The first thing to do: set up a wiki

I remember hearing Zack Rosen of CivicSpace starting his talk about the team that put together the Katrina people finder by saying “one of the first things we did was set up a wiki” and it really struck a chord.

As an effort like Senator Obama – Please, No Telecom Immunity and Get FISA Right gets up and going, there’s a huge amount of information flying by in email (I think it peaked at well over 50 messages/hour), and new people constantly joining who need to get up to speed. Collecting information on a web site makes everybody more effective … and doing it on a wiki means that lots of people can contribute, not just me.

I had just started looking at Seattle-based Wetpaint* for another project, and it seemed like a good match for this: decent site templates, an easy-to-use editor, and the ability to put discussion threads on each page. So I figured it was worth trying.

To start with, I put the basics on the front page — the group’s mission statement, a quote from the founder’s blog post — and a list of the links I got from various people’s email so far. Already this was valuable, to me and presumably to others: I quickly sent the link to the wiki page to several reporters I thought might be interested in the story to give them an overview of what the group was about and where the buzz was.

Next I set up a page on what else you can do to capture a lot of the great ideas going on in the group. The page now is a lot more thorough than it was when I started … still, even getting the basics down is useful. Several people had done great work in collecting contact information for Obama and suggestions about other Senators; I included that as well. Then I sent the link out to the group with the current contents and asked people to add stuff in; Mar Zipan, a group member who seems to have experience on email lists (or just incredibly good instincts) started sending it out regularly to update new members.

And then I turned to one of my personal fetishes interests, statistics. Detailed information on group growth is incredibly valuable both for this campaign: how likely is it that we’ll succeed in our goal of becoming the largest group on myBO? When do we think it’s likely to happen? It’s also really valuable for learning for future campaigns; for example, we got major immediate boosts from mentions by Jane Hamsher on Firedoglake and John Amato on Crooks and Liars, while the impact of some of the other links was much more diffuse. And the statistics are also likely to be interesting to any media who want to cover the story, as well as the tiny but well-connected “social computing researchers for Obama” crowd. Plus, they’re really cool — make sure to check out the Diggmania section which traces the a post about the group took to digg’s front page!

Unsurprisingly I got a lot of stuff wrong as I was setting things up … but hey, no worries: it’s a wiki, so it’s easy to change! Wetpaint has a simple page/subpage organizational scheme for the navigation menu; I moved things around to highlight the most important things. After a day or so, I did a complete reorganization of the statistics page; and thanks to Aviva and some other group members, the resources page now looks completely different than the three short sentences I put there to start out. No worries. Unlike sending things out in email — where it’s really easy for people to see out-of-date information — anybody who has a link to a page sees the current version when they click on it.

One of the things I kept in mind while setting up the wiki was the multiple audiences we want to reach:

  • Group members, to help us operate more effectively. Pages like What else you can do, Using the email list effectively, and Resources are all good example of this. Pulling the information out of email and getting it onto a web site makes a huge difference.
  • Potential group members. When people see this page, we want them to be able to find out more about the group and decide whether or not they want to join. Right now, the main page is the most important for them, giving a quick overview and links to the key posts talking about the effort so they can find out more.
  • Media. For a grassroots activism campaign to succeed, we need to get the word out, and getting coverage is a huge boost to the viral one-to-one and one-to-many outreach. Where’s the story here? Fortunately, many of the posts we link to have great titles: Mike Stark’s Will Obama feel the sting of social networking?, Greg Sargeant’s Networking Group Opposing FISA Cave On Obama’s Web Site Grows And Grows, Slashdot’s Telecom Amnesty Foes On the Move really highlight some potential narratives. And of course there’s the statistics …

At least for me, the networked structure of a wiki makes it easy to think in this multi-targeting way — and the ability to move stuff around easily helps it evolve over time.

Thus far at least, I’ve been very pleased with Wetpaint. The editor’s nice, and while I personally like the ability to put in [[wikiwords]] it’s certainly a lot more approachable with their nice “insert link” popup; over a dozen people besides me have contributed the wiki so far, which is pretty impressive in just a few days. We’re just starting to play with the discussion threads, and I still haven’t figured out how to do some of my favorite wiki tricks like transclusion, but it certainly hasn’t held us back. And the social networking functionality (friends, profiles, “compliments”) may well help our connections deepen — or at least that’s what people found with the Obama delegates wiki, also on Wetpaint.

Specific technology base aside, the important lesson here is how well the wiki complements the discussions in email and on blogs, and the kind of viral outreach that’s possible with a Facebook group. Collecting the information in a form that’s easy to digest and reuse is valuable in its own right, and it also makes the discussions and activism a lot more effective — and creates a great asset for future use.

Have I mentioned recently how much I like wikis?

PS: almost 9000+ members on myBO — we just moved into #2 in the top 10 groups. Coverage in The Nation, Wired’s Threat Level,’s Washington Wire, The New Right, Slashdot, and bunches of other pages. See the wiki for more!


* Update in 2016: the wiki parts of Wetpaint got spun off into Wikifoundry, so I’ve updated the links in this post