New Media: Exceeding the Carrying Capacity

I have the repetitive task of trying to find the various types of new media outreach. The constant change means the job is never done and it is getting bigger all the time.   But it is like the expanding area of a balloon as you blow it up.  As we expand the area we cover, we are simultaneously thinning out coverage.   This goes for any kind of new media and, in fact, for any media in general.   It is a broadly applicable formulation.  But I am observing this most with wikis, so I will talk mostly about them, with the stipulation that it is more broadly related to any attempts to aggregate knowledge. 

Everybody seems to have discovered the wiki concept and is trying to put this useful model to work in the service of aggregating their particular knowledge and making it useful to the members of their organizations.   But there is a problem with the proliferation of wiki style systems.  A wiki exists in a kind of ecological relationship with its customers.   In order to be healthy, each wiki requires enough interested and knowledgeable people to contribute their experience.    If the population of potential contributors is too thin, or there are too many wikis competing for their attention, wikis will be unhealthy.    (It is like too many zebras eating the too little grass & too many lions trying to eat them) Articles will not be updated.  Not enough will be contributed and the advantages of the wisdom of the crowds will be lost.

Most people are passive consumers who do not contribute to wikis and the smaller number of contributors passes through stages of enthusiasm and burnout.   Even if they retain their desire to write, they may exhaust their store of useful knowledge they have to share.  That is why you need a much larger population of potential contributors than most parts of any organization or even most entire organization can provide.   

Of course, we are assuming we even have passive consumers.   Many wikis are imposed by a boss who has just read some management literature about the necessity of becomes a learning organization or by someone trying to impress that boss.  They may start out well, with a few good postings, but w/o the large community using them, they quickly atrophy.     A wiki is a network good that increases in value as more people sign on.  If users wander off after a few visits, or never come at all, there is no living wiki. 

I don’t think we should try to eliminate little wikis or interfere with their proliferation, but we should break down the barriers among them.  Some people might prefer to contribute on a specialized platform.  This is okay, as long as there are no difficult walls to climb walls that keep some participants out and others in.   In this case, I believe that wikis will merge.  The specialized ones will not become extinct, but rather be subsumed into the larger ones. 

One of the most formidable walls is mere ignorance.   It may be that a specialized or small wiki doesn’t actually wall out potential users, but others just don’t know that it exists.  I frequently find that smaller groups boast that their wikis are so great but unnoticed … that exist for a time in splendid isolation and soon pass, still unnoticed into oblivion.

It is like that doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove.   You have to tell people about it or it doesn’t work.