By Stewart Mader, special to The Content Wrangler

There’s been a dust-up in the past few days about an alleged secret mailing list that some administrators on Wikipedia were using to privately communicate without getting input from the larger community.

To quote:

“Revealed after an uber-admin called ‘Durova’ used it in an attempt to enforce the quixotic ban of a longtime contributor, this secret mailing list seems to undermine the site’s famously egalitarian ethos. At the very least, the list allows the ruling clique to push its agenda without scrutiny from the community at large. But clearly, it has also been used to silence the voice of at least one person who was merely trying to improve the encyclopedia’s content.”

Here’s why this isn’t a big deal for people who are using wikis in organizations:

  1. Wikipedia and organizational wikis are two entirely different beasts. What happens on Wikipedia, including “scandalous” news like this, should be taken as something that’s a result of the unique community on Wikipedia.
  2. News like this gets out of Wikipedia because wiki culture is inherently more transparent – and that’s a good thing. People who didn’t like that editors were banning someone pushed to find out why, and it was a result of this push that the existence of the secret list was revealed.
  3. Having an email list for the people managing a wiki isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As a commenter _private musings_ said in response to the article about the list: “You may be interested to know that the ‘back channels’ (posh way of referring to emails really) are really still buzzing over this one…” In this case, the list is getting bad coverage because it was kept a secret and allegedly used by one group to maintain control. That’s unfortunate, because it’s now led to this bad coverage, and a potentially negative perception of email lists used by wiki managers.
  4. If you manage an internal wiki instance for an organization, there’s nothing wrong with having an email “back channel” to communicate with others, such as a system admin, database admin, developers, etc. It can be very useful, and will almost exclusively be used for very “boring” (compared to this ’scandal’) communications, like schedule maintenance, upgrades, etc.
  5. Having an email list is also not new – people have been doing this for a long time. The reason people around the Wikpedia community are up in arms is because the existence of the lists goes against the egalitarian, everyone-can-participate mantra of the site.

The bottom line:

If you have an email list that you use keep in touch with other people involved in running your organization’s wiki, don’t keep it a secret. On the other hand, there’s no need to write a headline article about it on your blog, or send an email blast – in fact, if you have a wiki, email blasts should be a thing of the past, right?

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Pinterest
It might be a good idea to mention it at some point in a blog post where you give people an inside look at how the wiki is managed, or even put a page on your wiki about this topic. Just don’t get alarmed about the usefulness of a wiki in your organization simply because there’s been another alarm over in the Wikipedia community.

About the Author

Stewart Mader works with business, academic, and non-profit organizations to grow vibrant collaborative communities. He is Wiki Evangelist for Atlassian, publishes He is the author of two books: Wikipatterns: a practical guide to improving productivity and collaboration in your organization, which is being published by Wiley in early 2008, and Using Wiki in Education, an online book on how the wiki is transforming education and research.