A city wiki is a web site that serves as a knowledge base and social network for a specific city, town or village. Smaller communities that surround the main city (suburbs, unincorporated areas, metro regions, etc.) are sometimes associated with a city wiki, even if the particular geographical entity is also represented by its own wiki. The "wiki" feature of the web site suggests that the web site's software allows for easy content contributions from the community.
PortlandWiki is a city wiki dedicated to serving as a knowledge, information and social hub for Portland, Oregon. An additional goal for PortlandWiki is to give voice to the many communities that make Portland the marvelous city it is.
Why create and maintain a city wiki (or civic wiki)?
Perhaps you're familiar with the Nigerian Igbo proverb "Ora na azu nwa" (It takes the community/village to raise a child), or at least with the version of this proverb that found its way onto a book by Hillary Rodham Clinton or by children's author Jane Cowen-Fletcher. Similarly, it also takes healthy communities to create a successful society.
Throughout the ages, healthy human communities have benefited from common areas where individuals and groups from the community came together to tell stories, exchange information, share knowledge, pass along juicy gossip, trade goods, provide services and so on. Humans were (and are) territorial, like many other animal species. But humans living in the wild understood their entire habitat as a commons. Pre-agrarian communities (wild humans) retained the instinctual intelligence to understand that the whole of their habitat, the particular territory they knew as their home, belonged to the whole tribe. No one member of the community claimed exclusive "property rights" as conceptualized by "modern" domesticated humans.
As human populations grew, conflicts arose among hunter-gatherer communities. Some human habitats shrunk substantially: a commons might consist of small land base with a simple campfire serving as the community's central gathering spot. Other communities banded together to share and cooperatively manage larger "common-pool resource areas". Even as humans began domesticating themselves by consolidating into agrarian settlements, early civilizations and (much later) complex industrial societies, some common areas remained. Parks, plazas, the village commons and similar spaces accessible to the whole community opened up.
An established commons would inevitably fall under the covetous gaze of one powerful interest or another. In fact the real "tragedy of the commons" was not its over-exploitation by its legitimate stewards, as posited by Garrett Hardin, but the constant temptation felt by a few to take control of it from the community. Indeed, the main threats to a given community's commons usually involved its expropriation for private gain of one sort or another. The rich, powerful and/or well-connected (socially, politically, militarily or otherwise) could (and still can) take control of a commons from the commoners--who almost always outnumber them--by virtue of their wealth, power and connections.
So where does the civic wiki come in? Wiki technology (essentially read/write web editing tools that people with rudimentary computing skills can master fairly quickly) and the platform this technology operates on (the world wide web) offers a unique opportunity for members of any community to strongly influence how their community is governed. But that's just the beginning. A community wiki can serve as the community's historical archive, bulletin board, media center (as in a "read/write" daily news paper, television channel and radio station) and so on. In other words, a community wiki can serve as the knowledge and information commons for the community. It can perform all these functions without the guiding hand (visible or otherwise) of any "authority," dogma or ideology.
The practical effects are potentially profound. For instance, in "The Tragedy of the Commons," Garrett Hardin argues for the social benefits of "mutually agreed upon coercion," asking readers to "consider bank-robbing."
The man who takes money from a bank acts as if the bank were a commons. How do we prevent such action? Certainly not by trying to control his behavior solely by a verbal appeal to his sense of responsibility. Rather than rely on propaganda we...insist that a bank is not a commons; we seek the definite social arrangements that will keep it from becoming a commons. That we thereby infringe on the freedom of would-be robbers we neither deny nor regret. The morality of bank-robbing is particularly easy to understand because we accept complete prohibition of this activity. We are willing to say "Thou shalt not rob banks," without providing for exceptions.
Garrett Hardin asserts that bank robbery is a one-way street. But a post-TARP world has shown us that bank robbery can go the other way: banks and bankers robbing the commons and the commoners. Public reaction ranged from fear to pronounced skepticism to outrage over the notion that taxpayers were required to pick up the tab for a calamity imposed by Wall Street, large banks and other criminally corrupt actors in the economy's financial sector. But the major media covered this "man bites dog" story largely from the financial industry's perspective. Thus, the industry got what it wanted with taxpayers picking up the tab, even though legislation to "bail out banks" was widely opposed.
