Populating the barn (raising)

(CC) Ross Mayfield

(CC) Ross Mayfield

“[I]t’s only when you start enabling people to ‘do things’ together that the real power of online social networks kicks in” [1].

Wikis are an extremely powerful tool for allowing people to ‘do things together’, especially because of their flexibility in matter of interaction design. However, whereas such a flexibility represents an asset from a social design perspective, it also turns the task of identifying a sort of universal wiki structure into a quite difficult one.

First, differently from most of the other social pattern described by Crumlish and Malone, wikis can both work as a component for broader social network sites, and as standalone social media. Although this might seem as a mere semantic difference, it translates itself in practical term into the possibility to tweak and enhance the structure of standalone wiki through the employment of other social patterns.

Second, the massive proliferation of wiki engine software (at the moment of writing there are currently 124 wiki software listed in the download page of Softpedia [2]) inevitably creates differences between wikis based on different software.

However, in spite of the huge flexibility offered by wikis and wiki engines, there are some features that are common to all the modern wikis. A good example is provided by five core affordances identified by James Cash. According to him, every modern wiki shares the fact of being: ”

  • Editableweb page content can be quickly and easily edited by anyone visiting the page
  • Markabletextual content can be marked up in order to add structure (e.g., links, tables, images)
  • Versionableprevious versions of the page are archived, viewable, and usable
  • Accountablechanges made to a page can be traced to a user name or IP number
  • Discussableeditor collaboration is facilitated by a discussion system” [3].

However, from an interaction design perspective is instead much more interesting to observe another characteristic that unifies wikis, especially due to its problematic nature. In fact, as any other online community, the success and the existence of wikis is directly dependent on the participation rate of their users [4]. Such an issue poses, however, a particular challenge when it comes to wiki systems, since by default many people interact with them as passive users [1]. In addition, many novice users often experience a certain degree of anxiety when it comes to wiki editing [5]. Therefore, social design choices become particularly important in this context, since they represent a key element in the creation an interface which could foster a greater participation rate and reduce editing anxiety.

Here are a couple of examples of how to foster (or not foster) user participation through the employment of social patterns:

WikiHow welcome banner

WikiHow main page – welcome banner

WikiHow uses a welcome banner to highlight how a user can interact with the website (read, write, join the community).

Wikipedia main page (English)

Wikipedia main page (English)

The design of English Wikipedia main page fosters instead a social interaction with passive users (readers) rather than with active ones (no direct invitation to write, other than the small “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” sentence under the welcome message).

WikiHow - Statistics as leaderboards

On WikiHow statistics are used as leaderboards

Statistics (whether general or personal) and lists of Top X contributors can be used as leaderboards (in the picture,  the first and the last ranked contributors for that specific category has been blurred for privacy reasons) for motivating users to further contribute to the wiki.

The list of examples could go on for a while, since there are many social patterns that can be employed for increasing user active participation ratio in a wiki. This post doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive overview of those, but rather to stimulate a reflection about the relationship between wikis and social design. So, wiki administrators, take a minute for looking at your wiki: what kind of user interaction does your design foster?


  1. Crumlish, C., & Malone E., (2009). Designing Social Interfaces : Principles, Patterns, and Practices for Improving the User Experience.
  2. http://webscripts.softpedia.com/cat/Wikis-list-56-1-0-0.html
  3. Cash, J., (2009). Wiki Affordances. http://etec.ctlt.ubc.ca/510wiki/Wiki_Affordances
  4. Hoisl, B., Aigner, W., & Miksch, S., (2007). Social Rewarding in Wiki Systems – Motivating the Community, in Online Communities and Social Computing: Second International Conference, OCSC 2007, Held as Part of HCI International 2007, Beijing, China, July 22-27, 2007: Proceedings, 362 – 371
  5. Cowan, R., & Mervyn J., (2011). Exploring the wiki user experience: The effects of training spaces on novice user usability and anxiety towards wiki editing. Interacting with Computers, 23, 117 – 128

Opening picture: WIKI WAY by Ross Mayfield – www.flickr.com/photos/ross/18268758/

Screenshots: WikiHow and English Wikipedia


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