Features - Enter the World of the "Wiki"

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 Chris Hayes is CEO of CourtEXPRESS, a national and international court access and document retrieval service using leading-edge Internet and telecommunications technologies.

Introduction

One of the hottest new concepts in the world of geeks and nerds is wiki software. You may not have run into a wiki website yet, but, no doubt, one day soon you will. They’ve been in use in the programming community for a number of years, and they are now becoming popular among companies as an in-house extranet application. Even BusinessWeek magazine touted the popularity of the wiki in a recent issue. (See Wiki World: Not Just for Geeks Anymore, and Wiki's Winning Ways, June 7, 2004.)

Wikies are fun and informative, but it is helpful to have a little understanding of them before you have to work with one. The following overview should get you started.

What is a Wiki?

A wiki is a web-based discussion site that grows and changes at the will of the participants. People can add and edit pages at will, using a Word-like screen, without knowing any programming or HTML commands. More specifically, a wiki is composed of web pages where people input information and then create hyperlinks to another or new pages for more details about a particular topic. Anyone—yes, anyone—can edit any page and add, delete or correct information. A search field at the bottom of the page lets you enter a keyword for the information you wants to find.

Public or private wiki?

Today, two types of wikies exist: public wikies and corporate wikies. Public wikies were developed first and are freewheeling forums with few controls. In the last year or two, corporations have been harnessing the power of wikies to provide interactive forums for tracking projects and communicating with employees over their in-house intranets.

Numerous vendors host “wiki farms” on the Internet where people can set up a public wiki. Some sell a version of their software for use on a private intranet. These versions include the security and audit trail features that corporations need.

To see the power and utility of a wiki, check out the lengthy, footnoted entry for George W. Bush or John Kerry on one of the most popular public wikies, Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia written, literally, by thousands of people around the world. Wikies exist for thousands of topics (see WorldWideWiki: SwitchWiki), and if one does not exist for your favorite subject, you can start one on it and add it to the list.

Wikies support new types of communications by combining Internet applications and web-sites with human voices. That means people can collaborate online more easily, whether they are working together on a brief or working with a realtor online to tour offices space in another city. Outside the law office, it means customer service representatives can interact with customers more readily, which should advance e-commerce.

Who Invented the Wiki - and Why?

The first wiki was started in 1995 by Ward Cunningham, a programmer who decided to build the most minimal working database possible. The idea was to provide a simple website where programmers could quickly and easily exchange information without waiting for a webmaster to update the site. He named the site “wiki,” after the quick little wiki-wiki shuttle buses in Hawaii.

A wiki is a very simple application. It consists of little more than a set of web pages linked together, with an Edit button and a Search button at the bottom of each page. You add a page by creating a hyperlink. Just put the name of the desired new page inside brackets (e.g., [NewPage]) and hit Save. That creates a “dangling link” (designated by a ? after the page name). Now anyone can click on the link to NewPage? or enter NewPage in the Search field and find it. You can also link to an existing web page by entering the URL. All pages are linked together and you cannot delete a page, though you can remove all the information on it.

Programmers loved the first wiki, Portland Pattern Repository, which is still in operation. Because technology changes so quickly, programmers are constantly faced with questions about new tools and how to use them. A wiki provides a perfect place to go when no one in your organization knows the answer. At the wiki, you either find an answer, or you post a question and tap into the collective intelligence of the programming community. It’s fast, it’s efficient, it’s free and the info is usually pretty good.

New users often criticize public wikies because of their simplicity and lack of formal structure. No one is responsible for the public wiki. No one is the Editor. No menus or navigation buttons exist. Nothing tells you to “start here,” since there is no table of contents and nothing tells you when you have covered all the material about a topic. Because there is no index, it is possible to overlook related topics if you don’t happen to think of a particular keyword.

Essentially, using a wiki is like walking around a law office asking a question to different people and then following-up with whomever they recommend. It’s a useful exercise and you generally get decent answers. However, it has its drawbacks and limitations.

A public wiki survives thanks to the initiative, honesty, and integrity of its users. Sites can be vandalized, derogatory remarks—called “flames”—can be posted, and misinformation can be published. However, a vandalized site can be restored, a flame can be erased, and information can be corrected by anyone who knows better. The community polices itself.

How are Corporate Wikies Different?

Corporate wikies differ from public wikies in that they are more secure and have many more navigation, usage and help features. Corporate wikies are used for project management and company communications and well as discussion sites and knowledge databases.

For example, a wiki can be established for a particular project with the project team given access to update the status of tasks and add related documents and spreadsheets. Its central location makes it easy to keep everyone informed and up-to-date regardless of their home office, location or time zone. It’s more reliable than continually emailing updates back and forth to the team members, it’s faster than email since updates are available instantly, and it more efficient than email since each team member does not have to maintain his or her own copies. Managers like wikies because they can see what progress the team is making or what issues it is facing without getting involved or raising concern.

For security reasons, corporations usually buy wiki software, rather than lease space on the Internet, and set it up the wiki behind the company’s firewall as part of an intranet or as an extranet if customers or vendors are allowed access. Also, corporations look for wiki software that has authorization and password safeguards, ‘roll-back’ versions so information can be restored to its former state, and easy upload capabilities for documents and images. Some wikies notify users when new information is added, an especially nice feature for corporate projects where fast responses are required.

Play in the Sandbox

Many wiki vendors let you “play in their sandbox.” That is, play on the demo site they provide online. The demo site is wiped clean once a day, so your changes are not permanent. Try it at the Editme demo site. Some wiki farms offer free public wiki sites as long and the number of pages stays small. Many offer free trials for 30-days and lease sites for as little as $5 a month, with charges increasing based on the number of user IDs and the amount of space used. PC Magazine recommends Editme and several other sites, including SeedWiki and Socialtext Workspace. No one vendor seems to dominate this young industry as yet and you should search online for the vendor that provides the features and security capabilities you want.

Learn more

Ward Cunningham’s book, The Wiki Way, written with Bo Leuf, is the bible for this genre of application, but to really understand the wiki, you need to use one. Try this temporary one set up at Seed Wiki just for LLRX readers.

Wikies add a new dimension of ease to exchange information and collaborating on projects. As they evolve and proliferate, they are certain to change the way we communicate with our colleagues, our fellow hobbyist, our elected officials and, even, strangers around the world. Once again, the Internet offers us a way to enlarge our world.