About Wiki


Tom explains the origin, purpose, uses, and limitations of wiki web sites.

Featuring Tom Merritt.



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Somebody told me to check a wiki.
Isn’t that the totally crazy idea that anybody can edit a page? Wouldn’t that result in a total wall of graffiti?
Also Why Wiki? What does that even mean?
Don’t be.
Let’s help you know a little more about Wiki.

When people say “A wiki” they usually mean a collaboratively edited hypertext publication managed by its audience through a web browser.
Wikis are different than other Content Management Software in that they are not built around authorship. WordPress, for instance focuses on posts. Each post has a day and an author but the connections between posts are less important. There may be a category or a tage but the date and the author are the main focus on a blog. Wikis on the other hand focus on pages of content and their connections. You might have a page about ponies and that page leads you to links to pages about horses, categories of animals and possibly related animated TV adventures. While the page will have a list of editors and who edited what when its likely to have a lot of those and they’ll be off the main page. The focus is on the content and how it fits into the rest of the instance of wiki.
The other thing about wiki is that they’re super easy to edit. Software, known as a wiki engine, governs the editing, usually through a markup language or some kind of rich text editing. And the users collectively edit and define the rules for posting. Editing tends to be wide open though access controls can and do exist.
Wikipedia is the most famous version of a Wiki (or technically, collection of Wikis) but it was not the first. Not by a long shot. Wikipedia came along in January 2001. The first Wiki was launched March 25 1995.
Programmer Ward Cunningham wanted to make it easier for programmers to share ideas. He was inspired by Apple’s HyperCard which was a forerunner of the Web in using hypertext and other hypermedia. It let users create stacks of cards with links between the cards.
Cunningham wanted to make a place where programmers could quickly create and edit interlinked information. The still young World Wide Web was perfect for this, so he put his wiki on his company’s website c2.com where it lives to this day.
He was originally going to call it Quick Web. Which could have led to a world of Quickipedia and Quickis. Perish the thought.
Thankfully, he was inspired by the Honolulu Airport terminal shuttle called the Wiki Wiki Shuttle. Wiki is a Hawaiian word for quick. So he named his new website the WikiWikiWeb. It ran on software written in Perl which was later named the WikiBase.
His idea was an open and easy way to build related pages of info.
In a book called The Wiki Way, Cunningham and Bo Leuf described three things that make up the idea behind a wiki
One is that all users, not just experts, can create and edit pages in a plain old web browser without requiring add-ons or extensions. Granted many wikis restrict who the users are and many have levels of editing privileges, but the Wiki principle is that creation and editing is largely unimpeded.
To that end they say the second important idea behind Wikis is that it’s not carefully crafted like a traditional encyclopedia or manual. It engages the typical user in an ongoing process of creation.
And finally it should promote meaningful topic associations between different pages, making it easy to create links and find out what pages exist. The focus is on the pages of info and how they connect with each other. In other words lean toward wide open large numbers of creators making meaningful information.
Because of this culture, wikis usually have prominent edit buttons and are largely text-based. They tend to have simple layouts that can be maintained consistently across all the pages in the Wiki instance’s site. Links are the backbone of the Wiki. Wiki software usually makes it much easier to create a link than they are in bare HTML. In the original WikiWikiWeb you created a link by using camelcase – the one where you have a capital word in the middle. You know by smashing the words together and capitalizing the first letter. So if I wrote Greenville Comets and wanted to link it to the page on my high school women’s basketball team, I would type GreenvilleComets as one word with the C in comets still capitalized. Some still use this method while hiding it in the readable version of a page _ so in our example Greenville Comets would be linked but there would be a space between Greenville and Comets– while others use some sort of simple marker like brackets.
Navigation in wiki-based sites is based on the link. Top level category pages can be created by hand that link to all pages in a category, but some wiki software makes this easier by offering a way to display all pages that link to a given page. Wikis often let users tag a page with keywords as well.
Most wikis also maintain some kind of version history so users can see what edits were made and why.
One of the most counterintuitive aspects of Wikis is their openness. While some wikis are restricted to users from within say, a company, many are publicly editable by anyone. That often leads to the criticism that vandals will be able to destroy the reliability of an instance of a wiki. In general a large and active enough community can quickly deal with such vandalism. However at a certain scale, like the Wikiedpia project, it becomes too large to constantly monitor all pages.
One of the main defenses against vandalism is making changes easy to see and undo. Hence the versioning that lets all changes be visible to all and the easy editing that lets people quickly revert things. Large wikis like Wikipedia also use bots. Wikipedia uses a bot called ClueBot NG, that uses its machine learning to identify and revert vandalism.
Other methods could include allowing instant edits from IP addresses of previously approved edits or only allowing edits from registered users. Larger wikis often have a role of administrator that can lock a page if editors are in an “edit war” where they keep changing each other’s edits. This lets the administrator use a discussion channel to help the community come to a decision about which version is most appropriate.
There are four main general roles in wiki-based sites. Reader, who just consumes what is written. An author, who creates and edits pages. A wiki administrator, who can mange edits, lock pages when needed and delete pages if necessary. And a System administrator who can install and maintain the wiki engine and web server.
Wikis also exist in an interesting legal space. Because multiple users contribute to the final product (final being a loose word since it constantly is being edited) editors could be considered tenants in common and all of them would have to approve republishing. And with anonymous edits that becomes entirely unworkable. However most public wikis use an open content license like the GNU Free Documentation License or a Creative Commons license, making the rights clear. There may also be an implied license based on the nature of wiki, but that area of the law is largely unexplored.
Wiki operators, and sometimes users can be held liable for certain activities though. A wiki owner who shows indifference to content they could control could be held liable. This particularly applies to copyright infringement. If you just let copyright infringement flourish even when its brought to your attention, you’re going to land yourself in court. Especially if you’re making money off the site.
And some argue that all users could also theoretically be held accountable for any defamation or libel on a wiki-based site, since all users have the ability to remove content, however that, again, is a largely unexplored area of the law.
But that lack of explored laws shows there haven’t been a lot of disputes about this in the courts. People generally have resolved disputes before it gets to that stage. At least so far. The set of all wiki, and particularly wikipedia, is a rather interesting success story of the open web.
In other words, I hope you know a little more about Wiki.