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Amy Dyrbye
Presented September 16, 2010


What is a Wiki?

A wiki is, at its heart, a website optimized to display, create and edit interlinked web pages. It functions as a database of knowledge that can be updated, cross-referenced and searched as needed. Ward Cunningham, the developer of the WikiWikiWeb, describes a wiki as “the simplest online database that could possibly work”.

Linking is fundamental to a wiki page – a single sentence may be studded with hyperlinks, inviting the reader to explore other topics that may be only of the most tangential relation. One may thus move via embedded links from the Wikipedia page on Wikis to the History of Wikis to a description of a theoretical device called a Memex, to the page on Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives. In addition to the links within the body of text, a page may be backlinked to all the pages that link to that page. Links to related topics may also be provided.

Wikis are deliberately designed to allow for community content addition and editing, which in turn allows them to become a repository for community knowledge. While one can read a given page passively, they are designed to encourage the active participation of the reader with prominent edit functions and hyperlinks to pages that don’t exist yet. As wikis are intellectual works, it is common for projects such as the Wikipedia to make use of Creative Commons licensing.

The resultant pages are as comprehensive as the community wants to make them, and are conversely as accurate as the community members creating and fact checking them. This is both their greatest strength and most damning weakness, as a wiki’s perception as authoritative can permit the dissemination of bad information. In addition to innocent inaccuracies, the open nature of a wiki makes it easy to vandalize a page by deliberately inserting false or pejorative content.


Post 1994

The first wiki was Ward Cunningham’s WikiWikiWeb, which launched in 1995 as part of the Portland Pattern Repository. The site arose from the need for easy exchange of ideas between programmers. It was named after the Wiki Wiki shuttle that runs between the Honolulu International Airport’s terminals; “wiki” means “fast” in Hawaiian. Cunningham encouraged public usage of the source code by releasing a version of the software called “Wiki Base”.

The concept of user-editable pages underlying the WikiWikiWeb proved appealing and soon inspired others to create their own wiki engines. By 1999, there were numerous other people building wiki websites. Notably, a site dedicated to the game Go called Sensei’s Library launched in 2000 and was the largest and most active wiki on the web prior to the Wikipedia; it has continued to be a close second in the current day.

2007 is considered the year that wikis went mainstream. That year, “wiki” entered the Oxford English Dictionary, released a product-review wiki called the Amapedia, and the Wikipedia became one of the most popular websites in the world.

Notable developments prior to 1994

  • Memex - Vannevar Bush published a 1945 essay in Atlantic Monthly detailing a theoretical microfilm reader dubbed a memex. He envisioned the memex as an indexed storage device for an individual’s records, books and communications that would permit linkages to be made between documents for quick recall.
  • ZOG - ZOG was a multi-user database system developed in 1972 that featured frames with links leading to other frames. An improved version renamed Knowledge Management System (KMS) was released in 1981. KMS permitted database users to directly edit and link frames, which could be immediately viewed from any workstation connected to a network.
  • HyperCard - Ward Cunningham has gone on record citing his experience with HyperCard, a hypertext-based system of “stacked” virtual “cards” released in 1987, as a direct influence to his development of WikiWikiWeb. Each card held data, and multiple cards could be grouped by giving each the same background layer. This enabled the user to construct a local database by defining groups of cards.


Wikis have become commonplace. Collaborative websites such as the Wikipedia are the best known, but wikis are also valuable to personal note taking, to corporate intranets and to organizational knowledge management systems. Mobile wiki applications, optimized for accessing wikis through devices such as the Blackberry or iPhone are also available, and vary from strictly permitting viewing to optimization for submissions from the device.

On the public front, wikis function as encyclopedias of knowledge, and are often rallying points for communities with specific interests. They may, like the Wikipedia, have stringent standards and conventions that users are expected to adhere to. Others, such as TV Tropes, are more relaxed in philosophy and do not require much more of a contribution than originality and relevance.

Wikis have also been applied successfully outside the public sphere. Numerous single-user wiki applications are available that utilize the wiki concept to provide personal journaling or data management functions. Proprietary wiki software has been developed for use in the business world as an alternative to an intranet, as they have the advantage of allowing for the effective spread of organizational knowledge, wisdom and culture between both existing and new employees.

Hybrid software is also available. Such applications take the wiki concept and adapt them to allow users to create wiki-style blogs, discussion forums, spreadsheets and more.

The openness of a public wiki has led to concerns about information accuracy and deliberate vandalism. Undesirable content can vary from poor formatting to incorrect information to links leading to malware. The strategies used to combat this problem will vary based on the intended use and audience of the wiki. A history of all changes may be kept, allowing for the restoration of a previous version of a page. A well-trafficked page may have constant changes and thus constant corrections to any erroneous information inserted. Many prefer to make it easy to correct damage rather than focusing on prevention, though methods such as bots programmed to recognize vandalism might be used to supplement human intervention. Pages dedicated to accuracy-sensitive subjects such as medicine may rely on the monitoring of a group of subject-matter experts, who may require peer review before a piece of information is retained. A user within the community may also volunteer to maintain a page and monitor changes to maintain the page’s quality. A wiki may require a user to create a profile and authenticate before permitting them to create or edit pages, thus limiting who can effect changes and enhancing tracking. Some applications are designed allow an administrator to lock a wiki page from further changes, which is useful where users are competing to maintain their favored version of a page.


As a tool, wikis are primarily focused on content. There isn’t usually much control over aspects such as layout. Ward Cunningham developed the WikiWikiWeb directly in Perl, though pre-built software is most often used now. In keeping with the collaborative philosophy of a wiki project, many commonly used wiki applications are free and open-source.

These web applications will store data in either databases or flat files. Java, PHP and Perl are the most common programming languages utilized in the creation of wiki applications.

Within a given application, wikis are typically constructed using a simplified markup language or a WYSIWYG text editor. Wikitext, or wiki markup, has no common language between applications, though projects such as Creole have attempted to develop a standard. One element common to wiki applications is the use of a simple way of hyperlinking to other internal wiki pages. Practices such as CamelCase (joining compound words or phrases without spaces) may be used to demark links. Sets of HTML elements may be supported by the wiki application.

Annoki uses MediaWiki, the same wiki software utilized by the Wikipedia.


Wikis are an unusual class of web pages. Most sites you visit are intended for a one-way transfer of information, from the creator to the visitor. They are, in one way or another, pushing a product, be it a video game walkthrough, a movie or a politician. Wikis throw such passive consumption right out the window in favor of a dialogue. Instead of the web page standing as a rigid pillar of authority, with the visitor strictly as a consumer, wikis allow for direct interaction between the visitor, the page developer, and other visitors. Wiki participants are encouraged to question, not expected to accept.

This model allows for a swift dispersal and collation of knowledge previously unheard of. It allows for inquiry and discovery on a level not possible from a static document, to provide the next best thing to a roomful of subject-matter experts and an instant transcriber. While less personal than, say, a message board, the information is far more accessible. This strength has been used successfully to great advantage by special interest groups and businesses. As such, it’s proven to be an incredible tool for the communication of a population’s wisdom.

Further Reading

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