Building a Wiki Community: Helping the Timid Contributor

An email we see daily at Whorunsgov often comes from a reader suggesting an addition or change to a profile. While emails like this often mention valid changes, the reader could have made the change directly in the profile without informing us first. The strange part about these emails; after we suggest the readers make the changes themselves, readers will make multiple changes to a variety of profiles.

Of course, we’re happy to help any reader realize the ease of going directly to the wiki, but it’s strange that many contributors almost need permission first.

I would imagine this problem persists for many wiki designers. A group builds a site, creates much of the first content on the site and then opens it up to the public, urging them to make the site their own. But for a potential contributor it can seem like they are trespassing on someone else’s property.

This means the reader doesn’t feel like part of the community.

We do everything we can to encourage these potential writers to post on the site. It can be intimidating; after all, anyone can read — and judge — what you wrote. It’s a fear that’s probably common in those who might contribute to our site, as well as those adding to a government wiki. But once you help the timid contributor across that initial barrier, they might become a prolific information provider.

And, really, isn’t that the point of a community? To encourage those who want to help. Sure Whorunsgov is a platform to supply information, but we’re also a community. We simply encourage those who want to help, and aid those who do. This is similar to a government platform. For example, maybe the Department of Defense builds a wiki and obligates employees to help. The DoD will get many contributions this way, but fostering the timid contributor could create the best discussion, leading to the sharing of the most valuable information.

Leave no one behind and the community will truly foster.


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Your point is well made – often people new to writing on the web for the whole world (or community) to see is very intimidating whether fear of saying something that is misunderstood or fear of the technology (knowing the steps to edit and save).

One thing we’ve done is to put some of the work we are doing together in small groups on a wiki where there is an invitation and expectation of editing and/or commenting. Then while on a real time conference call, we take turns editing the wiki, saving and refreshing the content from time to time. Everyone in the group is attentive and provides support knowing it will soon be their turn! When it comes to large, distributed and loosely connected groups like those here, it is a very different social situation. Ideas? Thoughts?

Ryan Derousseau

That sounds like it’s an Uber-specific purpose for a wiki. Has it been successful? Do people seem to get much out of it? One thing I’m noticing from people’s comments is how much organizations use wikis for very specific purposes. It’s something we’ve tried to push. It’s intimidating when you say “profile all the senators,” but if you try and cut down the task and ask very specific additions to the wiki, it seems to help more.

Has anyone experimented with Google Wave yet? I know the technology is brand new, but it sounds like it is something you, LaDonna, could use for the situation you described. Of course, it brings all sorts of security concerns to the forefront, but I was just wondering.


The is a powerful website talking about this phenomenon regarding contributors.

One idea is to have small specific asks instead of grander general asks. And specific outreach rather than general broader outreach.

Ryan Derousseau

Great site, Govloop. It shows what all wiki developers are up against, and how difficult it can be to get people over that threshold from reader to contributor.

Craig Thomler

Very good points.

I have seen this as an aspect of human behaviour when entering any type of environment. Being a territorial species, it is common to have to ask permission of the locals as to whether you can ‘hunt’ on their land – whether it be a website, a building or a country.

However this requirement to ask permission is increased when dealing with public servants, who are trained by the cultures they work in to do their job and no-one else’s. I come from an entrepreneurial background which makes me far more inclined to ‘poke my nose in’ and help others because I look at success in terms of an organisation’s or society’s success rather than in a micro-personal sense. Whereas some of the public servants I have observed around me are more feudal in their loyalties.

Thus geting public servants to ‘volunteer’ and participate online can, in my experience, be more difficult than for certain other organisational cultures.

Fortunately, once permission is granted, many become enthusiastic and effective contributors.