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Welcome to Davis, Calif.: Six lessons from the world’s best local wiki

Ah, Davis: home of 60,000 people, 30,000 students, 188 sunny days a year, a 16 percent bike commute mode share and the busiest local wiki in the world.

If I were Omaha World-Herald Publisher Terry Kroeger, I’d be booking my post-holiday flight immediately.

As Gina reported here last week, Omaha’s employee-owned metro daily just bought WikiCity, an Omaha-based Web startup that wants to provide mini-Wikipedias for every city in the country. Creating a cheap platform for evergreen, user-generated local Web content has been tried, um, once or twice before. But with some notable exceptions, corporations have turned out to be really, really bad at this.

Philip Neustrom hasn’t.

Today, the quirky 500-page wiki Neustrom launched with fellow UC Davis math student Mike Ivanov in 2004 has 14,000 pages and drew 13,000 edits by 3,300 users last month, averaging 10,000 unique visitors daily. More importantly, it’s the best way in town to find a lost cat, compare apartment rental prices or get a list of every business open past 10 p.m. Operating budget, not counting its founders’ part-time volunteer labor: about $2,000 a year.

What’s the secret? Neustrom, who now wrangles code for the Citizen Engagement Lab in the Bay Area, was nice enough to tell us.

Wikis need content to breed content. Or, as evergreen-content guru Matt Thompson put it last week, a wiki written primarily by robots will appeal primarily to robots.

“Starting anything is hard,” said Neustrom, now 25. “The issue is predominantly an issue of outreach, of coordinating people and making sure people understand that they can’t just put something up there and add 50 pages and walk away, and then come back in a month and hope that it’s taken off.”

Instead, Neustrom, Ivanov convinced some of their friends to spend four summer months writing snippets about things that only exist in Davis, like drunken biking through late-night fog, oversized playground equipment and the smell from the cow farm on the edge of town.

“We were just trying to do something that we liked,” Neustrom said. “We certainly weren’t trying to do anything that was very useful.”

Business information is the holy grail. Pages about your local toad tunnel are dandy, Neustrom said, and quirky content kept the site from feeling generic to early users. But the feature that made DavisWiki take off was what the traditional media calls “consumer reporting.”

“After we’d sort of seeded it with 500 pages or something like that, we opened it up to the public,” Neustrom said. “First, it was pretty slow going. Nothing really happened.”

Then, sometime in late 2005, pages on things like lunch specials and Davis’s nicest bathrooms started filling up. Local business coverage has been “a big driving force” ever since, Neustrom said. Today, he said, retail businesses in town often keep their own information on DavisWiki up to date.

A wiki’s strengths kick in after one year. The web craves news like kids crave sugar. Blogs and tweets are gobbled fast and burn quick. But wikis are the whole grains of the web: One year after news breaks, someone will want to find and link to it again — and a wiki is likely to be the only place it’s still hanging around.

“All of the existing online resources for sort of cataloging anything about the town were sort of time-based,” Neustrom said. “After about a year and a half, these things would sort of disappear, even if they’d been around for 100 years, like the local newspaper…So we became the resource of record.”

Start with a subculture, then build out to a general audience. DavisWiki has always aspired to cover its whole town, but it’s always served students best.

That’s all right, Neustrom thinks. If he’d tried to please everybody who showed up, no one would have come back.

“When building something like this, you can’t just aim for this wide spectrum at first,” Neustrom said. Some companies try to launch wikis by writing programs that “crawl through a database, that spit out statistics and create 13 million pages and put that out there and hope that it’s going to stick. You can’t do that. It’s just not going to work.”

Neustrom, who spent 2004 sharing a house with musicians, found his base among the artsy, but he thinks any subculture would do. “You could have, like, a physics grad student start a community for their town, and it’s a bunch of physics nerds,” he said. “And that could spiral out and out.”

Keep your content open source, no matter what. Don’t do it for marketing reasons or out of the kindness of your heart. Do it because it’s the only way to guarantee to your users that if you fold, all their hard work won’t die with you.

Good wikis inspire rabid devotion — if they don’t, they never become good wikis. Neustrom and Ivanov keep their budget online and think of the project as a user co-op. Their users did, too. “There are people on there who literally spend four hours a day looking at DavisWiki,” Neustrom said. “People had free [computer lab] pages every quarter, so they would use their excess printing to print out 400 fliers and staple them to every room on campus.”

