Web Development

Cheat Sheet: Wikis

Free as in speech <i>and</i> free as in beer?
Wiki - I know this one. These are the people with the encyclopaedia, right?
Well, kind of but you're getting ahead of yourself. Before we can get to the Wikipedia - the free encyclopaedia - you need to know what a wiki is.

So, what is it, then?
A wiki is essentially an application that allows anyone who visits a website to tinker with the content on that site. Wiki sites don't tend to be monitored, so posts are instantly accepted - meaning everyone can add, delete or amend existing posts.

The ethos of the wiki is about getting everyone involved - the derivation of the word wiki is from Hawaiian 'wiki wiki', meaning quick or informal, according to the Wikipedia.

We came back to that quickly, didn't we?
We're not there yet. The programming languages used by wikis are designed to embrace the non-techie. Typically, they render HTML into a format that the code-shy will understand - making it a bit more like text editing. One of the more popular such languages is the WikiWikiWeb, although others are having a crack at designing something else even more user friendly.

The first wiki was created in 1995 by Ward Cunningham to manage the Portland Programming Repository, on programming languages. However, the most well-known of all wiki uses is the Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia first came into being in 2001, designed as a free encyclopaedia by the people, for the people, if you will.

The English language version now has more than 678,000 articles on subjects as diverse as processed cheese, Thundercats, Fidel Castro and East Antrim. While the English Wikipedia is the most well-populated, there are Wikipedias in nine other languages, including German, Japanese and Swedish, which have more than 50,000 articles each. There are also an assortment of less populated Wikipedia in languages such as Icelandic, Sanskrit and Walloon.

So if anyone can edit wikis, doesn't that mean they're open to abuse? I could just go in and delete everything or put up a load of rubbish.
That's certainly true. The LA Times experiment with the world of wiki - 'wikitorials', where readers were able to edit the paper's own editorials - was cut short after three days. The reason? Because some scamps posted swear words and porn pics in the middle of discussions about the Iraq war.

Viral marketers and spammers are also known to have edited wikis to promote their products.

There are ways of getting around it - a closed wiki, for example, where only selected users are allowed to alter the content. Another is a system of editors, who constantly review and correct any erroneous entries.

In the spirit of the wiki, deletions tend to be put to a vote to ensure the system can't be hijacked by any one individual.

So is there more to the wiki than just the Wikipedia?
Wikis are currently in use to share a wealth of knowledge about recipes, Debian Linux and the English language, in the form of the Wiktionary.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales also created a list of 10 things that should be free (both free as in speech and free as in beer), including school curricula, TV listings and file formats. Companies are already taking the wiki ethos to many of these subject areas and Wales' Wikibooks offshoot is aiming to tackle the curriculum issues.

As usual, businesses have sensed the potential in free technology and are now offering wiki services.

The way wikis work for businesses, the theory goes, is as a way of cutting down email, IM and communications to-ing and fro-ing by allowing people to collaborate on a project in a more hands-on fashion, with everyone able to see and understand the editing process. It's also seen as simply an easier way to store information in a central location.

The concept is already starting to catch on. Disney is one such company that is using a wiki for business.


Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.