Wiki’s are fascinating. They are the first major advance in the written word since the invention of the typewriter, or possibly ever since the invention of the printing press. All previous forms of written communication, whether over the Internet, in magazines, books or encyclopedias present one point of view, generally written by one, or at the most a small collection of individuals. These are sometimes revised to reflect new developments as needed – the encyclopedia Britannica issues a new version every year, and webpages are updated at the discretion of the webmaster.

A Wiki or wiki (pronounced “wicky” or “weekee”) is a website (or other hypertext document collection) that allows any user to add content, as on an Internet forum, but also allows that content to be edited by any other user. This is far removed from any other media – for while ‘old media’ was a one way street, with a wiki everyone is the creator and editor of the content within. It also creates a new type of content, where there is no one author, but the work is collaboratively authored and slowly evolves into something more than the sum of its parts, as every user adds their particular input. A wiki is very easy to use – all one has to do is click and start typing. Tim Berners Lee (the inventor of the world wide web) had originally envisaged a world closer to a wiki, where everyone would be actively contributing, instead of a world full of static websites, and it seems today that with the increasing popularity of wiki’s that his vision might just come true.

Most people, especially us Pakistani’s who have a very cynical worldview automatically assume that a website that can be edited by anyone would soon be rendered useless by nonsensical input. Any useful input would soon get drowned out by vandalism or people just ‘leaving their mark’. However, in the real world it works very well. While anyone can edit anything, this is more of a statement of what is possible than what actually happens. It’s the same as “yes, if you go into the street, anyone can shoot you”. Both statements are technically correct but don’t describe the normal case. We have developed cultures that reject both types of behaviour. Helmut Leitner explaining wikis:

If we should meet someday, you could do anything to me, hit me, shout at me, run me down. But typically you would say “Hello” and shake hands. That’s the difference between what we can do and what we have learned to do to get along and what we call culture. Wiki is about to develop a culture to be able to make best use of its freedom.

Man evolves by establishing certain norms which enables them to work together. A wiki is the next natural step forward – if information is the most valuable asset a soceity can have, and the most essential for its further growth, then why not let everyone share all his knowledge? Wiki’s are in their infancy today, taking baby steps into todays big bad world, where information is walled up in secure databases. Projects like Wikipedia aim to change that. While wiki’s have been around since the 90’s, Wikipedia is the the best example of a wiki. It is not so much a wiki as a collaborative encylopedia which is based on wiki software to allow for easy editing by anyone.

Wikipedia is a Web-based, free-content encyclopedia written collaboratively by volunteers and sponsored by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. It has editions in roughly 200 different languages (about 100 of which are active) and contains entries both on traditional encyclopedic topics and on almanac, gazetteer, and current events topics. Its purpose is to create and distribute a free international encyclopedia in as many languages as possible. Wikipedia is one of the most popular reference sites on the internet,1 receiving around 60 million hits per day.

Wikipedia contains approximately 1.6 million articles. More than 600,000 of these are in English, more than 250,000 in German, and more than 100,000 each in Japanese and French. It began as a complement to the expert-written Nupedia on January 15, 2001. Having steadily risen in popularity, it has spawned several sister projects, such as Wiktionary, Wikibooks, and Wikinews. It is edited by volunteers in wiki fashion, meaning articles are subject to change by nearly anyone. Wikipedia’s volunteers enforce a policy of “neutral point of view” whereby views presented by notable persons or literature are summarized without an attempt to determine an objective truth. Because of its open nature, vandalism and inaccuracy are problems in Wikipedia.

By comparision, the Encyclopedia Brittanica has only 80,000 articles, so the current size of Wikipedia is a measure of its success – and unlike Brittanica, Wikipedia is being constantly added to, while at the same time older articles are continually updated. While graffiti on a wall cannot be easily wiped out, vandalism on a wiki is removed easily. All versions of a page are kept, and anyone can revert a page back to an older version. Regular contributors to a page can keep an eye on it, and depending on the wiki software easily see the recent changes. Editing wars can and do take place, but sites like Wikipedia try to resolve them by sticking to a neutral point of view. Editing wars take time and energy, and even the most determined tire after a certain point. There are technological solutions for dealing with vandalism, but with enough interested users they are often not needed. A famous programming quote about the open source development model is “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” This applies equally well to wikis.