People don’t do that for sites they think are “neat,” Neustrom said. They do it for sites they own.

Don’t get hung up on mimicking Wikipedia. Sure, it may be the most useful object ever created by human beings. But as Marshall Poe showed in his terrific biography of Wikipedia’s youth, its rules — universal editorship, neutral point of view, no original research — were forged out of year-long flamewars among the early Wikipedians. Neustrom and his friends didn’t think NPOV was suited to an inherently Davis-centric site, so they ditched it.

Wikipedia’s widely used software, MediaWiki, isn’t perfect either. DavisWiki uses a modified Sycamore platform but it, too, has flaws.

“People want to be able to search for all elementary schools within a certain radius of a certain point, or all of the restaurants that serve vegan food,” Neustrom said. “MediaWiki suffers the same issue [as Sycamore] — it was written before the advent of modern web framework.”

Neustrom is yearning for a modern wiki platform. That’s why he’s been messing around with Django this year. It’s also why he’s incorporating Wikispot, the nonprofit he set up to reproduce DavisWiki for other towns and topics, as a 501(c)3.

Looking for a tax write-off, Terry?

Photo by Arlen used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • http://independent.com Randy Campbell

    Great article and a thoughtful, well implemented website in daviswiki.org but…

    a quick search with Comscore, Quantcast, Compete, and the dreadful Alexa puts the traffic nowhere near the 10,000 uniques a day you cite.

    This stunning accomplishment in strong community websitery and hard work by the founders shouldn’t be associated with such misleading and overheated stats.

  • Michael Andersen

    Thanks, Randy. We did talk about those stats briefly; Neustrom’s story is that they aren’t accurate for smallish, geographically concentrated audiences.

    I appreciate your skepticism, and maybe I should have had more. But based on my rough understanding of how those services work, his answer seemed plausible.

    If you or anyone else would like to weigh in on this, I’d invite it.

  • http://daviswiki.org Philip Neustrom

    Randy-

    Indeed, comscore / alexa are inadequate when it comes to small sample sizes and certain demographics.

    I’ve emailed Michael a webserver log of a day’s worth of edits and a python script to compute the number of uniques on daviswiki.org so he can verify.

  • Michael Andersen

    A little after matter, as Jay might say:

    1) For anyone interested in the community-building aspects of wikis, Rich Millington’s FeverBee is essential reading. Philip’s story reminded me of this, for example.

    2) The seventh wiki tip I left out to save space: Don’t be scared of the word “wiki.” Lots of projects, such as Omaha Commons, another Omaha-based city-wiki project, figure it’ll scare people off. Neustrom &co. didn’t intend to keep the “DavisWiki” name for very long — it was especially weird in 2004 — but it stuck. Neustrom thinks it made the site feel less generic, which was important.

    My hunch: the word “wiki” does scare some people off, but for those who figure it out, it’s sort of a secret they’re proud to know. A shibboleth!)

    Here’s a postulate: raising the entry barriers to an online community increase user loyalty once people make it in.

    For a wiki, which depends heavily on superusers, this tradeoff is sometimes a net benefit.

  • http://stevenwalling.com/about Steven Walling

    I’d like to point out one small flaw in the whole thinking about city wikis, wikis in general, and content curation.

    You riff on Thompson’s point that discounts the role of bot-created wikis as less valuable than that which is hand-built (so to speak). His primary evidence was that the world’s number one wiki, Wikipedia, is a place “whose every page was built, word by work, link by link, on the actions of individual people.”

    The only problem is, that’s not true.

    Bots play a huge role in creating and curating content in Wikipedia, and have for years. If you graph the article growth of Wikipedia, everyone immediately notices a large jump at one point. That was when a single bot created thousands of pages for municipalities using public data. Those pages became the canvas for people who lived in those towns and cities to work from.

    Most of the largest wikis incorporate bots in some fashion. While it’s obvious that dedicated people are the lifeblood of a wiki, some of those people need to be coding bots.

