Posts by Christian Crumlish

Wikis: Productivity or Plague?

June 23, 2005

Christian Crumlish

Get a group of tech folks together and chances are someone -- probably the guy with the open laptop -- will suggest the group create a "wiki."

But chances are just as good that once the wiki -- a kind of virtual white board -- is up and running, it will be abandoned in favor of email. That, not the wiki, will be the communication vehicle of choice to and for the group. And everyone will promptly complain that they're getting too much email.

Why does this happen? A lot of peer pressure and a little bit of fascination with a cool, but still nascent, technology is probably to blame. However, despite some frustrating characteristics, Wikis are like the first draft of social media, where technical definitions and cultural traditions meet.

Certainly the software is used. Howard Dean's campaign used a SocialText wiki for its internal planning, progressive political blog Daily Kos's dKosopedia uses the open-source Mediawiki for some of its collaborative projects. And just last week, the Los Angeles Times set up a wiki for some of its editorials to let readers comment on what the paper had said. The newspaper’s experience, however, demonstrated something many suspect about wikis: outside a small tech-savvy group, the software for these collaborations isn't quite ready for prime time. It's a bit too open-ended and a bit too complicated, which can make the demand to use them especially frustrating for folks who know how wikis are supposed to work.

Yet, as the L.A. Times's decision to use a wiki demonstrates, wikis are, in spite of themselves, hip. Even the name’s derivation is obscure: it comes from wiki wiki, a Honolulu airport shuttle-bus service named after a pidgin word for "quick".

Why the Wiki?
So what's the attraction? Well, for those who know how to use them, wikis truly do represent a breakthrough in how the Web should work. They are a way to accumulate a repository of
knowledge with multiple contributors and display it easily for anyone to read. That makes wikis almost perfect for organizing efforts, campaigns, volunteer groups; anything where lots of folks might have lots of small contributions over time. Unlike ordinary Web pages, which require a pretty detailed knowledge of HTML markup, wikis are flexible and easy to update. And unlike weblogs, they offer a place for multiple contributors to share and contribute information. Wikis make a great complement for mailing lists and blogs, which are largely chronological in nature and not as good at building up an institutional memory. And, of course, they can potentially help stem the ever-growing tide of email messages.

To get an idea of how the technology works when it works well, take a look at the most successful of these efforts: the collaborative encyclopedia, Wikipedia, is written and edited by volunteers who write on topics of interest or expertise and whose writings are often edited by other experts -- self-appointed and otherwise -- in their fields. This is a powerful idea.

Another example is FOIA: Detention Practices Project, a part of the political encyclopedia, dKosopedia. Volunteers there are reading, collating and analyzing documents obtained on reports of torture at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Susan Hu, one of the volunteer organizers of the project, calls it "a monumental task" that is coordinating the efforts of many medical and military experts to search through the handwritten documents obtained in the Freedom of Information request made by the ACLU.

"The ACLU and the A.P.'s public dissemination of these documents is invaluable, those organizations haven't the people power to catalog key information from each document," Hu wrote in an email. "We couldn't begin to organize all of the 35,000 pages of documents without using wiki's ability to catalog, index, and cross-reference items." Still, the volunteers need help with the software they're using, she says. "I haven't had time to figure it out. One of our volunteers is writing a 'dummy's guide' to help us."

Not Quite Mainstream
It's not easy to understand how wikis work unless you know how they work. Wikis enable the reader to add, substitute or correct any page's content. For non-technical folks, though, the interface can be intimidating, often with too much information on a page and no way to tell what to do or where to go.

"Engineers, who generally think HTML is trivial [to learn], assume that wiki markup is easy to learn; and it probably is compared to HTML," says Ken Norton, vice president of products at hosted-wiki provider JotSpot. "What they don't understand is that regular users don't want to have to learn a new way to author documents.... It's not that they're not capable of learning; they simply don't want to be bothered."

