Calling time on the wiki

Wikipedia is a great success - but there are better models for online democracy

A wiki is where ideas go to die. This may sound strong, especially given the success of Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopaedia. I've been at several grass-roots meetings which ended with the fatal words: "OK, let's continue this discussion on the wiki." Months later, said wiki has been left to wallow in its own incompleteness, its participants presumably left cold by the open questions ossifying on its pages. I can only conclude that ideas are among the class of things that cannot be collaboratively edited.

So it's interesting to note the launch of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs's (Defra) wiki last month. Designed to create an environmental contract between government and citizens, it was conceived as an experiment in collaborative working. Defra uploaded suggested text, inviting any user to edit it at the click of a button. Like all wikis, revisions were tracked so any vandalism could be rectified quickly. Users could leave comments detailing why they had made changes.

At the time of going to press, Defra had not publicised the site, so I wasn't surprised to see, when I visited it, that only a few people, mostly sustainability experts, had left their mark. Which brings us to the first rule of wikis: they need a critical mass of people who regularly edit them in order to produce a functional document that truly reflects its stakeholders' views. There's no point in just putting up a wiki, and waiting for people to come. And although press-releasing it might attract the climate sceptics, how could the contract be democratically viable without giving every single UK citizen the opportunity to have their say?

None of this is to say that Defra should not be commended for trying to engage the public using new online tools. David Miliband hosts his own blog on the Defra site, which, unlike the politicians so chastised in last week's column, he actually writes himself. In launching the environmental contract on a wiki, Defra is more likely to combat that feeling of powerlessness about one person's good actions on climate change being cancelled out by others' inaction. If all citizens have the power to change the contract, then all citizens should be able to abide by it.

A better online tool therefore for combating inertia on climate change might be PledgeBank, a website designed by the civic hacking group mySociety. Users are asked to state how many other people doing something it would take to encourage them to do it, too. Several environmental pledges are ongoing, such as a pledge to offset carbon emissions on flights if 19 others follow suit. In service to the Defra wiki, then, and to combat my general distrust of the format, I have set up the following pledge: "I, Becky Hogge, will contribute to the Defra environmental contract wiki, but only if 44 million other people will, too."