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February 13, 2007 > TechKnow Talk

TechKnow Talk

What is a Wiki?

Wikis have become tremendously popular in recent years, especially with young people. But for those of us who remember the novelty of the first handheld calculators, it is another confusing term among a plethora of computer-related words describing arcane and highly technical concepts.

In this case, however, the concept is very simple. A wiki is a Website that allows people to collaborate or exchange information. Public wikis typically allow anyone to read, add, modify, or delete information posted on the site. If this article were posted on a wiki, anyone could read it and change it in whatever way they chose, perhaps adding additional information or correcting the TechKnow Guy's lousy grammar.

The largest and most well-known wiki is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia created through the contributions of people around the world writing about topics of which they are knowledgeable. Any reader may update the articles, make corrections, or add links to related information. The English language version of Wikipedia now contains more than 1.5 million articles and is among the 100 most popular Web sites in the world.

In addition to public wikis such as Wikipedia, businesses have begun using wikis as a means to capture and communicate information. Access to these private wikis is usually restricted to employees. With the problems attendant to the graying workforce faced by many companies, wikis have become a popular knowledge management resource, capturing knowledge and expertise from older, experienced workers in a format that is instantly and easily accessible to all employees.

The concept of community is critical to understanding how a wiki works. A large public wiki such as Wikipedia boasts hundreds or even thousands of people who monitor new postings and changes for content, accuracy, and quality. They are not paid employees, but ordinary people who care about the site and maintaining it as a first-rate information resource. People who are knowledgeable in a given area and have written articles are likely to monitor those articles to ensure any changes add value.

In addition, Wikipedia, like many of the larger wikis, grants administrative privileges to certain trusted individuals. This gives them greater power to restore deleted material, make system changes, and even to block users who have vandalized articles or otherwise been destructive. In actual practice, despite being open to literally everyone in the world, most wiki users are well-intentioned, and vandalism is relatively rare. This is probably partly because it is a simple matter to remove inappropriate content and replace it with the previous version.

This community behavior is difficult to understand until one participates in a wiki. But it does work very well in most cases. For example, if one were to post or modify an article on a large site such as Wikipedia, then visit it a day or two later, it would likely be of better quality than the original posting. Readers would have corrected any typos or grammatical errors, and those knowledgeable in the subject matter would have updated the content. If the original posting had been broadly inaccurate, in poor taste, or very badly written, it probably would have been deleted altogether.

Wikis are a relatively recent phenomenon. Software developer Ward Cunningham is credited with creating the first one, WikiWikiWeb, in 1995, as a collaborative resource for programmers. Cunningham chose the term "wiki" from the Hawaiian word for fast or quick. In the late 1990s, the number of wikis expanded dramatically as their usefulness was recognized.

Today, in addition to thousands of private, company-operated wikis, there are public wikis on nearly any subject imaginable. Some of the larger public sites focus on software development, travel, entertainment, and general information such as on-line dictionaries and "how-to" guides. There are even wikis about wikis, or directories of wikis, such as SwitchWiki, Meta-Wiki, and WikiIndex.

Those of us from the bell-bottom generation tend to confuse wikis with blogs. A blog is typically written by one person, as opposed to the broad contributing community of the wiki. Blog postings usually focus on events, ideas, and opinions as they occur in chronological order, similar to a diary or journal, whereas wikis are topic and knowledge oriented. Once a blog entry is posted, it is expected to stand alone, unchanged; depending on the blog, others may be allowed to comment on it, but are usually not given the ability to alter or delete it. The blogger is in a sense speaking to an audience; the wiki community is engaged in a lively discussion, building a dynamic product through consensus.

It is not practical to list lengthy Internet addresses here. Instead, the reader can find wikis on any subject by utilizing Google or another Internet search engine. Simply search on the subject of interest plus the word "wiki," or search on one of the directories listed above, and go from there.

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