A more accurately informed and actively engaged citizenry might have pushed back more effectively. In other words, a large enough group of regular citizens, perhaps with their voices collectively channeled through their community's civic wiki, might have effectively said "banks shall not rob the people," without providing for exceptions.
Civic Wiki Building Blocks
The easy part of launching a new civic wiki, or any wiki for that mater, is choosing an appropriate wiki platform and installing the software on a server. Not that this task is always easy, but compared to what comes next, it's the proverbial "walk in the park." We'll come to the software choices and installation tips later. For now, let's review the major challenges to launching and sustaining a civic wiki.
For starters, let's draw from the experiences of the bold city wiki sysops who preceded PortlandWiki and have long since established successful city wikis. The list of "steps" shown below start off as condensed versions of the wise nuggets found in "Guidelines for running a City Wiki" by Mark Krenz from Bloomingpedia, and the words of wisdom from Davis Wiki's Philip Neustrom as imparted to PortlandWiki's own Michael Andersen in his article "Welcome to Davis, Calif.: Six lessons from the world’s best local wiki."
Impassioned volunteers breathe life into a civic wiki. Not automated RSS feeds or roving cyber bots. Real people with genuine interests, passions and unique understandings of what makes a community come to life. Volunteer contributors, having other responsibilities they must attend to, tend come and go. Encourage contributors to find their unique niche and put their main focus there.
Impassioned volunteers who demand that their passions become yours can drive away contributors and reduce participation. This is the paradox of building diverse participation in your civic wiki. A worthy goal of seeking contributions from a wide variety of voices from the community by definition means that this invitation extends to people who could potentially drive away participation from others. In other words, any diverse community will have people whose personality tends towards the dominant. A sustainable wiki is a tricky environment for this personality as wikis are typically non-hierarchical and/or democratically organized. Any hint of a pecking order or disrespect among peers will drive away valuable contributors. But a dominant personality will find great success as an impassioned volunteer who leads by example and treats their fellow volunteers with respect and appreciation. Such a person will accomplish great things and gain tremendous respect from their peers.
Civic wikis are fun. At least, they should be. If you're not having fun contributing to your civic wiki project you'll get burnt out and won't stay. Treat your contributions to the wiki like a favorite hobby. This is a lot easier if your input is focused on something you like to do (writing articles, editing, creating illustrations, taking photographs, etc.) rather than just making random edits.
There's no fun like staggering through a massive directory of hyperlinks, addresses, phone numbers and other machine-generated gibberish. This is complete nonsense, of course. But if this fact weren't obvious enough to any sentient human, a gazillion sites have already tried and failed at this. Information collection and archiving bots certainly have their place, but only if the resulting data is presented in some sort of human-friendly way. For each article you create or edit, think first about that page's potential visitors. What value does your article offer its reader? Is it informative, entertaining or engaging in any way? Does it inform, entertain or engage you?
Make your city wiki useful. Information about local businesses, institutions (libraries, schools, post offices, museums, and other useful "news you can use"-type information) is the bedrock of any successful community wiki. Yes, "fun" and interesting content greatly benefits your civic wiki. Most visitors, however, come to your wiki for useful information.
You gotta start somewhere. A civic wiki serves a particular community. Ideally, your city wiki will serve the many communities found in your town. That said, you're unlikely to cover all the bases all at once. So start somewhere. What are your passions? What interests do your wiki's other contributors get excited about? Start there. Then focus on attracting contribution from others in your community. Grow your wiki organically.
Keep the momentum flowing. Can you make at least one edit (upload a photo, submit a drawing, start a new article, etc.) each day? Fresh and interesting content is what keeps people coming back to your wiki. Content contributors also want to feel like they are part of a community of wiki builders and not just playing in a lonesome sandbox all by themselves. An active wiki encourages others to dive in and participate too.
Create a core group of contributors. Your civic wiki's chances of success improve dramatically with a dedicated and active group of editors, administrators and maintainers. Ideally this group will set an example by contributing daily, meeting regularly and guiding the overall focus.
What's your big idea! What major theme(s) does your wiki communicate? No need for complexity here. For instance, PortlandWiki's main theme is Portland, Oregon. Of course, many subthemes flow out from there. One area PortlandWiki hopes to improve on in coming months is much stronger content on the many neighborhoods (nearly 100 identified by name) that make up the City of Roses.