A simple way to create a hyperlink to a new page, WikiWords (also known as writing in CamelCase) are terms with no spaces between words, at least two of which are capitalized (e.g. RunningTwoOrMoreWordsTogether). So anyone can suggest or request a new page just by linking. And users link just by typing the name of the word they want to see. The problem is, the average reader isn’t aware of this function, or how to make it work.

Even more frustrating, different wiki vendors use different conventions. Socialtext, for instance, doesn't use WikiWords. Instead, new links are typed between brackets, which the user can either type directly or apply with a link button.

Another big obstacle to wiki success is the fact that users must adapt to the idea that whatever they write on the wiki can be edited, changed, expanded or just plain disregarded by a crew of commentators or, "editors." The "anyone can edit it" ethos also raises worries about virtual graffiti and vandalism as the L.A. Times editors learned -- the hard way. And what about wrong information? Can't someone come along and destroy a page or add defamatory or incorrect information to it? The answer is “yes” but, like most successful group projects, managed, moderated and supervised wikis are the ones that succeed best. Wiki monitoring can reduce users' dependence on the more familiar email for group messaging, since folks stay on topic when they know someone's watching. But getting people to make the switch takes some dedication and concentration.

Moderation reduces the anarchy that can result when many people work on wikis and end up creating impossibly complicated documents. A well moderated wiki community strives to "refactor" pages, occasionally reassessing the page's organization and, when necessary, moving less important information to new pages.

What You See You Might Not "Get"
It's not like tech folks don't know what's wrong. Some of the newer wiki services, like JotSpot, are beginning to provide a wysiwyg (What You See Is What You Get) editing interface. It works a bit like Microsoft's Word program, which allows users to set up documents so they appear in a familiar way to not-so-geeky users. (Oh, and while we're trying not to scare off the natives, maybe we could change the term wysiwyg to something more accessible. How about "friendly"?)

Beyond those details, the biggest barrier to wiki adoption, both in the political world and in the business world is that -- as clever as these applications are -- they are still somewhat devilish to set up, customize, and maintain. There is not yet an out-of-the-box wiki package that can be installed easily, quickly styled to look like the rest of a website, and maintained easily. SocialText and JotSpot are certainly trying with their hosted (their servers, not yours) offerings.

Like most emerging technologies, wikis simply require more refinement and adjustment. Ross Mayfield, CEO and founder of hosted-wiki provider SocialText, defends the use of wiki markup over a wysiwig interface by quoting one of the fathers of the modern networked PC environment: "A long time ago, when Doug Engelbart [inventor of the computer mouse] was inventing everything that we are re-inventing now, he made the important distinction between automation and augmentation. As toolmakers, we can automate certain steps…so users don't have to change behavior. On the other hand, we can augment, have them learn a little, so they can be more productive."

Of course, whether or not wikis will fulfill that promise of augmented productivity remains to be seen.

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Meetup Says Put Up or Shutdown

April 29, 2005

Christian Crumlish

On April 12, Meetup.com dropped a bomb on its users: the online group organizing service announced that it would now charge group organizers monthly fees. The notification has forced political campaigns and issue advocacy groups to consider alternative methods for mobilizing their supporters. It’s already prompted an exodus among some organizers who have since resigned from their roles managing Meetup groups.

The previously free Web service is widely credited with helping Howard Dean’s Democratic Presidential primary campaign spread virally, and take its online mojo offline into local communities across the U.S. But now Meetup needs to develop a sustainable revenue stream, and its decision to charge group organizers using the system to schedule and promote local, in-person meetings has been a hard pill for many to swallow.

The most vocal Meetup users on Meetup's own discussion boards have complained that the change was announced without enough warning. Some say it’s all happening too quickly. Others argue that organizers resent being turned into Meetup bill-collectors, suggesting that individual members should be the ones to pay. The most paranoid among them contend that the change is part of a deliberate conspiracy to drive users away from Meetup towards Yahoo Groups, or is merely a prelude to an inevitable business failure.

