So. Seattle. Do we wiki or what?
Seth Vincent thinks it’d be fun. The recent Olympia transplant started SeattleWiki and has spent the last couple months knocking on digital doors, asking for help, support, collaboration — whatever it takes to make this Seattle city wiki the that finally, actually, works.
Why? Because maybe we’d like it.
“Blogs go defunct and get deleted, tweets get lost, Facebook profiles get deactivated, local news organizations fail to archive and provide access to their content in useful ways,” Vincent argued in a blog post. “In the ever-changing and unpredictable environment of the internet, a local wiki is a commitment to telling the story of a city, to documenting the history of a place and its residents as it happens.”
Vincent was relaxed about the project when we discussed it over coffee this week. But clearly, he’s serious. He’s sent out press releases, distributed brown paper fliers, hitched on to a civic engagement campaign from Code for America, hosted three meetups for locals to create and edit pages and, in the truest spirit of collaboration, left notes on seattle.wikia.com and seattle.wikispot.org asking to merge data and work together.
Those wikis have content, but barely a pulse. So far, no one’s responded.
“Does Seattle need a local wiki?” Vincent asked on Quora before he moved here this summer and started the site.
A human-computer interaction student gave the only answer: If others have tried and failed, how will you make sure this one works?
I’ll admit to my own skepticism. And hope.
The wiki concept has a good — no, great — name, thanks to Wikipedia. But it’s old, for one. Even though commercial wiki platforms like Wikia are forming lucrative communities around topics in entertainment and culture, more popular ways of sharing local information, with more immediate personal rewards, have come along since Facebook and Twitter.
It’s true, though, that what we share on social media is frustratingly fleeting. I’ve often put out a question on Twitter — What are the best barbecue spots in town? — gotten great answers, and felt guilty later that I didn’t find a way to make information that was so useful to me, then, useful to others, later. A wiki could take care of that.
Then there’s the update problem. While browsing data.seattle.gov, Vincent stumbled on a list of public toilets. At least three, he learned, were gone. His only recourse was to email site administrators. On a wiki, he could fix outdated information himself.
Wikis can coexist with the information on our seemingly ancient, overcrowded Web. But here’s the thing. To be truly useful and unique as a place built for Seattleites by Seattleites, SeattleWiki needs its own gravity. It needs to have enough good information to attract more good information, enough eyeballs to attract more eyeballs.
That’s not going to be easy. But it could be pretty cool.
Right now, almost every page is what Wikipedia would call a stub — a starting point in need of fleshing out. Some are predictable. There are dozens for Seattle parks, for example. Others promise something different, like this collection of Seattle-themed animated gifs or this list of “secret public spaces” an editor created at the most recent “Edit the Wiki” meetup last Saturday.
I agree that for a local wiki to live and breathe, it needs to be not just a collection, but a “commitment.” SeattleWiki could become as powerful as DavisWiki, a community site in Davis, California its creators say 1 out of every 6 residents engage with. Or it could end up another false start, nearly dead and picked over by spammers.
So, back to Vincent.
Sharing civic info is apparently his thing. He studied journalism and Web development at Olympia’s Evergreen State College, then advised the student newspaper there for three years. Starting an Olympia wiki at olywiki.org got him excited enough to try it in Seattle, using the same, simple, geographically specialized LocalWiki platform. He’s also made a couple simple apps using Seattle data to map both police and fire calls. ‘Cause why not.
Remember those tests in elementary school that tell you what you should be when you grow up? Vincent’s said he should be a magazine editor. So there you go.
The site has more than 500 pages. When the count hits 1,000, Vincent says, he’ll throw a launch party.
They may not be perfect. But that’s not the point. Everything can be improved on a wiki. By anyone. Anytime.
If we want.