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Research Report by Mike Godwin
(created 8/13/06; version 1.0)
[Status: Draft]

Related Categories: Blog and Content Management Systems (CMS) | Online Knowledge Bases

Original Object for Study description

The wiki is an increasingly popular content management system for organizing widely distributed collaborations over the internet. This report will describe the relevant history and evolution of the wiki, and then consider the technology, interface, and design of MediaWiki as an example of what a wiki is today. While there are literally dozens of implementations of the wiki format, MediaWiki is unique as the engine responsible for the operation of Wikipedia — currently the largest wiki—and as the software supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation Inc.

The word “wiki” was first used in this context by Ward Cunningham in 1995. While in Hawaii, Ward was directed to the “wiki wiki” bus for travel between airport terminals. After looking up the word in a Hawaiian phrase book — “wiki” means quick — he decided against QuickWeb as the name for his new technology and instead christened it the WikiWikiWeb. This story is frequently told, and according to Ward it is no small part of the wiki’s success as a project: “Wikipedia would not be as successful as it is now had I named WikiWikiWeb ‘electronic-encyclopedia.’ Its unique social conventions and properties would not have evolved”[1]. Using an unknown foreign word as the moniker meant people had to learn what a wiki was and why it was different; alternately, one can imagine, perhaps wrongly, what an electronic-encyclopedia might be.

The precise origins of the wiki are not easy to pin down. Ward says that he got the idea by extending Bill Atkinson’s hypercards, which some claim in turn were extensions of note card, and ultimately ZOG (http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?WikiWikiOrigin). While who-influenced-whom is an ongoing thread at WikiWikiWeb, it should be noted that these ideas and applications evolved very organically with the free trade of ideas and methods leading to gradual improvements; this was not a sudden inspiration invention. Indeed the word wiki is probably Ward’s greatest contribution, as many believe that the innovations that characterize the wiki — its collaborative editing structure, in particular — are somewhat obvious and were being developed simultaneously by many people in more or less similar fashions.

One facet of MediaWiki that is somewhat consistent across wiki implementations is wiki markup language. When users decide to edit a wiki page, they are linked to an editable text-box where they can change or add text as they wish. Usually there is a ‘preview’ button; this is necessary because the text that a user enters is parsed into html code for browsers. Some of the elements that are streamlined by this process are bullet points, numbered lists, headings, links to new wiki pages, and the table of contents. The following, for example, are formatting conventions for list elements:

MediaWiki Table

In MediaWiki, headings are denoted by adding an = around the largest headings and double = or triple = for sub-headings. These headings are compiled into a table of contents at the top of the page. While not supported in MediaWiki, in WikiWikiWeb and many other wikis any word that is written in CamelCase — where there is an uppercase letter in the word which is not separated by spaces — will become a link to a page of that title. If the page has not been created yet, any user clicking on the link will be sent to a blank editable template on which to begin the page. There are several other wiki style markers, but some overall patterns emerge: most of the markup is for text formatting — particularly lists, tables, links, and table of contents / heading systems.

There are many types of CMS (content management systems) available, and the wiki falls into the category of web-publishing management systems. In the context of varied CMS, the goal of the wiki is to enable rapid collaboration and publishing of web content. Services such as Flickr would be considered a Digital Asset or Photo Management service, still a CMS, but focused instead on collecting, sorting, and tracking images rather than web content. One might also compare the wiki to a web forum in that both are web-publishing management systems. While a forum is structured in threads and replies, the wiki strives to consolidate all such discussions into a final page. MediaWiki includes a discussion tab where editors of any page can discuss potential changes in a forum style exchange — leaving the wiki page itself uncluttered by such conversations.

MediaWiki is also unique among wikis as being the platform through which the Wikimedia Foundation fulfills it’s mission: “The Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. is an international non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging the growth, development and distribution of free, multilingual content, and to providing the full content of these wiki-based projects to the public free of charge.” Wikimedia is responsible for Wikipedia, which has been among the global top 20 visited sites since January 2006. Wikimedia is also considering publishing print versions of Wikipedia as a fundraising effort.