“While I didn't mind paying $42/yr to voluntarily support Meetup, I do mind being forced to choose between forcing other members to contribute, or coughing all the money up myself!” wrote Pam G. of Sanford, Maine, a Meetup organizer.

“Yahoo has free groups and most of the people in my groups are going to switch over there….I really was excited to come across these Meetups, but I don't think I will stay around,” wrote another Meetup group organizer, Julie Potter.

Meetup CEO Scott Heiferman puts a positive spin on the change: “We feel their pain, but the fact of the matter is it’s going well, and we're really excited about being able to put this revenue to good use.” He also points out that for the average group, the $9 monthly fee works about to about 75 cents per person.

However, that $9 fee is only temporary. Meetup will soon start charging organizers $19 per month/per group; although those who begin paying before May 15 will be awarded a discounted fee of $9 per month/per group through 2006. In fact, in reaction to a barrage of negative feedback, Meetup softened the original blow, announcing on April 25 its decision to push the original discount deadline from April 30 to May 15 and extending the duration of the discounted rate by an additional year.

In the past, Meetup has tried earning revenue by charging organizations to sponsor groups, offering the ability for those sponsors to contact group organizers, and enabling group members to opt-in to sponsor email lists upon registration. “That was a big part of revenue a year ago, but that's not the model now,” explains Heiferman. “We don't want to spend our time having to serve advertisers and sponsors.” Under the new plan, sponsor entities can still pay for a group’s fees if the group so desires. For example, Democracy for America, a political action committee formed on the heels of Dean’s presidential campaign, has opted to pay fees for its Meetup groups for the time being.

Meetup has also integrated PayPal technology to enable groups to pool money together. “Many of the best Meetups, political and otherwise, actually charge dues,” says Heiferman. For instance, The Heritage Foundation charges its Town Hall Meetup members $10 when they show up to events, and other groups collect money to rent rooms or to pay for tchotchkes or refreshments. “It makes it really easy for meetups to be fundraisers. We want to encourage there to be a little bit of an economy around the Meetups.”

Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Political and issue-advocacy Meetup groups make up less than 10 percent of the population of the site. A survey of political groups at Meetup shows a growing number that now lack an organizer. The common response to the new charges seems to be to step down to avoid the responsibility of becoming a fee collector for Meetup.

Organizers of activist Meetups are wrestling with the decision about whether to pay the fee, which they now must make by May 15. Cal Perrine’s Austin Texas-based Oil Awareness Group, Crude Awakening, won’t have to pay the $9 charges for the time being because of his membership in Meetup’s premium Meetup Plus service; however, he notes, “I would guess that our group will vote in favor of using other free communication mechanisms and other ways of letting people in Austin know we exist.”

Meetup Plus (a.k.a. M+) was Meetup’s first attempt to raise revenue from its participants. The cost for joining M+ was around $3 to $5 per month, depending on when the member joined and for how long. Before Meetup created the Organizer role, an M+ membership provided the ability to nominate venues for meetings. Since September of 2003, the benefit of M+ was one-to-one email access to other members. Under the new plan, one-to-one email contact will be available to all members for the flat group organizer fee.

Jenny Crumiller doesn’t think the new fee requirement bodes well for the community facilitator. The organizer of New Jersey’s Corzine for Governor group explains, “The fee changes everything, and I think it might be the end of the success of Meetup.” In fact, Crumiller expects she’ll forsake his organizer position as a result of the charges.

Not all organizers plan on ditching Meetup, though. Meredith W. of the Greater Philadelphia Young Republicans will pay the fees out of her own pocket. “We have generated a lot of momentum with Meetup and I don't want to confuse people or lose people by switching to another service,” she comments. But, as for her less-active Camden County Young Republicans group, she adds, “that one will disappear when the fees kick in.”