Depth, breadth and historical context are perfect wiki content types. Make good use of your wiki's capabilities here. News articles, blog and Facebook posts, tweets and message board comments, videos, images and other data surface and quickly submerge back into the chaotic and endlessly vast information sea. Wikis are uniquely suited to capturing, organizing, contextualizing and making sense of this never-ending data torrent. The key is to stay focused on what's important to your community.
Avoid premature rejeculation (rejected adulation). No sense in running around telling everyone in the world how great your wiki is in hopes they'll feel the same way too. Especially if your wiki's content remains threadbare. Gradually introduce your civic wiki to others who are likely to see its potential, and (ideally) even contribute. Once your wiki's content takes shape, others will begin showing up and (hopefully!) participating.
Place a link from your city's Wikipedia page to your civic wiki. Your town doesn't have a Wikipedia page? Create one.
Go for the long haul. Stay committed. Keep your wiki alive by making at least one or two edits each day. Dead wikis quickly decay and disappear. To let that fate overtake your community wiki is to disrespect all the time, energy and creativity that you and others contributed. Also, don't forget to make regular database backups of your wiki so if disaster strikes, you haven't lost everything.
The Internet overflows with spammers, vandals, malicious bots and other pests. "Tell me something I don't already know" probably flashed across your mind just now. You also know that the open editing features that wikis offer means they are regularly targeted by spammers. The good news is that you can protect your wiki from most attacks, and cleaning up most vandalism is generally quick and relatively painless. If the MediaWiki platform powers your city wiki, check out their manual for combating spam. Most other established wiki engines have similar info resources for curbing spam, vandalism and other abuses. Check 'em out.
Get feedback. How is your community responding to your civic wiki? Find out! You can do this in a number of ways: surveys, analytics, polls, face-to-face conversations, and so on. How well do the verbal responses you're getting ("oh cool!," "great web site," "nice!," etc.) match up to how folks in your community actually interact with your community's city wiki? Poll your "electorate" (as it were) regularly. Make any necessary adjustments just as often. No sense in running a city wiki if nobody in your community participates.
Information wants to be free. Above all, keep your wiki's content free, open source and unfettered by restrictive copyrights. Don't do this for sentimental, kind hearted notions, but because doing so guarantees that if your wiki flickers out, the contributions that you and other participants worked so hard to create can find a new home elsewhere.
Civic Wikis and Direct Democracy
Benjamin Dangl, author of Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America,  has written about social movements in Latin America who have developed creative methods for bringing direct democracy to their communities. For more than 20 years, the people of Porto Alegre, Brazil have directly determined how the city spends its money. The process is called participatory budgeting and it is practiced in more than 1,200 municipalities worldwide today.
Chicago's 49th Ward became the first US community to adopt the practice in 2009. These sophisticated and politically effective forms of direct democracy, found primarily in Latin America, created the social movements that brought politically left of center leaders to power over the past decade or so. Although U.S. communities suffer similar afflictions as our Latin American counterparts (corrupt business and political "leaders," high unemployment, horrific economic policies, environmental destruction, etc.), we lag more than 20 behind Latin America in developing genuinely democratic institutions that represent the vast majority of Americans.
So where do wikis fit in? What unique qualities do wikis offer that make them a worthwhile tool to promote collaborative governance? PUBLIC POLeCY's Leonard Mack asserts that wikis, as opposed to other "social media" tools like Twitter or Facebook, "allow users to share complex ideas instead of just voting in favor of or in opposition to one certain choice." The caveat, he adds, is "they need to be structured, at least to make a distinction between usable and non-usable proposals."
If organizational structure and highly tuned policy proposals are essential for direct democracy to function properly, as Mack suggests, civic wikis can potentially provide the platform for accomplishing such ends. Barely ten years old, Wikipedia has managed, largely through the organizational efforts of its contributors, to create a sophisticated bureaucratic and management structure. As with any maturing institution, Wikipedia's bureaucracy can seem more of a hindrance than help to some contributors. But Wikipedia demonstrates some of the advantages that wikis have over more restrictive social media platforms, like Facebook or Twitter, for building robust, collaborative and contributor-powered communities.
Shaking Up Tyranny of the Status Quo with Ideas "Lying Around"
In recent years it has become fashionable to trot out a particular observation made by one of the 20th Century's most dogmatic proponents of the so-called "free market": "Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around." In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, journalist Naomi Klein describes how neoliberal, "free market" ideas that Friedman and others had cooked up over the past half-century and left "lying around" were put into action during intervals of political, social and economic crisis. Less often quoted is the observation Friedman made in the preceding sentence: "There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements."
