Simple, Collaborative, Quick: Wiki Websites
Welcome to Wikipedia
"Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit."
The first time I read that greeting at the top of the Wikipedia home page, I thought: "no way could this possibly work." Encyclopedias are authoritative references, written by experts and frozen on the printed page. They are not written and edited by volunteers off the street. But Wikipedia has proven otherwise. Its articles are often extremely informative-on a wide range of topics including some that ordinary encyclopedias wouldn't consider. As for accuracy, Wikipedia may not be absolutely authoritative, but it comes close enough to get respect. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, for example, repeatedly cited Wikipedia as a reference in his new book The World Is Flat: A Brief History Of The Twenty-first Century. (Wikipedia has returned the favor with an article on Friedman.)
But this low-tech approach has some big advantages. For creating an online, collaborative knowledgebase, Wikis are unsurpassed, and their potential on the Web is only now being understood. Wikis encourage people to work together-you can start out looking for information and suddenly turn into a contributor. In the Web family tree, wikis appear to be close cousins to blogs. But whereas a blog is read serially with a beginning and an end, a wiki is navigated via hyperlinks in any order that makes sense. A blog is indelible-once written, it remains static on the page. A wiki is a work-in-progress: the text you read today may be changed-presumably for the better-tomorrow. (A few people have experimented with a hybrid blog/
Wiki Wiki Web
Programmer Ward Cunningham created the first wiki, the Wiki Wiki Web, and it is still online, in all its stark beauty. The first time I stumbled onto it, I looked for a definition of what I was seeing. It is all there-wiki history, theory, design principles, why wikis work and why they don't-but there are no navigation tools, no local search engine. Everything and is found via hyperlink, and at times the experience feels like the early computer game "Adventure" in which you thread your way through a "maze of twisty little passages." If you don't find what you are looking for, keep clicking. Where did the name wiki come from? I move from "Welcome Visitors" to "Ward's Wiki" to "Front Page" to "Wiki Wiki Web Faq" and there near the bottom is the answer. "Wiki" means "quick" in Hawaiian. Cunningham first saw the term "Wiki Wiki" on a Hawaiian airport shuttle bus, which, in a rare departure for Wiki Wiki Web, is illustrated with picture link.
Wiki Wiki Web demonstrates the usefulness of the wiki format among a small user community. Wikipedia has proven that Cunningham's idea is massively scalable. At this writing, Wikipedia has more than 700,000 English-language articles, with more than 50,000 articles in the Japanese, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Swedish versions. Along the way, the site has spawned its own open source wiki engine, MediaWiki, that others have used to create their own wikis.
Based on PHP with a MySQL back-end, MediaWiki is one of several engines for creating wikis. Others are largely based on Java, .Net, Python, and Perl. But MediaWiki has become something of a standard of because of its high visibility via Wikipedia. "One of the good things about wikis is that they reduce barriers to entry for people making contributions," says Michael Mahemoff, who runs the wiki site AjaxPatterns.
MediaWiki has adapted and improved upon Cunningham's original idea. There are still plenty of hyperlinks, but users also get a search engine. Discussion about an article listing is separated from the topic itself. Perhaps most importantly, each page also contains a history of changes to that page. Users can compare any version with any other, viewing all edits. Because earlier versions are preserved, a page can be easily reverted to an earlier state-and anyone can do that. This quick reversion discourages both vandalism and just plain dumb entries. The tabs to do all this-edit, view history, view discussion, as well as watch the page for changes-are consistently implemented across the site, whether an article entry or a user's personal page.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales says that the biggest lesson from operating Wikipedia has been in trying to keep the site "as open as we can with as little security as possible. That really empowers people to get involved." He says that restaurants aren't built with cages around the tables, even though a lunatic could stab you with his steak knife. Similarly, websites should be designed on the presumption that the good people well outnumber the bad ones. "A lot of web forums, for example, struggle with the issue of spam because the only people who get to delete spam are the moderators or owners of the website. That privilege is not given out broadly, whereas as with Wikipedia, we don't worry about spam because the privilege of deleting it is given out universally. The basic idea is that if you trust people then you don't need to build these kinds of barriers."
An extreme case of Wikipedia openness is the users' personal pages. "At one time there was a discussion about whether we should lock those pages: after all, why should other people be editing them? But there was a big outcry from the old school Wikipedians, including me. We said: 'no, no, no, you don't understand-that's a big part of the culture.' A lot of us edit our user page to say very explicitly: 'this is my user page. It's about me, but I trust you, whomever you are, to make good edits here. If you are going to edit this page I expect you to do something good, not something harmful.' This idea is to foster a body of knowledge and collaboration rather than a society of paranoia and suspicion. To me, that's one of the big lessons learned from wiki-that most people are actually good. Yes, there are a few jerks out there, but all you have to do is empower the good people to do something about it. You don't have to lock up the whole site."
