Wikis' Winning Ways

You may have heard of Weblogs, but chances are wikis haven't hit your radar yet. Both are rapidly evolving examples of what some call social software -- programs that foster a connection to other people and, if they work well, a thriving community.
Written by Robert D. Hof, Contributor

You may have heard of Weblogs, but chances are wikis haven't hit your radar yet. Both are rapidly evolving examples of what some call social software -- programs that foster a connection to other people and, if they work well, a thriving community. Whereas blogs enable individuals to post a regular chronicle of their thoughts and interests online, wikis are fairly focused Web sites compiled and constantly edited by a dedicated group of people -- all of whom can not only post material to the site but edit it at will.

Lately, wikis have caught on with teams inside corporations. They're using wikis as a speedy way to collaborate without having to endure endless back-and-forth e-mail exchanges or dealing with complex and expensive groupware, such as IBM's Lotus Notes. Before long, wikis may come to a computer screen near you.

WHAT'S A WIKI? With a relatively obscure technology like this, it helps to have a guide. Necessarily, this tour covers only the public ones. Corporate wikis that are for internal use only are almost always hidden behind a network firewall. But these public examples provide a sense of why this 10-year-old technology seems to be taking off.

First off, what's with the funny name? Well, if you've ever been to Honolulu Airport, you know the fastest way to travel between terminals is the shuttle buses called Wiki-Wiki, which is the Hawaiian word for "quick."

Oregon programmer Ward Cunningham borrowed the name for the special Web site he invented because he conceived them as a quick way to create and share ideas. His original site is still one of the largest, dedicated to examining the nature of software development, among many other things. Although you can easily find it by Googling his name, he asked that it not be listed here because it's so geeky that he doesn't want just anybody mucking around in it. If you visit anyway, please tread lightly.

RANDOM FUN. Indeed, treading lightly is part of wikis' ethos. Naturally, there's an acronym for it: NPOV, for neutral point of view. Since wikis depend on cooperation to avoid the flame wars that plague everything from e-mail to discussion groups and blogs, many wikis implicitly or explicitly encourage people to contribute material that most people will find objective.

With etiquette out of the way, there's no better place to start a wiki tour than the big kahuna of wikis: Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia with 280,000 articles in English and more than 380,000 more in 49 other languages. Like any encyclopedia, it's fun to just flip through the (virtual) pages. Wikipedia's front page provides both featured articles and a Random Page button so you can browse.

Many articles are uselessly short, sometimes mere placeholders, and some may well contain inaccuracies. But you may be surprised just how good many of the contributions are, whether they're examining the economy of the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau or the nature and construction of pinhole cameras.

THE WEB, CIRCA 1994. The cool thing about anyone being able to contribute to this encyclopedia is that its information doesn't stagnate. The front page has a news section with surprisingly in-depth articles related to current events, such as a biography of new Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. You can click on the button showing changes made to the page and see that within days of its May 19 posting, dozens of people made additions and corrections to try to make sure everything is correct and as complete as possible.

By now, maybe you're thinking you could write a wikipedia article yourself. You can -- but first, it's a good idea to play around in the convenient "sandbox" to see how it works. Go ahead, try it. You won't hurt anything. When you're ready to write your own page on a subject -- and have figured out a topic no one else has started a page on -- get clicking here.

As cool as Wikipedia is, it's just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, on the Web. In some ways, wikis are at about the stage of the Web, circa 1994, when the browser was just getting out into the public domain and pages were both primitive and dominated by nerds' interests. So countless wikis exist about things like the eMac's text-editing software. You can also get a good sense of the scope of corporate wikis, even if you can't get into most of them, at this list of sites using the popular TWiki software.

WIKI FARMS. The many guides to the wiki world are good to check out. One of the most popular is Meatball Wiki, a sort of community conscience for wiki makers and travelers, with tips and philosophical discussion about the nature of online communities. From there, you can hop a ride on Tourbus wiki, which has categorized lists of public wikis.

Feel like taking a trip across the pond? The Open Guide to London has an extensive and ever-changing list of places to see, eat, and generally have fun. If you'd rather just fantasize about places far, far away, check out The Tolkien Wiki for everything related to the Ring. Fans of Star Trek will also enjoy TrekWiki.

Ready to try your hand at creating your own wiki? Geek alert: If you want to go whole hog and download open-source software such as TWiki, you better be pretty technically adept. But the rest of us have a better alternative: hosted wiki services called wiki farms. For corporations willing to shell out significant money for a fairly buttoned-down service, a good start is startup Socialtext.

SIGN AND GO. If you want to test the wiki waters for much less, there's EditMe, which charges $4.95 a month for a hosted service, TeamFlux, which has a quarterly $20 per-person fee, and others.

But many others are free, either for a trial period or for less capable but quite usable services. They include Open Wiki, Seed Wiki, and Swiki.net. You just sign up and go. It's that easy. So when someone brags about their blog at a cocktail party, you can one-up them by waxing lyrical about your wiki.

BusinessWeek Online originally published this article on 28 May 2004.

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