Is there a 'wiki' in your future?

The absolute flexibility of a wiki frequently leads to a consensus outcome sometimes called "emergent intelligence" by wiki advocates.

Recently I wrote in this column about weblogs (September 2002, p. 150), personal website diaries in which individuals could enter their thoughts and comments on a daily basis and make them available to anyone on the Internet. Weblogs have become enormously popular but few of them have achieved significant business results. That's because blogging is essentially a solo effort and a sequential activity much like the writing of a diary with pen and paper.

Now, I have been looking at a kind of collaborative weblog that seems to me to be more in keeping with the predictions of early personal computer aficionados of speeding human communications and decision-making. These sites are called "wiki," which is a Hawaiian word for "fast." A wiki is akin to a brainstorming session where the participants cover the walls with sheets of poster paper that carry hurriedly scribbled ideas. I'm sure you know the kind of meeting only too well. But, if you're like me, your most brilliant ideas come after the meeting is done and gone and there is no way of adding your earthshaking ideas. A memo or email to the participants after the fact gets close to zero consideration. A wiki is not only more effective but is also faster.

Enter the wiki. A wiki is a website in which anyone can edit anything on any page. Maybe that sounds like a recipe for total and utter disaster and, indeed it well could be. But, in fact, the absolute flexibility of a wiki frequently leads to a consensus outcome sometimes called "emergent intelligence" by wiki advocates. To see how this works, look at "Wikipedia," a free online encyclopedia (www.wikipedia.com). Wikipedia consists of thousands of articles freely and generously hyperlinked and contributed for free by hundreds if not thousands of individuals. These people not only contribute material but they also check and correct the work of other collaborators. The result is a valuable and trustworthy resource.

You can also check out the definition of a wiki at pages (www.c2.com) maintained by the original developer of the wiki, Ward Cunningham, who is famous in the computing world for his consulting practice of object-oriented programming (go to the Wikipedia to look that up!). Cunningham says that a wiki is, "The simplest online database that could possibly work." Basically, wiki is a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser. Wiki supports hyperlinks and has a simple syntax for creating new pages and cross-links between internal pages on the fly.

If this column were a wiki document, it would be liberally sprinkled with wiki words which are WordsSmashedTogether that link to another wiki page and so on. Thus there would be a link for this column, InMyView, a link to the writer JeffBairstow and so on.

Several organizations host sites for wikis and a number of software companies can supply the server software (such as Twiki, at www.twiki.org ) often for free. There is also a developing body of software aimed at the corporate user, such as San Francisco-based SocialText (www.socialtext.com ).

Although all this might seem like an unruly free-for-all, wikis tend to be self-policing. If someone deliberately vandalizes a page, the previous version can be easily restored by the next benevolent user who comes along. Each page has a link to its own document history to simplify matters. If you can use a word processor, then you can construct your very own wiki pages. And more important, you can collaborate with your colleagues, your friends, your church or other group without restraint of time or place.

While wikis have a way to go before they can challenge, say, Lotus Notes, they have begun to take root quietly and without much fuss. Watch out for the wiki, there could be one on your desktop before you know it.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Online Editor
[email protected]

More in Software