01 September 2006

On the Varieties of Wiki Experience

The Wiki* is a type of website in which many users can edit pages. Perhaps the best example of a Wiki is Wikipedia, a collaborative encyclopedia in many languages. The English version of Wikipedia has over 1.7 million entries, and there are 186 languages for Wikipedia at the time of this writing. This is made possible by the fact that there are thousands of people posting entries in Wikipedia on every imaginable subject. Wikipedia also has a structure of editing rules that tend to weed out poorly written or misleading articles over time. As a result, while some Wikipedia articles are flawed, they are subject to constant scrutiny and deliberation (here's an example).

In addition to Wikipedia, there are numerous reference wikis (list). A major distinguishing feature of wikis is the choice of wiki engine, which is basically a database front end for the display of information. I was fortunate to discover this website listing a large number of wiki engines available for creators of wikis. Oddly, this site--though vast--does not include a very important, famous wiki, Everything2. Everything2 has its own, custom wiki engine.

PmWiki and MediaWiki are two of the most frequently used engines; the later is available for free download. PmWiki has various "skins" that allow a wiki manager to select the look and feel of the site. However, both can be readily modified to look very different from the familiar Wikipedia format (e.g., Neogia--MediaWiki; OpenSceneGraph--PmWiki). In some cases, such as Wikia, a single wiki implementation is scaled up to support 3000+ distinct wikis hosted at the same site (almost exactly the same as Blogger, only with wikis instead of blogs).

What makes a wiki different from other multi-page websites is supposedly that so many people can edit it, although one can also enable many posters at one's blog, if one wished. So that's not a crucial difference. Another difference is that wikis are "quick"--entries can usually be typed in quickly, without knowledge of HTML; and as WikiWikiWeb is older than the earliest blogs (c.1994), it's reasonable to point out that the blog is a derivative of the wiki concept: a multipage website that can be generated quickly merely by typing in the content (as opposed to individually programming each page in HTML, as one does with static web pages). Now, Blogger offers similar ease of use.

What I regard as the definitive distinction is a cluster of basic features, including the ability to save prior drafts of each page, and the fact that pages are organized in a non-hierarchical fashion. So, for example, in a traditional website like the old Library of Congress country studies site, there is a top page which branches out to the list of countries, then to the topic headings for each country study (e.g., Oman). In contrast, one can navigate this blog by clicking links all day, but that's merely an option I've tried to encourage in the last year or so I've been posting here. This blog is organized in a linear structure and organized by months. Blogger has kindly included a search engine (top) and I incorporated another (right sidebar, main index). But in a large wiki site, where pages are added by many people, links to the page or searches are the only reliable navigation method. The main structure to the site will take the form of the database tables, which may not exist for certain wiki engines.

* The term "wiki" is derived from Hawai'ian colloquialism for "quick."

See also, " Wikis used for Reference," "Java and CMS," and "List of Wiki Engines,"

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