A seeming exception to Wales' theory was a short-lived experiment from the Los Angeles Times. "Wikitorials"-newspaper editorials that anyone could edit-lasted all of three days before an inundation of pornographic images and foul language sunk it. Wales said that the LA Times experience provided a valuable lesson because of the few things they did wrong. The biggest problem was that they didn't start slow. The newspaper extended the invitation to all its online readers, "but the people who came didn't really know about wikis and the culture behind it. To compound the error, they hid the recent changes section so that well-meaning newcomers who saw the vandalism didn't know how to get the history and see what had changed." Another problem was that the newspaper took the conventional approach of administrating the site from within, resulting in too few people overseeing it. "When they eventually shut it down, it was because those administrators needed to go to sleep. By contrast, at Wikipedia we have tons of people who are empowered to do things, who know the culture."
Wales also pointed out that editorials are inherently ill suited to the wiki format because editorial pieces are not really collaborative. "We know from experience that doing opinion pieces collaboratively is really hard," he said. "Stating factual background information is a lot easier." Two people with polar-opposite views on the topic of abortion should, at least in theory, still be able to collaborate on a Wikipedia entry that gives both sides of the debate. But the same two people would probably kill each other before they agreed on an editorial, whose intent is to argue the "right" point of view.
Wales says that a newspaper wiki would do better starting out with just a handful of people who perhaps met on a forum, who get together in a restricted environment to build the wiki site for themselves. Once the site get going, they can then open it to the public while retaining, and later extending, administrative privileges. This method of community- building strongly resembles that of open source development: begin with a nucleus of people and expand from there. "By the time you open to the public, you've got people you trust enough to have administrative privileges to make decisions."
Wales also cautions against over-automation. "A lot of people working in this area are programmers, and by their constitutional nature, programmers like to automate everything." For example, a site might automatically promote people to administrator status just because they write five-star articles, even though the skill sets are very different. It's better, he says, to keep that on a human level. Online democracy can be messy, but as Wikipedia proves, it still works better than the alternatives.
Beyond Wikipedia: VOIP, accounting, and travel
Wikipedia and its MediaWiki engine have spawned sister wiki sites: a dictionary ("Wiktionary"), directory of species ("Wikispecies"), and list of interesting quotations ("Wikiquote"). But the universe of wikis is much larger than that and growing.
Jim Thompson started VOIP-info.
"On the site, we welcome anyone willing to contribute useful information-whether corporate or personal," he said. "For commercial contributors, I ask that they contribute information, not advertisements, and that they do not alter the content of other companies. For the most part it has worked very well. Occasionally someone will try to take advantage of the system, but since all of the users of voip-info.
One of the few businesses to successfully launch a wiki site is Intuit, the maker of America's most popular accounting software packages-Quicken and QuickBooks. After consulting with Wales, the company set up TaxAlmanac.
"We learned from Jimmy that a group of people who are passionate about a topic can create very accurate repositories of information," said Intuit's Toby Joplin in an email exchange. Joplin is an Intuit senior product manager and one of the three people who launched the site. "Jimmy encouraged us to seed the site with some content, so we seeded TaxAlmanac with the Internal Revenue code and Treasury regulations, as well as some articles from Intuit's internal tax professionals. And he encouraged us to manage the site 'loosely,' giving people enough freedom to evolve the site rather than taking an inside/
At this writing, TaxAlmanac now includes more than 8,000 articles and has received more than 750,000 page views and 71,000 edits since it began last April. Articles cover the gamut of tax issues in the U.
Another MediaWiki-generated site is WikiTravel, founded by Evan Prodromou and his wife, Michele "Maj" Ann Jenkins Prodromou in Montreal. They were inspired to create the site after getting a bad recommendation from a guidebook for a so-called great hotel on the Thai island of Koh Sumet. The couple had hoisted their backpacks and walked over to where the hotel was supposed to be, but instead found an empty field with a bunch of wooden boards sticking out of the ground. They realized that not only were they misled by the information, but potentially so were hundreds, if not thousands, of other travelers who might do this detour before the guidebook was fixed.
They realized a web-based resource would correct the problem immediately. "But most of what we saw were in forum-oriented formats," Evan recalled. That meant you had to know what you were looking for. The wiki format seemed a better idea. "I had worked with a couple of wikis for technical documentation on different open source projects, and I also knew what a great resource Wikipedia is. I thought: if this can work on a large scale for Wikipedia, we can make it work for travel guides." WikiTravel launched in July 2003.
In keeping with Wales' slow-growth philosophy, Evan first restricted WikiTravel to friends, family, and business associates. "My father does a lot of work on WikiTravel. We have a lot of friends and family who work on it." Michelle does freelance travel writing, as well as working on a degree in library and information science, "so she recruited a lot of people who work as travel writers. But now word has gotten out, and the vast majority of people who work on WikiTravel are people we've never met." But the trusted community already in place has kept spammers out. "It's so counter-intuitive," he says. "Everyone who has worked on the Web for the past 10 years understands that you need to lock things up. But if you give the majority of the users power to control how content works, the vast majority of them are concerned with keeping it accurate, up-to-date, and readable. If you get an involved, interested community, they are going to do that for you if they feel empowered."
