What's a Wiki?

A wiki (pronounced “wickie”) is a website designed to allow visitors to freely add, edit, remove, comment on, and just generally change the content stored there. It's basically a type of content management system, or CMS, operated by a crowd. The content is typically a set of documents or web pages that has been collectively written and edited by anyone allowed access to the site.

Users access wikis through their web browsers. The wiki sites can be set up on servers connected to the public Internet or on private company networks called intranets. Wikis can be open and public, allowing anyone with an Internet connection and a web browser to join in, or private and limited to specified groups.

Although it's true that some wikis welcome all comers, most provide access to relatively small groups or membership-based communities. But anyone within the group can edit any page with complete freedom.

Wiki pages are edited in “real time,” which means that the changes you make appear on the document as you're making them. But users write and edit wiki documents asynchronously, which means that all the participants don't have to be there at the same time.

Some Famous (and Not Yet Famous) Wikis

Once you start looking around for them, wikis will start popping up all over the web. There are thousands of them, and you'll wonder how you missed them! You'll find reference wikis; wikis on movies, TV, and books; food and drink wikis; and wikis with a political bent.

Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), of course, is the most famous wiki, but there are thousands of them up and running today on the web, on individual desktops, and behind corporate firewalls. You might have heard of the Wiktionary (www.wiktionary.org), for example, which is a free, Wikipedia-style online dictionary. WikiAnswers (www.wiki.answers.com) is a community-generated “social knowledge” question-and-answer platform. There's LingWiki (http://lingwiki.com), which is used by language experts. And Wikidweb (www.wikidweb.com) is an online directory of wikis.

But all wikis aren't just about replacing the dusty reference books stacked up on your refrigerator. There's the Marvel Database (http://marvel.wikia.com), a wiki devoted to Marvel comics and the Marvel Universe. The CookbookWiki (http://recipes.wikia.com) is filled with recipes and usergenerated and edited articles about food. And there's the Criminal Minds (http://criminalmindswiki.wetpaint.com) fan wiki, for example, that's full of user-generated-and-edited articles about the popular TV show.

Wikis are popping up on health related subjects, too. The Diabetes Wikia (http://diabetes.wikia.com), for example, features articles about diabetic treatments and products, as well as “stories of personal triumph.” The QuitSmoking wiki (http://quitsmoking.wikia.com/wiki/Quit_Smoking) is a place where former smokers and smokers who are trying to quit share their experiences, advice, and opinions on topics ranging from nicotine withdrawal to the benefits of quitting, and cancer to asthma. And WikiDoc (www.wikidoc.org) bills itself as “the original medical wiki/encyclopedia.”

Don't confuse Wikimedia, the foundation behind Wikipedia, with Me-diaWiki, the wiki engine developed for the foundation and used to run Wikipedia. First released in 2002, MediaWiki is one of the top wiki engines and runs most of the wiki hosting sites. The name was a play on “Wikimedia,” and many people find it to be annoyingly confusing.

Political wikis are also starting to show up on the web. Conservapedia (www.conservapedia.com) for example, which, as the name implies, assembles collections of articles and images with a conservative point of view. WikiRoots (http://grassroots.wikia.com) is a grassroots political-action wiki. And the Opinion Wiki (http://opinion.wikia.com) site assembles a range of political opinion articles.


The first wiki came online, believe it or not, in 1995, and it's still up and running today! Its creator, software engineer Ward Cunningham, originally described it as “the simplest online database that could possibly work.” He created it to host a collaborative discussion of software programming patterns. The site still lives on the server of the Portland Pattern Repository.

Cunningham is also credited with coining the term “wiki.” The story goes that he was inspired by the name of the speedy Wiki Wiki Shuttle bus system at the Honolulu International Airport. He called his first wiki Wiki-WikiWeb (“wikiwiki” means “real quick”). It's a techie site focused on software development, and today includes tens of thousands of pages. You can check it out here: http://c2.com/cgi-bin/wiki.

Cunningham is clear about what he sees as the chief benefits of wikis. On his WikiWikiWeb, he writes: “Allowing everyday users to create and edit any page in a website is exciting in that it encourages democratic use of the web and promotes content composition by nontechnical users.”

Patrick Mueller is most often credited with striking out with the first wiki “clone.” A clone is another version of a software program that is very similar or heavily inspired by the original. Mueller is a software engineer best known for his contributions to the open source WebKit browser engine project.

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