Oakland, California’s DFA Meetup group is sticking with Meetup for now, says its organizer, Eden James. “It's hard to leave when [Meetup has] got control over a list of 1,625 Oakland Meet-uppers. And, I've been relatively happy with the service to date. But if something better came along.…” DFA has offered to cover the expenses for the time being, but in the future, the organization may transition to a homegrown solution run directly from its website.

In the same way as Movable Type blog software vendor Six Apart outraged part of its dedicated user base when it began charging a fee to use some upgraded software, Meetup was probably facing an inevitable uproar no matter how well it managed the announcement of its new fee structure.

Over the past two years Meetup has explored several revenue models, most notably charging the hosting venues a modest fee to be listed in Meetup’s system and running topical advertising on the site. In the end, Meetup eschewed revenue streams like advertising or sponsorship. Explains Heiferman, “If you get too ‘corporatized’ and sponsored and centralized, then people don't want to meet up. The reason it works now is that it doesn't just look grassroots, it is grassroots; it doesn’t just look bottom-up, it is bottom-up; it doesn’t just look authentic, it is authentic.”

Software Vultures Swoop In
A host of similar group organizing tools exists, including alternative group-formation and scheduling applications like the ubiquitous Yahoo Groups, social network applications such as Friendster and LinkedIn, and social event-scheduling tools like eVite, Upcoming.org, and the recently launched EVDB. However, the drawbacks of such alternatives are that they aren't inherently searchable by topic, and they aren't linked together under an umbrella in the way that regional Meetup groups are. Outside of Meetup, there really is no robust alternative database of potential meeting places yet available for planning in-person meetings.

Jerome Armstrong, the publisher of political campaign blog, MyDD, surmises that any alternative event-scheduling software for political campaigns will be campaign-driven. “They can't sit around and let the grassroots do it for them anymore.” When his consulting firm, Armstrong Zúniga, had a contract with the Dean campaign, Armstrong facilitated the original contact between Meetup and the Dean campaign.

During the 2003-2004 Democratic primary season, the Dean and Clark campaigns both worked on developing their own custom-branded event-scheduling tools. In the general election campaign season, Kerry’s technical staff likewise preferred its own homegrown solution, even while continuing its engagement with Meetup. The Bush campaign jumped on the Meetup bandwagon as well; yet, while it had a sophisticated website with many tools for supporters, it didn’t offer an equivalent event-scheduling service.

While campaigns may take up the gauntlet by developing in-house technologies to replace Meetup, an alternative solution may arise from the open source technology community. The CivicSpace developer community is looking at the Meetup change as a potential opportunity to bring new users onto its platform. In fact, the community organizing process and software platform has already created a Meetup-like system called EventFinder; however, the technology is not yet ready for prime time.

Andrew Hoppin, director of strategy says he’s been fielding a series of calls from organizations large and small hoping that CivicSpace will step into the void to provide a free replacement service. In an email announcement on April 24, Hoppin wrote, “We are working on a plan to assist MeetUp 'refugees' and others interested in a community based solution to meet their needs.” Hoppin vowed that the CivicSpace solution will be based on free software. He insists, “We’re not trying to replace Meetup.” Instead, Hoppin expects Meetup to continue serving part of its original user base quite well. In the long run, Hoppin envisions the Meetup shift spurring a number of custom-built solutions from various developers designed to serve the unique needs of specific organizations.

Heiferman concedes, “There will be the Yahoo Groups and CivicSpaces of the world,” but suggests that the true value of Meetup is its capability to form what he calls a “web of groups, not unlike how Karl Rove integrates networks of churches.” As a hosted system, these cross-topic networks could potentially provide an integrated experience beyond that of stand-alone event-scheduling solutions.

“Our goal is to be an ‘eBay of community,’ “ says Heiferman, “providing a reliable, capitalized, trustworthy platform that makes a better network for participants as it grows.”

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