Definition of a Wiki

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The Romantic Audience Project: A Wiki Experiment Table of Contents

Definition of a wiki

What's a wiki?

The term "wiki" is more whimsical than descriptive, invoking a Hawaiian term for quick. Wikis do indeed allow users to post text, images, or other digital files onto a website quickly. But the real distinction of wikis is their emphasis on interconnection. At their best, they provide a platform for vibrant discussion, proceeding in unpredictable, community-driven ways.

A starting principle of a wiki is that any entry can be modified by anyone. If this page were part of a wiki, for example, and you had password privileges on the site, you could log in and change any of this text. You might add or delete words on this page; you might upload images onto this page to supplement my words; you might even transform some of these words into a hyperlink connecting to a new entry authored by you.

On a basic level, then, a wiki becomes a website comprised of the collective work of many authors. In posting to a wiki, I give up final control over my entry, but I also offer my words as the basis for interactivity. If you are motivated to log in and base a comment on the word "control" in the previous sentence — refining the scope of this term, elaborating on it, or rejecting it altogether — the discussion takes a turn I might not have foreseen. A third user might log in and build a new entry off your additions. Very quickly a networked discussion grows.

Wikis vs. other web posting

Compared to discussion boards. A wiki allows users to post their observations online using a browser interface, and to react to each other's postings. In this way it is similar to a discussion board. But while a discussion board proceeds linearly, spinning out into 'threads,' a wiki user can interconnect pages in all directions. Additionally, she can 'manage' her content (and that of others) after it has been posted, a feature often missing from discussion boards. Finally, unlike many discussion boards, wikis can allow uploading of a wide variety of graphic and rich-media files.

Compared to blogs. Many instructors are by now familiar with blogs. Unlike discussion board users, bloggers can manage their entries; they can post, modify, or delete their own content on a website using a browser interface. Wikis are crucially different from blogs in that users can modify any entry, even material posted by others. This communal editorial power gives wikis their uniquely open characteristic, to the point where the concept of individual authoring becomes problematic.

The growth of wikis

Interestingly enough, given their decentralizing tendencies, wikis are credited to a founding figure, the software engineer Ward Cunnigham, who introduced them in 1995. Cunningham has coauthored a book entitled The Wiki Way: Collaboration and Sharing on the Internet; his website,, contains later ruminations.

Wikis tend to be useful to scientists, software engineers, knowledge communities, and others collaborating on projects. Interest in them has grown considerably over the past two years. This upsurge has been fueled by the open-source software movement, as well as, more broadly, a concern with managing the increasingly intricate web of digital communications that surrounds us.

Responding to a need for tools that help organize and access complex data, software developers have created a wide variety of wikis and made them freely available. For RAP, we sifted through the technical requirements of several such free wikis before deciding on SnipSnap.

While the range of freely offered wiki software is in constant flux, at the time of this writing desktop wiki engines included wikidPad for Windows, Voodoopad for Macintosh, and Note Studio for Palm Pilots. Other developers are building more complex 'information management' frameworks that include wiki-like functionality, or hooks to help move content onto wikis. Examples as of this writing include: Tinderbox (for Macintosh and Windows), Confluence (browser based) and Plone.

Additionally, a few companies have emerged that are offering wiki hosting, such as Seed Wiki, Bytesmith, Project Forum and EditMe. It is too early to tell if, like's appearance some five years ago, such hosting ventures herald an onset of broader wiki use by the general public, but the fact that a number of companies has sprung up over the past year bodes well for future development of wiki publishing.

Finally, a number of general-interest wikis exist on the web that invite participation from the public. In some cases any visitor can post to such sites; in other cases editorial access must be earned through community-bestowed "karma." Notable instances of such public efforts, as we write, include Wikipedia, an open content encyclopedia, and Everything2, a community-edited "microsociety."


FIG. 1 — A wiki as rendered by TouchGraph, a visualization tool. Note the interconnection of nodes.
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FIG. 2 — A sonnet by Charlotte Smith in RAP. Students have posted entries linked to the words "remain" and "oblivion." Characteristics of a Wiki displays a step-by-step example of student posting in RAP.
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FIG. 3 — Many wikis allow administrators to designate access levels to different levels of users. This chart from EditMe shows default settings.
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FIG. 4 — The Wikipedia "Romanticism" entry invites additions and revisions from anyone visiting the site.
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Published @ RC

December 2004