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Wikis Are Now Serious Business

Only a handful of years ago, it was common to hear people laugh at Wikipedia. Anyone can edit it! How could you take it seriously? These days, just as blogs are, wikis are on their way to winning a reputation as serious publishing platforms.

Free hosted wiki provider Wetpaint announced last night that it’s now raised a total of $40 million in venture capital. To celebrate this major financial validation of the wiki world, we thought we’d offer a brief survey of some of the most interesting ways that wikis are being put to serious use today.

There are scores and scores of wiki software options around the web, many of which are hosted and available for free. Wikimatrix is one place you can go to compare different options.

Wetpaint in particular features a whole lot of pop-culture crap, but that’s where the money is and a return must be secured on $40 million worth of investors’ money. Around the rest of the web, though, wikis are used for more than just teen-age starlet fan clubs and rehashing TV show minutia.

Wikis are some of the first online social software that many people in the enterprise come in contact with. They can be very popular for project management work. A recent report from Forrester estimated that enterprises spent $63 million on wikis last year, meaning that the consumer wiki provider Wetpaint has now raised 2/3 as much venture capital as the entire enterprise market spent on the medium last year. Forrester predicts though that by 2013, that spending will grow to $451 million – more than will be spent on blog software, podcasting or widgets.

When thinking about wikis, here are ten use cases that may be useful to consider as you ponder the possibilities. We’ll go from the most obvious examples to the most interesting.

Very Simple Publishing

If you’ve got something that you want to throw up on a web page, to see how it renders or to share it with others, a wiki is one of the easiest and fastest ways to do so. Some people use wikis as personal notepads with version history, as well. If it doesn’t have to look fancy and you might want to change it quickly later, try putting it on a wiki.

Check out Liz B. Davis’s wiki called Integrating 21st Century Tools into Your Teaching, where you can find slideshow and video tutorials about how to start using tools like Del.icio.us, GMail, Ning, Google Docs and more. It’s a great example of using a wiki to quickly and easily share some personal knowledge through a very simple publishing platform.

Building Text for Common Communication

Everyone knows that wikis are good for collaborative writing, but what kinds of things might you write collaboratively? Creative asset management company Extensis uses an internal wiki to craft agreed upon replies to common email inquiries. That sounds like a great time saver and a good way to make sure that day-in-day-out email communication stays helpful, professional and up to date even if it’s a snoozer for the people who happen to be sending the replies.

A solution like the SproutIt Mailroom might be more sophisticated, but sometimes you just want something quick and dirty.

Structured Information

Wikis are generally presumed to present nothing but an empty box and a WYSIWYG editor, but that’s not always the case. The online community for book readers Shelfari, for example, recently added a section for author wikis. These author wikis are a combination of free text space and a structured, biographical section.

The software used is called DekiWiki, from Mindtouch. Shelfari doesn’t use the DekiWiki interface, though, it just ties its pages into DekiWiki services. While Wetpaint Inject is getting some press this week, DekiWiki’s API offers more seamless, more powerful integration into partner websites.

Notes for After a Performance

A number of popular podcasts have experimented with setting up a wiki for listeners to fill out show notes about each episode of their shows – but that hasn’t worked out very well. If you really want a wiki about a performance to be populated, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

No one has done a better job of consistently putting up notes from conference talks than Beth Kanter, one of the most respected nonprofit tech consultants on the web. Kanter posts all of her notes here and makes sure everyone in the audiences of the many good talks she gives knows that URL. A particularly good example can be found in the page she set up for a recent talk about using social media for people in the arts. That one includes several examples of live video broadcast from the presentation using Qik.

Beth has blogged extensively about best practices in using wikis, as well.

Event Organizing

The widely viewed CommonCraft video called Wikis in Plain English uses event organizing, in this case planning a picnic, as its tutorial example. Sure enough, there are any number of organizations around the world using wikis to organize events.

The Toronto Transit Camp is one example of an attractive event wiki. All of Barcamp, an event organized like a wiki and now spread throughout the world, is organized using wikis.

Even the campaign of President-to-be Barack Obama is using a wiki to organize volunteers for his campaign. See also Clinton Attacks Obama, a unofficial wiki created by Baratunde Thurston to track and analyze the race-based attacks against Obama made by the Clinton campaign.

Disaster Relief

When talking about Presidential politics these days, it’s hard not to talk about disasters both literal and figurative. Wikis come in handy there too. KatrinaHelp.info got better press for being helpful than FEMA did during Katrina.

Now a new group of people is starting to work on a new wiki to gather resources to send to China to aid victims of the Sichuan Earthquake . That project is just in its formative stages but it could use your support. If you haven’t been following the quake in China much, there’s an interesting perspective on the event in a series of photos taken by a wedding photographer before and after the quake hit.

News Writing

Can wikis be used to write the news? Only in some cases, but when those succeed they are a real inspiration. The LA Times’ infamous experiment turning a 2005 editorial about the Iraq War into a wiki was absurd, but the far more well-informed Wikipedia project called WikiNews appears to be near death as well. If you want to find a good example of a thriving news wiki community, check out the sports site ArmChairGM, one of a number of active sites over at Wikia. The point is, news can be written by wiki – but it’s easier said than done.

Discussing Public Policy

For all the hot air offered by democratically elected governments about incorporating citizen input into decision making, wikis are emerging as an interesting way to try to make the process of gathering such input real.

The city of Melbourne, Australia launched an official wiki today to discuss the future of the city. I’d love to see the Mayor of my city on the front page of a wiki asking for contributions!

Likewise, the Dharavi Redevelopment Project is using a wiki to gather resources for use in planning redevelopment of one of India’s largest areas of hyper-poverty. Wikis don’t have to be a privilege touching only the world’s wealthiest people.

Exposing Research Publicly

While wikis are usually thought of as available for public collaboration, they can also be useful in showcasing content developed by a closed group. The Democratic National Committee today unveiled its McCainPedia, a collection of information it’s gathering about presumptive Republican Presidential nominee John McCain. Early feedback has included some criticism that the wiki isn’t publicly editable, but on the other hand isn’t it better to do this closed research in the light of day than not?

Stockholm University’s Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry launched a new website this week with the same strategy. The wiki isn’t publicly editable, but its members get to use a wiki interface to add content and anyone can view it.

Revive Archived Content

Finally, possibly the most interesting serious use of a wiki that we’ve seen of late is today’s announcement that legacy web developer community WebMonkey has been acquired by Wired.com and is turning all of its archived content into wiki pages. That’s a great way to enable a community of users to breathe new life into archived content that is less timely than news stories but could still use some updating.

This is Serious Stuff

Wikis are no longer just for fringe articles on obscure topics and they don’t have to just be for pop-culture fluff that over-invested companies can run Adsense next to. Wikis are ready for serious work use, if you’re ready for them. That’s easier said than done, though. Now that we’ve shared with you a list of examples illustrating the possibilities, we’ll leave you with consultant Stewart Mader’s excellent recent video tutorial series 21 Days of Wiki Adoption.

We hope you’ve found this informative and inspiring – we’d love to learn about some of your favorite examples of serious uses of wikis. Check out Mader’s tips below and then let’s go out and wiki!

Wiki bus photo by CogDogBlog.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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