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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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March012008

MediaWiki Embraces Social Networking

MediaWiki, the wiki tool used by Wikipedia and thousands of other wiki sites around the world, just got a lot more powerful. The for-profit companion project to Wikipedia announced this week that they were releasing free tools that will allow MediaWiki sites to include a range of social networking features. Schools looking for a private social networking tool they can host in-house should definitely take notice.

There are lots of wiki platforms out there, but MediaWiki is probably the most recognizable. Even if you don’t know that name, you’ve undoubtedly seen it in action, as it’s the wiki software used to power Wikipedia. MediaWiki has become popular among users interested in hosting their own wiki server. Unlike commercially hosted wiki sites like pbwiki and Wikispaces, MediaWiki is free and open software you can run yourself. So if you’re a school technology coordinator who wants students and teachers to collaborate via a wiki without having to send them to an outside service, it’s often been a good choice.

As social networking sites have become more popular, though, tools like MediaWiki have shown their limitations. While they’re ideal for collaborative document production - that’s what they were designed to do, after all - they’ve often lacked other tools common in the social networking world, like robust user profiles, the ability to “friend” other users, discussion boards, ratings tools and the like.

But that doesn’t mean these tools didn’t exist in wikis. Enter Wikia, a for-profit company founded by Jimmy Wales, the man behind Wikipedia. Wikia is a hosted wiki solution, like pbwiki and Wikispaces; in other words, the company does the hosting, while you and your community do the collaborating. Last week at a public broadcasting conference in Los Angeles, Wales demoed Wikia, showing off one of its best known communities, the Muppet Wiki. You may not think it’s possible to have more than 16,000 individual articles about the Muppets, but they do - and according to Wales, they’re just getting warmed up.

Just like Wikipedia, Wikia is built on MediaWiki, but with a variety of other bells and whistles added. One of the ways they were able to do that was through the purchase of a sports social networking site called ArmchairGM just over a year ago. That site had built up some interesting technologies to power its own social networking features, and with Wikia’s purchase of the site, they were able to employ those same features within Wikia’s community toolset as well.

This week, Wikia announced it was releasing some of these social networking tools as free and open source. In other words, anyone who was already using MediaWiki as their own private wiki platform could now add social networking plugins to it. So many of those features that were generally lacking in various wiki tools - user profiles and avatars, bulletin boards, etc - were now free for the taking to anyone willing to install them on their MediaWiki site.

Blogger Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote about Wikia’s announcement this week for the site ReadWriteWeb:

This release is sure to be of interest to the owners of and participants in thousands of Mediawiki-based communities focused on a wide range of topics. More generally, though, it could impact the social news and networking economy overall. We wrote earlier this week that the big social news aggregator model (Digg, Yahoo! Buzz) is vulnerable to market share erosion at the hands of niche social news sites. The same can be said for the big, general interest social networking sites. While most users will probably always want some presence on big sites, the potential is there to have the majority of communication online occur in a targeted niche community of people interested in and informed about the specific topics that an individual is interested in.

It’s that last sentence of his that you should pay attention to. I think Marshall is totally correct that while people will continue to use sites like Facebook just to have a presence for themselves there, it’s the more focused community of interests that will continue to attract more and more participation. And this is totally true in the case of schools. While some educators have started experimenting with general social networking sites like Facebook, it’s the targeted, do-it-yourself social networking communities that are really becoming useful for them.

Take Ning in Education, for example. Steve Hargadon set up this community using the free DIY social networking tool Ning to talk about how the tool could be used by teachers, and now there are more than 1,000 of them participating, many of them running their own classroom Ning communities. But many other educators have stuck with tools like MediaWiki, because it’s built around a wiki tool rather than networking tools, and because keep it totally private, hosted on a school district server. With the release of social networking plugins for MediaWiki, I fully expect even more educators to deploy MediaWiki sites, so they don’t have to worry about having their students interacting on a commercially hosted website. Not that Ning will suddenly take a nosedive - far from it. There’s definitely room for both platforms, and others too. But it’s exciting to see the number of robust collaboration tools multiplying and expanding, particularly ones that are free and open source.

What about you? Are you using MediaWiki already? If so, do you see yourself adding these new plugins to your site? If you’re a Ning user, might you switch over to MediaWiki now that social networking can be a part of it? -andy

Filed under : Cool Tools, Social Networking, Wikis

Responses

It is true that people by large wants to share broad platform and hence the popular social networking sites get all the attention.Unlike yesteryear people today view their presense on these sites as an option to interact with large conmmunity outside their community and circle. But as it is said interest prevails and hence people also wants to purse their interest and thus want more involved discussion.

The collaborative feature and do it youself feature lends power to these tools. Especially in schools where educators want learners to be socially inclined and value oriented, these tools can come handy. Though the effectiveness of these tools in the learning system still needs to be reviewed. The familarisation with the utility aspect of these tools can only create a better learning platform.

Regards

Khushboo

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