Of course, sometimes wikis just don’t work out. That is, wikis have human and cultural limitations. A wiki is not a miracle tool which creates value by itself. A wiki provides a way to extract a higher value out of a given input as compared to older means of sharing and creating, but for a wiki to work – really work, not simply function – contributers need to trust that everyone will work in the best interest of the wiki. Considering the open and democratic nature of a wiki, it is suprisingly ideally suited for the corporate world. It’s not just wikipedia using wiki software, but corporations, authors, individuals, ngo’s – the list goes on.

The New York Times uses a wiki for their internal website, as do many others like Motorola, Nokia, etc. Internal documentation, policies, guidelines, procedures are best kept in a central location and edited by all the concerned people. All wikis make it easy to add new pages and create links, which makes it ideally suited for large organizations where information is being added to all the time. Employees have a big incentive not to vandalize wiki’s, as all changes are traceable back to them, so corporate wiki’s don’t have the same problem of vandalism which public wiki’s do.

There was a time, way back in the infancy of the computer age when storage and computing power used to be an issue. Those days are long gone now, and wiki’s are a reflection of just that. When there is no extra cost to saving every single revision of an article, then why not? Wikipedia has more than 512 million words as of May 2005, and taking every single revision of Wikipedia into account – which includes every version of every single article – the entire database of wikipedia is about 35 gigabytes – they don’t make hard drives that small anymore! The current revision of wikipedia, containing over 512 millions words is under a Gigabyte. Saving every revision of every article has important social and cultural ramifications (more on this next month).

There is too much fascinating stuff being done with wikis to be summarized in one such article as this – I have barely touched on the subject. Go and see for your self, or better yet get involved!


an edited version of this article was published in Spider Magazine, July 2005

9 thoughts on “Wikis”

  1. Hey thanks for publishing the unedited version – honestly being such an old reader of your blog I some how knew your article was longer then the printed 3 pages. Good work

  2. Really nice! For really long I’ve had people ask me what exactly a wiki is, and this is one of the most reader and non techie friendly pieces I have come across. 🙂 Thanks

  3. Hi KO,

    Coming back after a long time. On the subject of wiki you might want to read this piece by my fellow-blogger friend Rohit Gupta (we co-blog on desimediabitch.blogspot). It explains what goes behind the scenes in producing a wiki.


  4. Great article. One thing worth mentioning is that you can’t really compare the number of articles in EB to Wikipedia as a measure of the latter’s success. A lot of the articles in Wikipedia are stubs or contain very basic and ruduimentary information. That’s simply because there are not a lot of writers on wikipedia who are familiar with that subject matter. Furthermore, Wikipedia is quite heavily biased towards computer-related and technology articles. That’s quite simply because the majority of the people who are or will be using Wikipedia are of the “geeky” sensibility and technology-related articles are their forte. I’ve recently written a bit ( comments are unfortunately only available through the front page for the time-being)about wikipedia recently simply because it’s such a fascinating thing to be able to contribute in such a way to something that’s clearly worthwhile. I for one have learnt a whole lot of new things (or have been set on the course to learning such) thanks to Wikipedia. As you mentioned, the debate is hardly near dying down, but wikis have made a name for themselves.

  5. Suhail, thanks for the link – looks to be an interesting article.

    Uzer, while Britannica has many articles which are better than the Wikipedia equivalent, that number keeps shrinking over time.

    Wikipedia’s mission statement is: _Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing._ This mission statement is not just a pipedream – there is a whole organization commited to reaching this goal. It might not make it there this decade, or even the next but it will get there.

    Wikipedia is top heavy with ‘geeky articles’ because at this moment in time computers are still misunderstood by many – as non geeks get increasingly comfortable with computers there will be a lot more people contributing to projects like Wikipedia.

  6. I once happened to be searching for some technical material on textiles. Managed to find it on no other site but Wikipedia. Only later did I learn that it had been put there by one of my friends. And yes it was authentic. I double checked from textbooks.

  7. This was a great read. I chanced across it after reading this startling new piece on USA Today. Perhaps, ‘editing wars’ as you’ve mentioned briefly in your article needs more analyses. What really goes on when people disagree about contributing different versions of one concept, individual, object etc?

    Copying an excerpt from John Seigenthaler’s article titled: “A False Wikipedia biography”: John accuses Wikipedia authors of falsely fabricating his life–and Wiki not in a position to offer him any assistance to who created the damaging content about him.

    The excerpt: “I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious “biography” that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia, the popular, online, free encyclopedia whose authors are unknown and virtually untraceable.”

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