MediaWiki, plus and minus
Prodromou calls MediaWiki "the gold standard for wiki engines in 2005." The drawback, he says, is that the wiki engine is principally developed for Wikipedia and is only secondarily useful for other wikis. " I think everybody agrees that when making revisions, Wikipedia comes first." I suggested that perhaps Media Wiki was in need of a Red Hat-a for-profit organization that supported the open source software. "That's in interesting idea," he said. "I think it's gotten to the point where someone could do that if they wanted to. If someone was a smart investor, they would probably start looking at some of those great developers that are working part-time on MediaWiki right now and give them full time jobs."
Wales-who is a great believer in giving both sides of an argument-gives some other pluses and minuses of MediaWiki. "It's free, licensed under GPL [the GNU General Public Library]. Clearly it's a good choice if you want to have an installation that can scale to be a really large project. I don't know any other wiki software that's designed to run on 90 servers at once. It has also withstood the test of time. For example, the hierarchy of awarding privileges has been very carefully tweaked over the years."
On the other hand, he says, "We don't do as good a job in integrating into corporate networks using LDAP [Lightweight Directory Access Protocol] and password protection. We do have our own password system but it doesn't integrate well with anything else-because our developers don't care. We also don't do a good job dealing with spam-which is especially a problem on smaller wiki installations. On Wikipedia, if somebody starts a spam blog [an automated blog that exists solely to send spam] on lots of articles, their blogs are reverted virtually instantaneously on Wikipedia," because so many Wikipedians stand vigilant. But smaller wikis don't have that advantage. Wales recalls an artificial intelligence research group in Croatia that put up a wiki for internal collaboration, but left it completely open to the public. "One weekend there were more than 10,000 new pages created. These were computer people so they went straight into the database and deleted all those pages at once, but otherwise they would have had to manually delete each one. So we need better support techniques for stopping spammers quickly when nobody is looking."
Further out, programmers may give wiki engines a more sophisticated back-end that makes the interface even simpler. Michael Mahemoff, the programmer behind AjaxPatterns.
JotSpot-a Commercial Wiki Environment
While most wiki engines are free, JotSpot has taken the idea commercial. The idea came about after founders Joe Krauss and Graham Spencer had sold their search engine company, Excite, and began using a wiki to track some of some of their joint investment and philanthropy activities. The more they used it, the more they liked the format-eventually coming out of retirement to launch a new company. JotSpot, which has grown almost exclusively from word-of-mouth, is mostly used internally by companies doing in-house collaboration. JotSpot is primarily a hosted service-although some larger customers, including Disney and Hewlett-Packard, run a client version behind their firewall.
Ken Norton, JotSpot's vice president in charge of products, says the program can be mastered by anyone who knows how to use a browser and Microsoft Word-no HTML experience is necessary. Another twist on the conventional wiki model: users can email any page in the wiki to anyone else-a good way to get comments. And each wiki page itself has an email address: messages sent become comments on the page.
"We have everything from people who run churches and use the wiki to keep track of upcoming schedules and donations, to lots of people who are using JotSpot to manage projects," Norton said. Some customers run their Intranets and Extranets on JotSpot, coordinating with employees and outside suppliers and contractors, among others. Password protection is flexible-a firm could restrict different sections to different classes of users, for example.
As for public sites powered by JotSpot-the company can claim one: the website of startup company Rojo, which makes an RSS reader. The cleanly designed, text-oriented site seems perfect for a text-oriented company. Norton says that other companies have used JotSpot to host portions of their site-such as a conference.
Some Wiki Guidelines
Wikis vary widely in content, but wiki hosts largely agree on a few key points.
Start small, with a trusted community, and then grow from there.
- That core group is often the most interested and knowledgeable about the wiki's topic. They can become the source of the site's brain trust, as well as the best defense against vandalism and stupid posts.
Consider launching an auxiliary wiki site.
- Intuit's TaxAlmanac.
org wiki site is linked to the company's home page. But the two are otherwise separate. Other ways to begin: an internal site for collaborating on a project; a temporary site for organizing a conference.
Encourage broad participation.
- A big advantage of a wiki is that a page can start with a few awkward sentences, contributed by a beginner, and grow from there. People have different skills: some experts write terrible prose. Many great editors are generalists. The best way to grow is to get all of them to jump in.
- This sounds like a contradiction to the above, but with wikis, both are possible. As the Wiki Wiki Web puts it: "Wiki gets hit by the great unwashed as often as any other site - but to make an impact on Wiki, you need to generate real content. Anything else will be removed. So anyone can play, but only good players remain."
Resolve disputes by getting all sides heard.
- Wikis by nature are reference works, not editorials. When people disagree-and they will-document the disagreement.