www.world of give-and-take

July 21, 2006

Jonathan Bowen visits a fast-growing and influential virtual community

The computer term "wiki" derives from the Hawaiian word wiki-wiki , meaning "fast". It has been coined to describe a relatively new style of web technology enabling freely and interactively updatable content, quite close to how Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web in 1989-90, originally envisioned the use of the web. Berners-Lee hoped that people would contribute to the web as well as use information gleaned from it. In practice, generating web pages was initially much more difficult than simply reading them and following hyperlinks to new pages. Thus, the vast majority of people became consumers of web information rather than providers.

Web technology has developed rapidly in the past decade. To begin with, web pages were hard-coded static files. Nowadays, most web pages on major websites are generated dynamically on the fly from a database. Information may normally be added by editors with minimal technical expertise using a content management system, typically via an interactive web interface.

New types of technology to make web information provision relatively easy have developed even more rapidly. For example, weblogs ("blogs") allow people with no knowledge of the underlying technology to create online diaries. These are a form of one-to-many communication. Wikis, on the other hand, are a form of many-to-many communication. They potentially allow anyone to add and update entries on a website in a collaborative manner. As such, wikis have the ability to form virtual communities of users and contributors if there is enough interest in the content.

The first wiki was WikiWikiWeb ( www.c2.com/cgi/wiki ), started in 1995 and still in existence, developed by Ward Cunningham. Today, there are a significant number of wiki software systems available, free and commercial, and also many wiki-based websites, both public and private.

Probably the most successful and visible example of a wiki is Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org). It is an online encyclopedia, started in 2001 by an American, Jimmy Wales, who was previously a successful futures and options trader. An earlier online encyclopedia, Nupedia, failed, mainly because it maintained significant control of entries, enforcing registration of contributors and peer review of articles, which made it difficult to achieve a critical mass of contributions.

With Wikipedia, there is minimal control over the ability of users to create new material and edit existing entries. Instead, a system of informally generated procedures allows a consensus to be reached in cases where there is disagreement, using a social rather than technology-driven process. For example, if there are difficulties or disputes, administrators ("Wikipedians") can lock pages, ban users and so on, if necessary, after suitable warnings have been given.

At first sight, the idea that anyone can update a website such as Wikipedia at will might seem like a recipe for disaster. Vandalism of pages can and does occur, but only to a limited extent. In practice, once a critical mass of contributors has been reached, there are enough people checking entries for inappropriate changes to make the quality of the core parts of the site remarkably good. Important pages are corrected within minutes and even other pages tend to be corrected before very long. A history of an entry, with a convenient way of comparing changes, is kept and can be used to revert to a previous version of a page very easily. A survey comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica published in Nature (December 15, 2005) using experts to check selected science entries found that the number of errors was similar in the two encyclopedias - much to the consternation of the long-established and well-respected encyclopedia. What is more, Wikipedia, through its instantly updatable nature, is also able to respond to changing events in a very timely manner.

Wiki: Web Collaboration is one of the remarkably few books on the subject of wikis available, although I am sure more will appear over the next year or two. It is written by three multidisciplinary authors from Germany, two with an information science background. The book is a mix of informal and technical information - more technical than informal. By way of introduction, there is some worthwhile sociological and philosophical background to wikis. However, the major part of the book provides practical information on how to set up and run a wiki. Two major wiki systems are covered, MediaWiki, the underlying software for Wikipedia, and TWiki, an arguably more powerful alternative. Both are freely available pieces of software.

The writing style of the book varies somewhat, which is not surprising with three authors involved. The content is divided into five parts. The first, forming a single chapter, gives a useful and accessible introduction to the concept of wikis. No great technological expertise is necessary here to gain some insight into wikis.

Maintaining a wiki, as opposed to contributing to one, requires considerable expertise. Part two presents the authors' first-hand experiences of installing a wiki system (MediaWiki). It moves straight into the technical details in a series of eight chapters. For someone contemplating installing and maintaining a MediaWiki-based wiki website, this is worthwhile material. The core of the information required is presented. But this material is mostly not to be recommended to a less specialised reader. However, some chapters give information on generating content for MediaWiki that would be useful for Wikipedia contributors, especially those new to the mark-up needed to create content, which is simple but needs to be learnt. There is a chapter on administration for those who have to maintain a MediaWiki website, but this is for only the very technically minded.

The third part is similar to part two but covers TWiki, another wiki. This provides more sophisticated permission and administration options than MediaWiki. It also allows "plugins", giving more possibility of programmable interactive functionality on wiki pages. Unlike MediaWiki, TWiki is written using a scripting language and does not use a database to store pages. Instead they are stored as normal files in a standard directory structure. Again, separate chapters on installing, using and administering a TWiki system are included.

Part four continues with more detailed use of TWiki for use in aiding a project. This part is more specific and thus perhaps less generally useful than the rest of the book. The final part is a single chapter considering the future of wikis, both from a technological and sociological point of view. A short appendix gives additional information on installing TWiki, followed by a glossary, bibliography and brief index. Finally, there is a CD with wiki software at the end of the book, although anyone with a good internet connection would probably do best to download this software online, to ensure they have the latest version.

The book is likely to disappoint anyone expecting a general overview of wikis. Most of it is dedicated specifically to MediaWiki and TWiki. I would recommend readers who do not intend to use either of these two systems to read the start and end of the book only.

The future of wikis looks increasingly promising. The number of Wikipedia entries is growing dramatically. The English version of Wikipedia currently has about 1.25 million entries, far more than the Encyclopaedia Britannica .

Of course, many articles are not of top quality, but the core parts of Wikipedia are now good enough and certainly comprehensive enough to form a very useful resource. It is also a multilingual resource, with ten language versions having more than 100,000 entries.

Related wiki projects, supported by the WikiMedia Foundation, include Wiktionary (a dictionary), Wikibooks (free online collaboratively written books), Wikiquote (quotations), Wikisource (an online library of free content publications), Wikispecies (a directory of animal and plant species), Wikinews (new articles provided by users), Commons (media files, especially images) and Meta-Wiki (a website about all the various WikiMedia Foundation projects).

The study of wikis is an interesting interdisciplinary area with both sociological and technological facets. There is much scope for further investigation of the rapidly ramifying world of wiki-based virtual communities.

Jonathan Bowen is chairman of Museophile Limited.

Wiki: Web Collaboration

Author - Anja Ebersbach, Markus Glaser and Richard Heigl
Publisher - Springer
Pages - 383
Price - £38.50
ISBN - 3 540 25995 3

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