DavisWiki is a hard thing to describe. It’s a blog as a blog would be written by an entire community. It’s a virtual bulletin board that’s more comprehensive than Craigslist and Patch and Yelp combined. It’s simultaneously a history repository and a live ticker of today’s news (Community alert! The U.C. Davis Police Department is searching for a man suspected of trying to kidnap a young girl on campus.) DavisWiki is, in short, a mind-boggingly well-populated web portal where the people of this California college town have dumped seemingly everything they know about the place. If you don’t live there, you should be jealous. Your town needs one of these, too.
UC Davis students launched the site eight years ago, before most people knew what a wiki was, when Wikipedia itself was still considered dodgy. Since then, DavisWiki has become the largest media source in the city. One in six people there visit it every day. It has 18,000 pages now, about which businesses have bathroom changing tables, where to find all-you-can-eat buffets, and how to dodge a Davis zombie attack (obviously, you will want to get on a bike, because fuel may be in short supply, and, in Davis, bikes are everywhere).
“It’s the most comprehensive, hyperlocal thing ever,” says Philip Neustrom, who helped launch the site as a student and now works as the executive director of its universal version 2.0, LocalWiki. “People get freaked out by that a little bit.”
Thanks to a grant from the Knight News Challenge, LocalWiki has been further developing the software so that communities anywhere can replicate the idea. The Raleigh-Durham Triangle area launched one earlier this year. Now Oakland and Ann Arbor have wikis, too. As a sign of true global dominance, a LocalWiki project is even coming to Antarctica.
The whole idea is tough to wrap your head around: How does an entire community document everything about itself for posterity? And where would you even begin building a new one? Neustrom and Mike Ivanov launched the first site (not that they knew many more would be coming) simply to capture the weird stuff they were learning about Davis as students there. They were discovering underground tunnels and campus chickens and strange building history. But these discoveries were bittersweet. “Every year one-fourth of the community sheds away from Davis,” Neustrom says, “and all their knowledge leaves.”
DavisWiki was an attempt to trap it somewhere in cyberspace. And then the whole concept took off, with Davis residents relishing the opportunity to contribute what they knew. “People think it’s like Patch.com, that we pay people to do this,” Neustrom says. “No, we don’t pay people anything! People are just into it. They just love the idea of having this project. And that’s what we want: all of these autonomous, cool communities.”
Reid Serozi first asked for the code some seven years ago to replicate the project in Raleigh. But it wasn’t until LocalWiki expanded with the Knight News Challenge that he finally got Triangle Wiki off the ground this March (after seven years, he laughs, of paying GoDaddy to squat on TriangleWiki.org). Now that site is methodically starting to document all of the Triangle’s vegetarian restaurants, its historic properties and EV charging stations. “As a friendly reminder of where we’re trying to go, I go out to DavisWiki.org,” Serozi says. “That’s a reminder that it can work.”
Serozi also suspects that something happens to a community when it possesses all of this knowledge about itself. Maybe people will become more involved with their neighbors, or with programs they didn’t realize existed. Participating in a virtual, live story-telling about your town implies that you may take more ownership of it, too. Something about this wiki project also seems almost permanent (at least, as permanent as the Internet gets). Niche local bloggers do a great job of documenting new restaurants or music festivals.
“But what happens if they get hit by a bus, or they lose their job, or they move to San Francisco?” Serozi says. “Is there a guarantee they’re going to archive that blog for the rest of their life?” With a LocalWiki, he says, there’s an expectation the content will be there forever–“you’re recording history,” he says, “in the local version of it at least.”