Te Ara is known and valued as a trustworthy encyclopedia, written by experts. It was launched in the early days of Web 2.0, which included social media and Wikipedia, and encouraged internet users to also be content creators. As a result, a few critics perceived Te Ara as being elitist, and challenged it to be more inclusive.
While remaining committed to being an authoritative encyclopedia, Te Ara rose to this challenge in a number of ways.
In 2003, before Te Ara’s first theme on the peoples of New Zealand was published, a call was put out for members of the public to contribute stories about how they or their ancestors came to New Zealand. More than 200 were received, and 25 of the best were chosen to be included as ‘Your stories’ in ‘The voyage out’ entry on the website. Through a similar process Te Ara has also published contributed stories on topics including beachcombing, natural disasters, bush yarns and country schooling.
Since 2008 people have been invited to contribute their stories about any topic on Te Ara directly through the website. ‘Your stories’ have a different visual design from other Te Ara pages and are clearly attributed to their authors. They are usually lively and personal. Highlights include contributions from a survivor of the 1981 Silver Fern rail crash and from Mary Woodward, Miss New Zealand 1949.
Since mid-2010 users have been able to contribute to the website by leaving comments on image and media pages. These have ranged from serious requests for, and offers of, further information, to brief appreciative messages about popular images such as a photograph of a blobfish.
Signposts – Te Ara’s blog
Launched in November 2007, Signposts has been a place where Te Ara staff, and occasional guest bloggers, could:
- write more informally about relevant topics and give personal perspectives
- give a behind-the-scenes view of Te Ara at work
- make announcements and share news
- provide some background to current events
- highlight some lesser-known gems on the site.
On a lighter note, there were regular quizzes, most of them compiled by Te Ara’s resident quiz mistress, designer Julia Vodanovich. By late July 2014, 584 posts had been published on Signposts.
When Te Ara writer Carl Walrond suggested that the team should pre-write a blog post about earthquakes to publish when a large quake inevitably occurred, no one thought that event would be in Christchurch. The post listed New Zealand’s biggest past earthquakes and included links to other relevant information on Te Ara. On the morning of Saturday 4 September 2010 lead designer Heath Sadlier and editor Helen Rickerby were quickly able to add specific information about the 7.1 earthquake that had hit Canterbury at 4.35 a.m., and put it into historic context. It became one of the most popular posts on the blog.
Some of the most popular posts have been those that used information on Te Ara to put significant events, such as the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, into context. Many of these were written immediately after the events had taken place.
Posts have been written by staff from all areas of Te Ara, not just by writers, but also by designers, resource researchers, rights administrators and editors. The blog runs on the WordPress content management system and was originally designed by Shift.
In late 2008 Te Ara began using the Flickr photo-sharing site to share its own images and to source images for the website. It has set up a Te Ara pool where people can add their own images related to New Zealand. Flickr sets have been used to create galleries for Te Ara stories about different regions and for subjects such as libraries and birthday cakes.
When micro-blogging site Twitter came along, many people doubted that anything worthwhile could ever be said in a mere 140 characters. However, in early 2009 lead designer Heath Sadlier decided that Twitter was the perfect place for Te Ara to connect with its tech-savvy audience, and set up an account. Several Te Ara staff take turns to tweet about interesting images and media, facts, featured stories and biographies, and to provide context to the news of the day. Twitter is also a forum for interacting with Te Ara users and other institutions working in culture and heritage.
Other social media
In 2013 social media buttons were added to Te Ara stories so users could ‘like’ them on Facebook or share them on Twitter. Te Ara uses Facebook to share images and stories, make announcements and interact with the public.
Te Ara has used the Manatū Taonga YouTube account to share videos, especially the series of Roadside Stories audio guides to places around New Zealand, which were created for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Additionally, videos sourced from YouTube are sometimes embedded as media for Te Ara entries.
In 2013 Te Ara resource researchers set up a Pinterest account to help them research images for Te Ara stories.