During our European digital ambassadors meeting in Milan last week we spent two days exchanging notes on some of the cool new trends in the online space. These included augmented reality (digital car races on a pizza box anyone?) and Google Wave (collaborative computing that could be very useful indeed for all of us) among others. However, amongst the delights of the internet future to come one new tool stuck out that could prove to be a pain for both politicians and companies. It’s called Sidewiki and its brought to us – as with most cool things on the internet these days – by Google.
If you, like me, are new to Sidewiki here’s a brief overview that summises my understanding. It’s a tool you can add to your Google Toolbar on either Firefox or Internet Explorer, but strangely not Google’s Chrome. Users of the Sidewiki with a gmail account can choose to add commentary to webpages they are visiting. Commentary from individuals is pushed up to the top of the list depending on relevance and popularity (users can like or dislike). Despite the label ‘wiki’ it does not appear to have a group editing function to moderate spurious content. Google acts as moderator for the comments and will take down comments that are flagges as inappropriate (fingers crossed). The commentary is held with Google, not on the website you’re visiting. Sounds neat. But think about it. Anyone with a Google account can tip up to your website and leave a comment for the world to see, over which you as the owner of the site have no control.
Back in our ultra modern hotel meeting room we were seeking to find an analogy for what this is like. Was it like parking your car on someone else’s front lawn? Perhaps not. After all users of Sidewiki don’t get to post their comments on your website as such. They are all on Google. Our thinking is that it is more akin to a stranger standing in front of your real estate holding a big sign that says that your house has dry rot and there are rats in the basement. Users of Sidewiki have the opportunity to picket any site they fancy.
A quick surf round some familiar sites underlines that, as yet, the use of Sidewiki is yet to catch on a big way. There are a few comments on http://www.number10.gov.uk but by no means a flood. But if it does, what could it mean?
Primarily, you can now challenge others on their turf. Whichever side of an argument you’re on, now you have the opportunity to go to get your messages/facts directly placed next to the site of those whose argument you are seeking to challenge. And they can do pretty much nothing about it. Imagine an NGO challenging a company’s record on child labour. Now NGO activists can go straight to the website and point out where the corporate spin surpasses fact. Equally NGO group questions the safety of a company’s product? The company can go on the NGO site and directly challenge the science. Clearly tit for tat could ensue. This works both ways after all. But who has the most supporters and the guts to take this to its illogical extreme?
Of course, one could take an optimistic view. These Google folks have just come up with something that will allow us all to read what the community believes to be the truth on any website. Your MP has fiddled his expenses? Post a link on Sidewiki so even if his party leader forgives him his constituents won’t forget about it. Has your MEP not showed up for months? A running commentary of his attendance record could be added to his sparkling new website. This could be a positive thing! Alas, those with the most extreme views tend to be the most persistent. What if all we get is the popular but wrong view? Nothing would seem to prevent this.
So what to do? Well for me at least, it would appear the only sensible thing to do would be to get in first and then manage the fall out as other join up. For example, others have commented that you can occupy your Sidewiki comments as the owner of the website. This would appear to be soon to become a must for any site. Finally, as Sidewiki commentary would appear to have an impact on search results, managing Sidewiki may become as important as managing Wikipedia. This is likely to be an ongoing process for anyone who cares about their online reputation.
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