Characteristics of a Wiki

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The Romantic Audience Project: A Wiki Experiment Table of Contents

Characteristics of a wiki

What's a wiki like?

Here are some features of a wiki that came into play as we built RAP. This list is loosely based on some of the design principles layed out by Ward Cunningham, a pioneer in creating and defining wikis. Our choice of a particular wiki engine, SnipSnap, was shaped by its unique features. But these are some general characteristics that most wikis share:

Open. Once logged in, any user can edit any entry. This includes adding content, turning existing content into links, or changing content altogether. The openness of a wiki involves a good deal of trust, of respect for the community. The site is open to accidental postings, deletions, or — worse — sabotage. In practice, no serious problems occurred with RAP, or indeed with the other two wikis we've since run at Bowdoin. Still, it was comforting to know that, in the event of disaster, we could roll back to a saved version of RAP (backed up in its entirety nightly).

Incremental. Entries can cite other entries, including entries that have not been written yet (in this case, a user marks text as potentially leading to a new entry, allowing someone else to fill that page in). This encourages interconnection, even as the wiki grows in unpredictable ways: new material springs from what's already in the system.

Precise. New entries are built upon existing text, encouraging focused highlighting of crucial terms and concepts. Instructed to create an entry off a given poem in RAP, for example, a student had to choose a word or phrase in that poem that would act as a thematic base for her thoughts.

Organic. The structure and content of the site evolves as long as it is used. Users continually define the extent of site. RAP was never bounded or fully fixed until it was closed down at the end of the semester. Even now, the instructor is able to edit, reshape, add material in the site's afterlife.

Observable. Activity on the site can be watched and reviewed by any visitor to the site; there is no inaccessible, hidden, or password-protected content. This honors the open-source basis of most wikis. Dispersing across the world wide web, RAP has attained a certain prominence among search engines, particularly Google.

Mundane. This is an easily overlooked yet crucial component of wikis. Posting on RAP, as is the case with most wikis, involved easily learned coding conventions, for activities such as formatting text, uploading images, and building links (to other entries within the site as well as to outside websites). During the first two weeks of the semester, the class worked through four practical exercises, covering the mechanics of posting on the wiki. While posting seemed daunting to students who self-identified as computer-illiterate, they took to it quickly after learning RAP's simple codes.


Networking: using mundane codes, students connect to Wordworth's words as well as to each others'.
[Enlarged image and live page link]

Published @ RC

December 2004