The World of Wikis

Online community changes the way we manage information

When people hear the word wiki, they usually think of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia founded in 2001. Through the work of volunteer contributors, Wikipedia has become the world’s most popular online encyclopedia, with more than 5.3 million articles in more than 100 different languages written by 3.5 million “Wikipedians.”
Wikipedia is easy. But when it comes to defining a wiki, people have a more difficult time. A wiki is simply a Website created using the same collaborative server software as Wikipedia, called a “wiki engine.” The site will look similar to a Wikipedia entry, and like Wikipedia, anyone can edit it. But will run on its own server, completely separate from the encyclopedia. Wikis can be used to create a public or private Website for a business, school, or other organization.

Wikis can also help small businesses as a revenue source. Because they are easier than HTML to manage and update on a regular basis, wikis can work as a form of real-time product advertising. “It’s dynamic and can be done extremely quickly and results are immediate,” says Joley Wood, assistant director at the University of Virginia’s writing center.

Wood says he created a MediaWiki to make it easier for his writing group to update and manage collaborative information. “It gives everyone a bit more of a say in the content that’s provided,” he says. Wood, author of Living Lost: Why We’re All Stuck on the Island (Garrett County Press; $14.95), adds that “the information “doesn’t have to pass any kind of inspection beforehand if you trust employees to put good content up.”

That ease of use is also one of the major criticisms of Wikipedia’s open-source platform; the site has periodically experienced vandalism on public pages, especially in entries on celebrities. For users concerned with vandalism, there are two options: put the wiki on a company intranet, where it will be accessible only to employees, or put it onto a public server but restrict access to certain pages (or to the entire site). On the intranet, the wiki can provide company information such as news and daily updates. For public wikis, users can link to WikiNodes, which are pages on wikis that describe related wikis, or they can link the site to pages on Wikipedia for more exposure–a practice that is frowned upon.

“Posting information is pretty easy,” says Brian Corr, owner and principal of the Cambridge Consulting Services Group and a Wikipedia bureaucrat and administrator. “The interface is designed so anyone can go edit. You don’t have to know anything about Web pages.”

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