By Peter Barker, Head of Development, Rufus Leonard.
Definition of a wiki
A wiki is a collaborative publishing tool that allows users to access and edit the text on a web page. The text can then be viewed and further edited by anyone who visits the wiki.
The aim of a wiki is the creation of documents (pages and webs) by a community rather than by an individual. It’s easy to start new documents and to edit and expand existing ones.
The structure of a wiki encourages linking to other pages, so new topics and sub-topics can quickly develop. It’s also possible to search, classify, index and cross-index articles, as well as track an article to see how it develops.
A wiki can be restricted to the members of a particular community (a company or a club, for instance) or it can be made accessible to everybody.
The first wiki
Wikis aren’t a new concept. The first wiki was the WikiWikiWeb, which was developed in 1994 by American computer programmer Ward Cunningham and launched as an add-on to his own website, c2.com.
The actual term ‘wiki’ is the Hawaiian word for ‘fast’ and Ward Cunningham initially heard it at Honolulu Airport, where he was told to take the ‘Wiki Wiki’, the local name for the shuttle bus that runs between the airport’s terminals.
Wikis and Web 2.0
In the sense that a wiki is about sharing information by hypertext and encourages documents to be linked rather than presented in a traditional linear format, it could be argued that a wiki is the best use of the web as defined by its creator Tim Berners-Lee.
Wikis have played a significant part in the evolution of what is described as a second generation of the web, or Web 2.0 as it is known. Whereas early internet users were content to simply read web pages, there is now a desire to take a much more active role, and Web 2.0 refers to the networks of hosted services and applications that facilitate collaboration, sharing and the growth of social communities. Tim O’Reilly, who coined the phrase ‘Web 2.0’, says this is ‘the architecture of participation’.
Wikis versus blogs
In an intranet technology stack, wikis generally sit alongside blogs under the banner of collaboration technologies.
There are some similarities between wikis and blogs. Like a blog, a wiki can limit which users are able to edit the content and the facilitator control can also be the same as a blog, where it is possible to screen comments and posts.
The main difference between wikis and blogs is the organisation of the information. A blog catalogues and dates content, so readers can see the interchange of ideas related to the blog topic in question. A blog also tends to be owned by an individual, which is useful for ‘thought leadership’ but not always appropriate for collaborative exchange.
By contrast, a wiki represents the community. As such, there are often questions over ownership, control and to what extent a wiki should be moderated.
Wikipedia is the best known public access wiki. Launched in 2001, it is a multi-lingual, web-based encyclopedia project with more than 75,000 active contributors. As of September 2007, it boasted 8.29 million articles in 253 different languages. The largest number of these articles form the English Wikipedia (over two million).
At the other end of the scale, there are also Wikipedias in Cornish, Cherokee, Zulu, Tahitian, Walloon, Manx Gaelic, Anglo Saxon and Gothic. That’s the ancient Germanic lingo, not the mumblings of teens in Marilyn Manson t-shirts. There’s even a version of Wikipedia in Klingon, the language of the legendary alien warrior race featured in Star Trek.
Wiki words of wisdom
‘The immutable, standalone website is dead. Say hello to the web that increasingly looks like a library full of chatty components that interact and talk to one another.’ (From Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams)
‘A wiki works best where you're trying to answer a question that you can't easily pose, where there's not a natural structure that's known in advance to what you need to know.’ (Ward Cunningham)
‘Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject, so you know you are getting the best possible information.’ (Michael Scott in the US version of The Office)
Wikis in business
To begin with, wikis were mainly used by technical communities to share technical information, often resulting in a kind of geek one-upmanship. Wikis were of little interest to most business organisations, where corporate information was typically stored in old legacy systems and databases. Back then, many corporate knowledge management projects were simply improved document management systems.
Increasingly, however, wikis have a key role in the corporate knowledge environment. More and more of the bigger corporations are recognising the importance of participation in the Web 2.0 world and starting to think about how they can harness this to the benefit of their business.
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