Wikis Described in Plain English

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You may have seen the word wiki used to describe a website used by a group to collaborate. My intent with this post is to describe wikis and the basics of how they work- in plain English.

The basics:

Ultimately, a wiki is a specific type of website. A wiki is special because it allows a group of people to build, edit and modify a website with no programming or HTML whatsoever. Because it doesn’t require technical expertise, all users of the wiki have equal ability to maintain and edit the site. Wikis are easy to learn and use, which makes them accessible to everyone.

A little background:

Wiki is short for wikiwikiWeb, first developed by Ward Cunningham in 1995. Wiki means quick in Hawaiian.

Wikis are different from normal web sites:

Normal web sites are usually developed offline and then presented to users as a finished product. By comparison, wikis are first presented to users as a blank slate- an empty page. A new wiki is an empty wiki, no pages, no links. Instead of a team of designers developing a web site in private, a wiki is developed in public by the users of the wiki over the life of the wiki.

So, if the wiki starts as a blank slate, where does the site's content come from?

The site's content comes from the users of the wiki. This is a defining element of wikis: the users are responsible for the direction and content of the wiki web site over time. Everyone that uses the wiki has the opportunity to contribute to it and/or edit in the way that they see fit. This allows a wiki to change constantly and morph to represent the needs of the users over time. Wikis grow to represent the community of users.

How does that happen- how does a user of a wiki contribute to or edit the wiki?

All wiki pages are equipped with a publicly available link that usually says Edit This Page or EditText. Whenever a user wants to update or change a page, they click the Edit This Page link, make their changes using plain text and then click Save to finalize the change. It is this editing ability that makes a wiki so efficient in collecting information -- users only need to edit a page to update the web site --no programming skill is required.

Whoa- so everyone can edit the page? That sounds like it would turn into a mess quickly.

Yes, everyone can edit every page. And, yes, wikis are vulnerable to attacks from spammers, flamers and disrupters. However, you would be surprised at how little this happens- and how little it affects the operations of the wiki.

Usually, wikis have dedicated users that keep up with each change that is made and they can clean up graffiti very quickly. Some say that the cost of defiling a wiki is greater than the cost of cleaning it, so it is not worth a spammer's time to do it.

OK, so it's updated by users and starts as a blank slate. If programming is not needed, how do you format the page? For instance, how do you make something bold? Or create headings?

It is true that programming is not needed. However, wikis often need to have formatting like headings, bold or italicized text, and links to other pages in the wiki.

These types of formatting changes are accomplished through using specific punctuation that is translated into formatting on the wiki web site. Each platform has its own version of the punctuation, but I've provided the punctuation used by SocialText for the examples below.

After clicking Edit This Page in a wiki, you would use the punctuation below to format the text.


That makes sense- but how do users add new pages?

Similar punctuation makes it easy to make a new page. This means that a user can edit an existing page and add punctuation that makes a word or phrase into a link to a completely new page.

In SocialText, the punctuation is brackets. So, a user could edit a page, type [New Page Here] into the wiki, click Save and the existing wiki page would display a link to a new page called New Page Here. By clicking the new link, the user can get started editing the new page- adding a branch to the wiki's content.

With everyone making constant changes, how does a user keep up with the changes?

This brings us to another defining element of wikis- the ability to view the recent changes to the wiki. Most wikis have a link to view “Recent Changes. By clicking this link, a user can keep up with the changes occurring across the site. When I mentioned before that dedicated users clean up graffiti as soon as it occurs, they do so by monitoring every change that happens. In most systems, email and/or RSS is used to alert members of changes.

OK, wikis change constantly, everyone can edit, no programming required. Doesn’t someone have to be in charge for it to work?

Yes and no. Wikis work best when they are gardened. Usually, the people dedicated to the wiki (the community) will work to organize it over time. Not every user will consistently make changes effectively, so someone (or small group) often needs to be the gardener. The role of the gardener is to keep up the changes and make changes that ensure the wiki is organized and structured intuitively.

What are the limitations of wikis? Can a wiki become anything a user wants? Is it a full service resource?

I would say that a wiki is not a full service resource, nor is it meant to be. Below I've listed some things that I believe wikis are not appropriate for:

  • Threaded Discussions: Without attribution or chronology, discussions don't fly. They're possible, but not easy.
  • Weblogging: Again, no attribution or chronology
  • Instant Messaging/Presence: In the platforms I've seen, there is no way to know when someone else is on the wiki or contact them directly via the wiki.

Why would I wiki?

This is an important point. Wikis are best used for a purpose- to serve a need. It is a tool and its value is related to how it used. That is the beauty of wikis, they are not predefined by any structure or requirements- a wiki is completely what you make it.

But, to make it valuable, it has to contribute to some goal or fulfill some need. I say that wikis are a great place for people to put stuff. As weblogs and online discussions occur, wikis can be a great place to stock the pertinent information that flows from other resources.

Other considerations:

As Peter Kaminski reminded recently, wikis can be a foundation for a type of online community. I had originally thought about them in terms of utility, but I am now seeing that a successful wiki is successful because of the community of users that use it and care for it. It is truly of the users, by the users.

For a description of a wiki in use: Wiki and the Perfect Camping Trip.

Other Wiki Resources:

Portland Pattern Repository
List of Wiki Engines (via the C2 wiki)

See Also: Other Technologies Described in Plain English: