It is instructive and inspiring to take a look at the people who have succeeded in your field. Whether it’s an attempt to learn from their mistakes and victories or just a pause to reflect on the admirable accomplishments of another, studying the work of those who’ve set the benchmark can inspire reflection and spur us on to greater heights.
The world of branding success stories is one of the most fickle, given the rise of the web. Every day, there is more new information generated and discarded than has existed for most of human history. Trends and fads come and go with ever-increasing speed, and things considered hilarious and exciting baffle people just a few months later. Then there are successes that fundamentally change the way the world sees things. They become so ingrained that everyone wonders where they’d been the whole time.
There is not enough good in the world to say about the Wiki project. Those who would criticize it for lacking accuracy and scholarly rigor have totally missed the point. Wikipedia is the spirit of what the web is meant to be. It is cooperative, self-correcting, open to interpretation, controversial and dynamic. Ever changing and yet extremely distinct, it represents the purest expression of what the web can and is meant to do. People are talking about Web 2.0, but it’s honestly already here in the form of the Wiki.
Wikipedia is a simple idea, one so straightforward that it could be imagined it shouldn’t work – an encyclopedia free of charge, open for anyone in the world to edit. It shouldn’t continue to exist, by all logic. The internet is full of trolls who will eagerly fax sheets of black paper to people they’re displeased with, over and over until the receiving machine runs out of ink and seizes up. What in the world is to stop them from vandalizing the heck out of every Wiki page they come across, a fate that many other Wikis indeed have succumbed to?
The answer is that Wiki has taken its audience seriously, appealing to its sense of pride and self-interest.
For every troll who hops onto a Wikipedia or Wikiquote article and scrawls quotes calling the moral and social behaviors of the editors into question, there is someone else who is incredibly well-informed about that page, backed up by both a number of authoritative sources and a deep pride in their work. Vandalism is steadily defeated through pride and reversion, and the sheer scale of people who want a good, quality resource.
In allowing anyone to edit, and treating those edits as matters worth discussing on cooperative terms, the Wiki project has ignited a sense of pride in people. Now they want the articles to succeed; they want to see their hard work displayed on the front page as a featured article.
Additionally, the Wiki project chose an iconic visual aesthetic for itself: White background, clean lines, plain text and simple images. Yes, anyone can edit a page as they like, but the project rewards pages that comply with its style guides and presentational standards. So whenever someone says “Wiki,” people imagine that little puzzle-globe logo, the way a page is set up and the little blue edit tabs in the corner.
Of course, one of the best ways to judge the success of a project is to judge that of its emulators. So for comparison’s sake, let us consider a relative newcomer even to the open-source editing style: TV Tropes.
A trope is a rhetorical device. The damsel in distress is a trope, as is the idea of having just one bullet left in the final sequence of an action film. They aren’t exactly cliches, though they can become so. Rather, they are patterns that people have learned to recognize in conversation, argument and entertainment that form the basis of all communication.
TV Tropes is a website based on two ideas: First, tropes are awesome things that deserve discussion, admiration and study, and second, everyone has something to contribute. The site does not use the Wiki format, but does have an open policy on allowing people to comment and post about the tropes they find interesting.
Pages on the TV Tropes site range from those discussing a specific trope to those showing a film or book and listing the tropes present in it. All are freely editable.
The success of the TV Tropes project may not be measurable monetarily like Wikipedia’s or other more commercial ventures. However, the project has become intensely popular all the same. It has the same “well, I’ll click one more link” popularity that Wikipedia had cornered for itself, and the same “I can talk about what I like here and be taken seriously” appeal as all open source projects. People reference tropes in casual conversation on message boards, and it’s creating a communal language.
That really is the key behind these two projects – brain extension. They’ve taken a good idea and brought it into the common discourse, allowing people to communicate with each other. People can discuss differing myths from literature, and realize they’re talking about the same trope, even if it’s not the same story. People automatically click to Wiki for information if they need some quick discussion material. For those who want to take a lesson from the Wiki style of success, remember that it emphasizes not the product, but the way the audience is using and sharing words, language and information.