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  • http://www.bluelotus-consulting.com Vivian Linderman

    This is a great idea for community nonprofits to collaborate on to keep local officials, donors, foundations and advocates updated on what is happening in the way of community issues and need. Great forward thinking strategy to help engage and improve communities!

  • http://cheshirehall.org Evan “JabberWokky” Edwards

    Steven — the flaw with bots is when people use them to create ten thousand entries in a wiki with no content other than a few basic bits of information and then expect the community to appear after that. There’s very little incentive to add to a yellow pages site, but a much smaller site with lots of humanity will grow a community… and then at *that* point, the automated tools are useful.

    Trying to create a community with a database dump, no matter how well formatted or accessible it is, is a dubious act. Creating one by comparing which Mexican cuisine in town is the most authentic and a roundup of which public bathrooms are clean (and then making photo galleries of the ones with interesting or whimsical decor)… that’ll get people involved. Plus it grows a more interesting wiki. It’s the human element that drives the community, and an initial focus on that seems to be more successful versus trying to splatter around 10,000 template entries, all stamped as stubs (or, as the Davis Wiki calls them, seeds) and then wait for people to spontaneously become interested.

    Letting people do the work means they become more and more invested in the wiki. A group of people with large amounts of empathy and passion are much more key in the long run than autoinserting category boxes.


    Evan “JabberWokky” Edwards
    http://daviswiki.org/Users/JabberWokky
    jw@timewarp.org -*- 814.889.8845

  • http://stevenwalling.com/about Steven Walling

    Evan,

    I absolutely agree that you can’t create a community with a database dump. But to say that there aren’t massively successful wikis who have used bots to support the work of people is patently untrue. The human element is the most important, but it’s not the only element.

  • Michael Andersen

    I’m enjoying your exchange, Steven and Evan.

    Maybe there’s a distinction to be made here between bot-created pages and bot-enhanced pages? I’m a huge fan of the info boxes, categories, and linked phrases that bots have used to bolt various Wikipedia pages together.

    But if I found a wiki that had a large proportion of pages consisting entirely of uniform, bot-generated content, I would get that artificial McWiki feeling Evan and Thompson are recoiling from.

    Not that bot-generated pages can’t be pretty useful. But as a potential contributor, I think I’d have sort of limited expectations for the page. I wouldn’t feel the frission that made the early, sort of crappy DavisWiki pages interesting and seductive. (Or here’s a random early Wikipedia page. Don’t these pages just make you want to … improve them?)

    And converting visitors to contributors (and contributors to devotees) is SUCH an important part of wiki projects.

    The more devotion is required, the more important aesthetics become, I think.

  • Michael Andersen

    Actually, let me follow up with a couple empirical questions for anyone who might know:

    1) Among various successful wikis, what percentage of pages were bot-generated?

    2) What’s the user-to-contributor ratio for Wikipedia now, and what have its historic levels been?

  • http://daviswiki.org/ Philip Neustrom

    I suspect using bots to improve a wiki with an already active community can work, given that the bot is governed by rules decided by community process (as is the case on wikipedia).

    The thousands of generated pages on wikipedia became a canvas for contributors perhaps because wikipedia itself had already reached an intense critical mass, both from a community perspective and a google-juice perspective: those generated pages likely showed up in searches all over the place.

    But, as Michael hints at, wikipedia has different contributor dynamics than Davis Wiki. We really need as many people in the community to contribute for the project to work. Wikipedia can get by with a very small percentage of folks, mostly because of its intense breadth.

  • http://daviswiki.org/Users/JasonAller Jason Aller

    One of the other things that Philip did a good job of was humanizing the interactions between editors.

    In many on-line communities the evolved community expectations for interactions between users are less respectful than the standards that one might encounter at a local farmer’s market. Philip and others did a good job of setting an expectation that the person you were interacting with electronically was also a member of the same physical space community and should be given the same level of respect that you’d give to someone in person.

    This lead to events in town where wiki editors would gather for face to face interaction as well.

    Another factor is the high percentage of editors who use their real names. People tend to be more respectful of other editors humanity when they are standing behind their words with their real name. We’ve had some really positively contributing anonymous editors as well.

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  • http://portlandwiki.org/PortlandWiki Dave Myers

    Can’t believe I only just stumbled across this article now. Very informative, Michael. And inspiring. Thanks!

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