Both of Friedman's observations can apply to organized communities working at the grassroots. And both are potentially useful in knocking down "status quo" tyrannies with ideas developed collaboratively by the community, and tailored to benefit living communities rather than a prefabricated, hallucinatory sacred cow notion like "private enterprise" as defined by multinational corporations and their supporters in government, academia, and corporate-funded "think tanks."
Building Social Movements
The wiki platform's technical architecture is geared towards open and collaborative participation. Another advantage the wiki platform has is in allowing contributors to build breadth, depth and context around any issue.
This is an important attribute. Most human communities have long since domesticated themselves. The process of "human domestication" began as human communities transitioned from bands of hunter-gatherers and settled into agrarian communities. Human domestication continued as communities grew increasingly complex. Eventually many agrarian cultures gave way to even more complex industrial and post-industrial societies.
Humans living "in the wild" (as hunter-gatherers) most often lived in total--or near total--compatibility with their surrounding environments. Some may have lived short, brutish lives (many did not). Their compatibility with their surrounding environments, however, left those environments healthy and whole. This ensured that future generations could continue living on the same land base.
As our species transitioned from "wild" to "domesticated" communities, our ability to live in harmony with our surroundings diminished, as did our ability to live in harmony with neighboring human communities. The devastated natural habitats, major conflicts (wars), and other human-made calamities that followed unleashed unimaginable suffering on the living beings caught up in them.
At the dawn of the 21st Century the necessity for human communities to empower themselves at the grassroots is more urgent than ever before. Most people live in societies encumbered by political and economic institutions that are controlled by a tiny number of elites. Increasingly, these old institutional orders are besieged by their inability and unwillingness to navigate the mounting crises that confront them. The instinctive response is to try and consolidate power at any cost, even if this results in devastating costs to the larger society.
- Civil Society for Itself and in the Public Sphere: Comparative Research on Globalization, Cities and Civic Space in Pacific Asia (Douglass 2003)
- Ora na-azu nwa: the figure of the child in third-generation Nigerian novels. (Critical essay)
- It Takes a Village, By Hillary Rodham Clinton
- It Takes a Village, By Jane Cowen-Fletcher
- A Brief History of Commons Destruction
- Land Tenure: Common-pool Resource Areas
- Common-pool resource
- "The Tragedy of the Commons", By Garrett Hardin (Published in Science, December 13, 1968)
- Troubled Asset Relief Program
- Kill Wall Street: To atone for our many sins, let us join together and sacrifice Wall Street.
- Criminal Charges Must Be Laid - Former Finance Regulator
- Only 28% Support Federal Bailout Plan
- "Guidelines for running a City Wiki" by Mark Krenz (Original at dead link. This is the Archive.org cached version.)
- "Welcome to Davis, Calif.: Six lessons from the world’s best local wiki" | By Michael Andersen | Nov. 6, 2009
- Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America
- Direct Democracy in Chicago: Chicago's 49th Ward first US government to adopt Brazilian practice of letting the people make their own budgets
- Why there is no direct democracy in Social Media
- Capitalism And Freedom | Milton Friedman, Rose D. Friedman (1962, 1982, 2002) | Page xiv
- The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism | Naomi Klein (2007) | Page 174
- Elite theory
- The Power Elite
- We're Better off Than Egypt -- Right? Let's Take a Look.
- Civic Wikis -- learn about other city or civic wikis in the U.S.
- City wiki | Wikipedia's City Wiki page.
- Association of City Wikis | Google Groups page.
- Guidelines for running a City Wiki | (Cached version courtesy Archive.org. Original page no longer available.)
- Civic Wiki -- a wiki for your city, town, or region | A Facebook discussion page for civic wikis.
- PortlandWiki.org | PortlandWiki Is A City Wiki For Portland, Oregon. | This is PortlandWiki's AboutUs page.
- Local Search Marketing on Civic Wikis | RichmondWiki's Andrew Miller discusses how civic wikis can potentially benefit local businesses in a given community.
- THE FULL WIKI's City wiki: Reference augments content found on Wikipedia's City Wiki page with additional content, like a list of known city wikis.