Research Context:
Kim Knight’s Wikipedia report for The Transliteracies Project addresses the common problems of veracity inherent in a wiki: when everyone is a writer, how can accurate research be distinguised from popular wisdom? Again, how can users know which wiki is the primary one for a given topic? (A wiki’s strength lies many editors inspecting and correcting information; but when there are multiple wikis on similar topics it can be difficult to discern which has better or more reliable information. In addition, multiple wikis pose the problem of redudancy as experts repeat each other’s work in multiple locations. To some degree these problems are addressed by Wikimedia’s MetaWiki, which strives to be a wiki guide to wikis; but there is an ongoing discussion about what content is appropriate for which wikis.)

Another problem with wikis is that any given page can become just a set of links to other content providers—and so might be better managed by a system like del.icio.us. (In this light, Wikimedia is very clear about copyright laws and discourages borrowing any writing from other websites. Also, by lumping external links together at the bottom of a page, the wiki makes it clear that internal links remain within the wiki.)

The Wikimedia Foundation has admirable aspirations, and their affiliation with the MediaWiki engine suggests that it will continue to evolve to ensure that it continues to be as widely accessible and reliable as possible. While it may be tempting to write off the wiki as a passing fad, the Wikimedia Foundation lends MediaWiki financial underwriting and a trustee structure unknown to most other CMS or web trends.

Technical Analysis:
There are many wiki engines available and they differ primarily in the architecture of their respective databases, the programming language used to code them, and the environments in which they are designed to work. Installation of MediaWiki requires a server, but there are free wiki services if one wishes to start one’s own wiki or experiment with the format (e.g., PBWiki.com or schtuff.com). All MediaWiki wikis have a sandbox where experiments can be tried without harm to existing pages.

While MediaWiki is capable of displaying images and even sound or multimedia files in an entry, the focus of a wiki is admittedly text content. Images and other multimedia files click through to pages accruing a history of changes and possible discussion about that particular file, but not to other resources. (It is difficult, if not impossible, in MediaWiki to make an image link to another page or external resource.) Thus images are never truly integrated into an article or into the functional hypertextual logic of the wiki.

The organization of text into headings and subheadings imparts a structure to the writing that is helpful for navigating a potentially long entry. Every section designated as a heading or subheading becomes an anchor — html code for a place to skip to within a single web page—and the table of contents at the top of the page becomes an index that links to each anchor. Keeping sections concise and accessibly indexed clearly makes online reading easier, but perhaps the implementation is heavy-handed. (Could there be alternatives, for example, to the table of contents imposed on each MediaWiki page?)

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:

For the Transliteracies Project, one of the most salient features of MediaWiki is the array of tabs along the top of each page: article, discussion, edit, history. While the article tab is essentialy equivalent to a chapter in a codex book, and the article and discussion tabs in combination create a format somewhat like a college course, only in a wiki can all these functions be combined. The primary source, its discussion, an editor’s contribution, and the history of contributions from the collective community of editors combine to make such online reading thoroughly different from its predecessors.

The wiki collapses online reading and writing together. Bracketing a word — like [so] — creates a link to a page entitled (in this example) “so.” If the page “so” has already been edited, the link will display what has been written; but if no one has written in the new page, the link will display a blank, editable text box. In effect, the reader is thus linked directly to a writing space in the course of reading.

If one logs in to edit a wiki, two more tabs appear: move and watch. The internet has spawned diverse social networks, and the watch tab is the wiki’s social network. By “watching” a page, one is alerted to changes or additions to that article, thus creating a network of people who are linked by their care and attention to a particular topic. In some sense, the watch tab allows pages to be easily subjected to the equivalent of peer review. While the credentials of such “peer review” may not match that of an academic journal, a review process can in fact organically grow up around oft-cited articles.

Resources for Further Study:

[1] Ward Cunningham in a letter to Patrick Taylor of the Trade & Reference Division of Houghton Mifflin Company, November 2003.

  tl, 08.13.06

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