by: David Jennings
Two years ago I created a wiki site about 69 Love Songs, my favourite album. I had in mind an evolving resource where people would add new perspectives on each song, so that it would grow in time to become a comprehensive guide to their many allusions, references and influences. At the time I first published the site, I wrote an account of its development and my hopes for it.
I've had a lot of positive feedback on the site in private and in public. However, as a wiki — a collaborative work — the site has been a relative failure. The inspiration I drew on was as much Simon Winchester's story about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, involving the co-ordination of the distributed work of several hundred Victorian volunteers, as Wikipedia. But the number of contributors is probably still in single figures, and 95% of the updates over the last two years have been done by one person: me.
This is a practical account of when and how to use a wiki for cultural reference sites, and when to consider other approaches. It accompanies a more abstract article on my main blog.
I think the best way to explain this is as a series of overlapping distinctions.
Fact versus interpretation. When you're writing about a song like The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure, there are basic facts you can document: who Ferdinand de Saussure was, what he wrote about, and how that connects to the song, plus who Holland-Dozier-Holland (also mentioned in the song) are. Then there's a middle ground, partly subjective, where you try and interpret what the song is aiming to express. Finally there's the purely subjective experience of what the song makes you feel (which may be different from what it makes me feel).
In the 69 Love Songs wiki, I focused in the first 'released' version on facts and a little bit of interpretation. That kind of set the tone: it discouraged people from adding subjective responses. There was a feeling that, to add something, you had to know, or have spotted, something that I hadn't already documented. And possibly I had overdone my initial research in a bid to show off…
Coherent versus unfinished. Brian Eno once said that 'interactive' is the wrong word; we should talk instead of cultural products being 'unfinished'. Perhaps I'm too much of a control freak because, when I told the community of fans of the Magnetic Fields about the 69 Love Songs wiki, it already looked like a coherent site and more or less 'finished'. There were entries, even if only short ones in some cases, for all the 69 songs, a Site Map, and all the things you expect with a finished 'publication'.
My advice, if you want a genuinely participative site, is to open up earlier to other people, and relinquish a bit of control over content and structure. You can still produce a 'version 0.5' of the site as an indicator of what you have in mind, but be prepared to amend it. And be sure that there are clear unfinished gaps that make it clear to people: "your input needed here".
Peer production versus user annotation. Do you want a site that can evolve continuously from top to bottom, or do you want something where core content is relatively fixed, and further contributions come in the shape of annotations or comments on the original, rather than edits to it? When I was building the wiki, my friend Mark suggested that I just post the lyrics to each of the 69 songs on the site, and invite everyone to add annotations from there. The annotations could have been facts or interpretations. Mark cited the Pepys Diary as an example of this.
For what I was attempting, I think Mark was right. However, others such as the They Might Be Giants wiki seem to have made the peer production model work well for them.
Wiki versus blog. Considerations of which software platform you use should come after all the others. That was probably another of my mistakes, because, well, I was keen to try out a wiki. Blogs, in general, are better at drawing out subjective interpretation rather than facts. There can be multiple voices on a blog entry with comments, and each voice has a clear owner (see my other article for more on this). Blogs are better at annotations, while wikis are better at peer production (the Pepys Diary runs on a blogging platform).
Some platforms allow a combination of wiki editing and blog commenting, as in the case of the Wetpaint platform used for the Music 2.0 directory.
Meanwhile, since I first produced the 69 Love Songs wiki, the album has continued to get more coverage using different approaches. There's the factual/database model of 69 love search, and the rich visual interpretations of 69 Illovestrations. Finally, published last week in the US (and my copy hasn't arrived yet), there's LD Beghtol's good old-fashioned book, 69 Love Songs — a field guide, which no doubt will trump my efforts.
None of these allow user input, however.