Wiki Wiki Web

wiki. To hurry, hasten; quick, fast, swift.

–Hawaiian Dictionary, Revised and Enlarged Edition

What is Wiki?

A Wiki Wiki Web is a web site that the users build for themselves.

Even the inventor of Wiki doesn’t quite know how to define it, but it could be described as a system for collaborative web publishing that allows web site visitors to edit and update web pages. Visitors edit the site through their browsers with no need for any special tools or even any knowledge of HTML. It allows people to contribute actively to the information provided by the site - maybe making a correction, adding new content, or venturing a different opinion.

Tim Berners-Lee invented the web back in the early 90s, and at that time his vision included allowing users to make private annotations to content and also to edit the content itself (see Somewhere along the line the web turned into a more passive experience and people who wanted to create web content had to learn HTML and publish via a quite separate process. Some say that Wiki is the realisation of Berners-Lee’s original idea.

Wiki is often used to refer to both a web site published using Wiki technology and the program that produces the site. To a large extent they are two views of the same thing.

“Edit” allows “Delete”

Of course, if anyone can edit that means anyone can delete. At first this seems like a major problem - what’s to stop some vandal from going in and erasing the lot?

In the first place, it’s quite tedious to go through and delete whole pages by hand. A determined person could probably write a script to do the work automatically, but even that wouldn’t do the trick - Wiki keeps a track of all changes and can rollback to a previous state if this sort of thing happens. The Wiki owner can also bar users by their IP address if they continually behave in an anti-social manner. And the threat from crackers is minimal - where there is no security to crack, there is no challenge.

Participants on the Wikis don’t seem to be worried about the ability to delete - “There are too many Wiki writers and not enough Wiki erasers” ( In fact, it is one of the strengths of Wiki - make a worthwhile contribution and it stays, but write rubbish and someone will erase it. Tough but fair. It is for this reason that “flame wars” are almost non-existent on Wikis because as quickly as someone says something inflammatory, a cooler head edits it away (or at least makes it less combustible). “WikiSpam” is also quickly eradicated.

Wiki vs Usenet

With many people contributing to a common discussion, Wiki sounds a lot like newsgroups. They are a similar idea but the biggest problem with newsgroups is the very high “noise-to-signal” ratio. Much traffic in newsgroups and mailing lists is generated by participants who take unexpected tangents, make side comments (go “off-topic”), or abuse (”flame”) other participants. So to find really useful information on newsgroups often requires trawling through pages of guff.

Moderated lists limit this problem but the thread-based structure of newsgroups leads to a problem that Tim Berners-Lee identified back in 1989:

[A newsgroup] is a very useful method of pooling expertise, but suffers from the inflexibility of a tree[-like structure]. Typically, a discussion under one newsgroup will develop into a different topic, at which point it ought to be in a different part of the tree.

Because all users of a Wiki are free to edit, new topics start in natural places and the problem of strange fruit in the newsgroup tree is avoided.

How Wiki Works

Because Wiki pages are just like any other web pages, it is possible to visit a Wiki without even knowing it. The key signs of a Wiki are that most links appear in “MixedCase” and there is a link at the bottom of every page that says something like “EditText of this page” - an invitation rarely found elsewhere! All Wikis also have a built-in site search facility and the ability to find “back links” (other pages that link to the current page) usually by clicking the title at the top of the page.

When you click “EditText of this page” a text editing box opens where you can cut-and-paste, write and rearrange. There are a few text formatting rules, the most important is how to link to another page in the Wiki: simply enter the name of the target page in MixedCase. Linking isn’t limited to pages in the Wiki - if you type in a URL, Wiki will make a link to that page automatically. All Wikis provide text formatting instructions and a SandBox page where you can experiment before you edit a real page.

Wiki vs Blog

All of this simplified, in-browser editing sounds a lot like Blogging. Weblogs (Blogs) have received a lot of attention over the past few years, and on the surface they seem to provide something similar to Wiki - a simplified web publishing framework that focuses on content creation over HTML coding. While it is possible to run a Blog using Wiki technology, it is not possible to run a true Wiki using Blogging tools. They are essentially different. Where Blogs emphasise the personality and creativity of the author, Wiki is inherently a collaborative effort where consensus (or at least balanced argument) is encouraged. The discussion and debate focus of Wiki was never intended to provide the same (often dubious) entertainment value of the personal Blog.

The use of a Wiki for personal web space is not welcomed by Wikizens. WikiSquatting (claiming part of a Wiki for personal use) and the creation WalledGardens (sub-sections with little linking to the rest of the Wiki) are generally frowned upon, and any attempts edited away by the community.

A vast range of uses

There are now Wikis available that cover a wide range of topics - see for a sample. Wiki is also used in education (e.g. and business (e.g. Implementing Blogs using Wiki is also a popular idea (e.g. and

An excellent application of Wiki can be found in Wikipedia (, an open encyclopaedia. Wikipedia claims to be the biggest Wiki in the world. It even includes a throw-back to the early days of the web - the “Random Page” link. (Ah, nostalgia!)

Those interested in exploring Wiki should experience the original: WikiWikiWeb at While the focus of the WikiWikiWeb is Design Patterns for Programming there is plenty of background information on Wiki and computers in general. The WikiWikiWeb seems to be the unofficial hub of all things Wiki.

The experience of Wiki

Wiki seems to offer everything that is good about newsgroups without the spam, flames and rigid hierarchical structure. Ironically the lack of structure in Wiki can be frustrating at first. Wiki writers love to link, which produces pages with seemingly millions of links - often to the same pages repeatedly. From the writer’s perspective this is not a bad idea - there is no knowing how the page will be revised in future and all other links to another important page might be removed. From the reader’s side it takes a little getting used to.

However Wikis are not a completely unstructured mess - they are partly organised by “Category” pages, which are a set of pages that group other pages with similar content. By convention links to category pages are placed at the bottom of the page. Readers find all pages in a category by clicking the page title of the category page, which exploits the back link feature to show all pages linked to that category page. This seems a simple but elegant method of adding some structure. Some Wikis are also looking at other possible indexing schemes (e.g.

Wikis also provide other navigational devices, for example the site search facility is usually excellent and the front page of a Wiki typically has a few suggested starting points to help new visitors. Probably the most visited page in every Wiki is RecentChanges - a catalogue of recently edited pages and certainly worth checking if you want to find the hot topics on the Wiki.

Wiki is not necessarily the Answer. Some people have had trouble getting Wikis established, especially in business environments. To be successful a Wiki needs both active participation and interesting content. But that’s a chicken-and-egg problem - to get interesting content a Wiki needs active participants, but active participants are more attracted to interesting content. Clearly not every new Wiki thrives.

A Wiki of your own?

For the technically-minded, setting up a Wiki site is a fairly simple affair and the original open-source Wiki program has been cloned into a vast array of programming languages - from ASP to Zope (see

If the technical side doesn’t interest you there are “WikiFarms” that will host your Wiki for you (see Either way it is not too hard to start up a Wiki community of your very own.

First published: PC Update July 2003 (online version updated)