When Matt Hampel started arborwiki.org, he says, “I wrote about things I knew about.”
Since Hampel was still in high school in 2005, that meant writing “about Community High School. I wrote about Kerrytown. Some of the content was just fun and simple, like where you can get free things on your birthday.”
ArborWiki has grown remarkably in the eight ensuing years. Using the simple and user-friendly “wiki” format popularized by Wikipedia, it now hosts 11,500 articles on Ann Arbor businesses, public figures, history, and more. About 22,000 users visit the site per month.
Anyone can write or edit content, although a core group of around ten regular contributors does most of the work. While the site looks and operates much like Wikipedia, Hampel says it offers an outlet for local coverage that falls outside the global site’s purview. “Wikipedia is really great, but they have a lot of rules on what kind of content can exist,” Hampel says. “A lot of the content that would be of local interest would be deemed by their moderators to be not notable.”
For instance, it’s hard to see ArborWiki’s single most visited page—the list of local businesses with birthday deals—finding a home on Wikipedia. While that particular page is a more lighthearted use of the technology, it’s also an example of what ArborWiki does best: compiling lists of information that are unlikely to be gathered in a single place elsewhere. Regular contributor Ed Vielmetti says other popular pages include lists of volunteer opportunities for teens and places to hold a public meeting. “There’s really not anyone who’s going to be writing [those lists] routinely as a news story,” Vielmetti says. “So it kind of falls in the category of stuff that the Web does better than print.”
The site had what Hampel calls “a really validating moment” in 2006, when the Ann Arbor District Library offered to host ArborWiki on its community projects server in perpetuity. “We’ve given it the digital equivalent of a space on the shelf,” says AADL associate director Eli Neiburger. “It’s just a really useful resource, especially for things that aren’t here any more. For businesses that used to exist, and little bits of local history, it’s a really easy place to find those things out.”
The site also is a resource for locally oriented wiki pages worldwide. When Hampel started ArborWiki, he found only three similar projects online. Today, he’s a board member of LocalWiki, a project providing a design template and software to ArborWiki and more than fifty other American community wiki pages, plus even more internationally.
Although ArborWiki stands at the cutting edge of community wikis, Vielmetti says the site could use software improvements for mobile compatibility and community feedback. And it still has a long way to go in bolstering its collection of images and digitized news articles.
“From an institutional point of view, it’s in a good spot,” Vielmetti says. “But in terms of the time it takes to document what we need to document, I’d say we’re about eight years into a thirty-year project.”