The Barcamp PaperWiki experiment

17 April 2009 · Weblog · project

While in Iceland back in November Brian Suda and I (when not discussing ideas for sausage innuendo) had an idea for a kind of physical wiki. I had met a guy at Etech a few years ago who was experimenting with placing blank pieces of paper and pens in public spaces and seeing what conversation might develop; Brian was trying to work out how to make real-world travel guides more social. One of the ideas we came up with was this physical wiki - to act both as a social object and a way of sharing knowledge amongst strangers. When I found myself on the Barcamp London Planning Committee I thought I’d take the opportunity to make a prototype: PaperWiki v1.0b.

What is a PaperWiki?

Basically, it’s a load of bits of paper stuck on a wall and connected by bits of string.

Things are written on bits of paper and stuck on the wall. People can locate things spatially - grouping notes as they see fit - or connect related notes with bits of string. They can also write directly onto other peoples’ notes. Simple and fairly intuitive.

Setting up

Given the Barcamp context and the technical awareness of attendees I assumed that the “wiki” label would carry a fairly big hint for use. I added a note about the wiki with a link to the title to act as an example too though, just in case.

The PaperWiki instructions

Seized by last-second doubt I also scattered a few sample questions about the space as well.

The experiment

The best and most surprising thing about the whole shebang was how easily people seemed to accept the idea. I was worried that it’d need a bit more explanation or worse still, might not use it at all.

People using the PaperWiki
Early wiki pages

That said, it turns out that when presented with a blank piece of paper geeks will create a Twitter clone. This isn’t a hard and fast rule - I’m not coining Stenhouse’s Law just yet - but it went down a storm. Introducing Papr.


And alongside Papr a PaperNet emerged, including its own protocol, pampp://…


…a link-shortner, Tinyprl…


…a Flickr clone, Plickr…


…and assorted other jokes…

HTTP 410 Gone
HTTP 404 Not Found
Fail Whale


Uumm, it’s not quite what I had in mind! By Sunday the jokes had overwhelmed the useful information… More Geocities than WikiSpaces. But it was still good fun and it seemed to serve its purpose as a social object so I think it was a success.

The photos that I managed to take are up in a Flickr set and there are a bunch more from other people floating around too.

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