this weekFit to Print

December 7, 2004

Wikis

Free-for-all Web editing that works

Have you ever visited a Web page—perhaps even this very one—and thought to yourself, “I would have written that differently”? Maybe you’ve noticed a typo, an inaccurate statement, or important missing information. Maybe you just dislike the style of the writing, or feel that more needs to be said. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just click a button and make your own changes to the page? On some Web sites you can, thanks to an increasingly popular method of online collaboration called a wiki, which is short for Wiki Wiki Web (another WWW).

Double Quick
The term wiki is a Hawaiian word meaning “quick”; wiki wiki means “really quick.” (Linguistic side-note: Other languages in the Malayo-Polynesian family also employ reduplication, or doubling, as a means of intensification. In Indonesian, you pluralize a noun by doubling it—anak is “child”; anak-anak is “children.” But reduplication can also apply a meaning of “even more so”—pagi is “morning,” but pagi-pagi is “really early in the morning.” I could tell you were wondering about that.) The first usage of the term wiki to refer to a Web editing mechanism came in 1994, when Ward Cunningham wrote a simple script in the Perl programming language that enabled anyone to edit pages on his site freely. His original Wiki Wiki Web is still going strong, and has sparked innumerable imitators, derivatives, and clones of every description.

The exact definition of wiki in its Web sense is a bit nebulous, but fundamentally it refers to any Web site built around tools that allow collaborative modification of the pages. Wiki pages come in many different styles, with the only consistent element being that they focus primarily on text, as opposed to graphics, multimedia, and complex layouts. The content of a wiki—not its style—is of primary importance. So a wiki is a good tool for collecting ideas, brainstorming, building a historical record, organizing a team project, or any other activity that requires input from lots of different people. Sometimes people use wikis as discussion boards, asking questions and posting answers (with or without leaving their names); in other cases there’s no effort to maintain a running conversation, with the goal instead being to continually improve upon some body of text.

Editing Made Easy
How does a wiki work? The easiest way to understand this is to try one for yourself (see below), but I’ll give you a quick overview. When you visit a wiki site, each page usually has a link at the bottom or on the side that says “Edit Page” (or words to that effect). Click that and you’re presented with a version of the page with its text in an editable field. Make whatever changes you want, click Submit—you’re done. Nothing could be simpler. Each wiki system is slightly different, but in general, a help page or info box somewhere explains how to make text bold or italic, create bulleted lists, add hyperlinks, and so on. You don’t need to know any HTML; you simply use punctuation marks such as asterisks for bullets and exclamation points for italics, and the wiki software converts them to the proper tags behind the scenes. It really is easy enough that anyone can learn to do it in minutes.

Given that description, the first question most people have is, “Isn’t that asking for trouble?” If you make Web pages editable by anyone in the world—no passwords, no logging in, no control—won’t people just write junk, vandalize the site, or cause other problems? What’s keeping someone from misusing those tools? These concerns are addressed by a combination of technology and culture. On the technology side, every time someone edits a page, the previous version is saved, so that you (or anyone) can always undo damage by going back to an earlier revision. (Usually, the revision system allows you to see every change a document underwent since it was created.) But it’s the cultural aspect of wikis that I find most interesting. The people who contribute to any given wiki tend to adopt a proprietorial attitude toward it, meaning they monitor it for inappropriate content and quickly revert it to an acceptable version if necessary. Because of this informal policing—not to mention stronger controls an administrator can exert, such as banning certain IP addresses from modifying a file—wiki abuse is relatively infrequent; it’s not worth the time and effort to damage something that can be repaired so easily.

Power to the People
That said, wikis are by nature anarchic. Some wikis are freely editable only by a select group of people with password privileges (such as a small group of coworkers), but whether or not the group is restricted, there is no formal mechanism to force a wiki page to conform to any particular style, to stay on topic, or to maintain a high signal-to-noise ratio. And yet, amazingly, most wikis evolve to have these characteristics automatically. Again, this is due to the wiki culture—a way of thinking about editing shared documents that seems to arise spontaneously whenever a group of people becomes attached to a wiki.

Curiously, the open nature of wikis sometimes backfires in an unexpected way: many people are reluctant to modify a page that isn’t “theirs.” I’ve had this experience myself; while browsing a wiki site I’ll think, “Sure, I could modify this page, but who am I to mess with it?” The answer, of course, is that I’m a person with Web access, exactly the credentials of every other person who has edited that page. As long as I have something useful to add or change, there’s no reason I shouldn’t do so. Thus, some advice to wiki wannabes: if you feel weird about modifying a wiki page, try just rewording a sentence, fixing some punctuation, or doing something similarly innocuous. If other users don’t like what you’ve done, they can undo it easily. But jump in and try it—it can become addictive very quickly.

Oh, Wiki, You’re So Fine
One of the most surprising things about wikis is that the underlying software is incredibly simple. It can be written in any language; Perl, PHP, Python, Ruby, and Smalltalk are popular choices. While wiki developers can (and sometimes do) write very complex code based on relational databases, there has been an ongoing competition on one wiki site to write the shortest possible wiki program that still has all the necessary features. The current leader is a 4-line, 222-character script. Content management systems don’t get much simpler than that.

The largest and best-known wiki project is called Wikipedia. As the name suggests, it’s an online encyclopedia, compiled and written by…everybody! It’s not yet as large as a conventional encyclopedia, but it’s growing quickly. The quality of information is, for the most part, excellent, and it also has the advantage of being copyright-free. I have been finding with increasing frequency that topics I’m researching for this site are covered admirably in the Wikipedia, and it’s becoming one of the first places I look for information.

To be sure, not every site is a good candidate for wikification. News, corporate Web sites, product specifications, copyrighted literature, and many other types of Web content demand stricter control than a wiki can provide. But the success of the Wikipedia and a great many other large wiki sites shows that anonymous, collaborative Web editing has tremendous potential. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Wikis…

This article was featured in Carnival of the Web #2.

The original Wiki Wiki Web is a great place to experience a wiki firsthand. Also check out MeatballWiki, a wiki about online communities.

The Shortest Wiki Contest produces increasingly impressive entries of decreasing length!

cover art

The only book on wikis I’m aware of is The Wiki Way: Collaboration and Sharing on the Internet by Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham (inventor of the wiki).

To read about the Wikipedia, see Not Your Father’s Encyclopedia in Wired, or better yet, just go to the Wikipedia yourself. Also check out its companion site, the Wiktionary.

Want to add wiki capabilities to your own Web site? Many different packages are available, most for free. See this list of WikiWiki Clones for some examples.

I first heard of wikis in 2001 when I read Adam Engst’s article Come Together: Document Collaboration, Part 3 in TidBITS. To learn about wikis (and their derivatives) in mind-numbing detail, read Quickiwiki, Swiki, Twiki, Zwiki and the Plone Wars Wiki as a PIM and Collaborative Content Tool by David Mattison at Information Today, Inc.