent changes to see what others are working on, and donate some of your time doing copyediting or adding content for a stranger. Leave talk page messages for users you know, or other GC employees you'd like to meet.

GCPEDIA is an amazing tool, but it's a tool whose magnitude can overshadow itself unless we, the people, make an effort to loom even larger. No-one is interested in learning yet-another-tool, unless it can distinguish itself as one worth the effort to stick with.

Help your colleagues to give GCPEDIA the chance it deserves.