Veni, Vidi, Wiki
This article, by Ryan Singel, originally appeared on . This work was collaboratively edited by wiki, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Wikipedia has edited its way into the big time.

The massive user-driven site is now the biggest encyclopedia in the world. The mainstream media covers it extensively. It was recently lampooned by The Onion and Comedy Central. Soon, Wikipedia may also become familiar to thousands of people without internet access — selected articles from its extensive database will come pre-packaged with MIT's $100 laptop project.

But is there a future for wikis other than the encyclopedia model, or will open collaboration be the exception, not the rule?

Ward Cunningham, the father of wiki software, posed that question when he argued that wikis have only touched the surface of what is possible. Cunningham wrote and launched the first wiki, called WikiWikiWeb, in 1995 to help programmers share their techniques.

"Our vision of the web is more than a shopping mall, and wiki stands out there as shopping mall-not," Cunningham said. "The creativity that is possible in the worldwide network of computers far exceeds what wiki has done. How much work is it going to take to make the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) wiki universal, but somehow doing it universally hasn't happened. Part of it was there was (a) browser war (that) happened in there sometime and the opportunity to do it right was lost."

"We should be outraged that that little bit of future has not arrived, but I don't think they can spoil it forever," Cunningham concludes.

Wikipedia is not alone

Wikipedia is far from the only wiki. Several different wiki engines power hundreds of thousands of wikis across the internet. These wikis serve a variety of different communities. Wikis now cover a range of niche topics, from Wikitravel for the tourist, ArmchairGM for the sports enthusiast, wikiHow for general how-to advice and the TaxAlmanac for those needing help with their taxes.

Wikis are also tackling politics. For instance, U.S. Senate candidate and internet entrepreneur Pete Ashdown launched a campaign wiki in the summer of 2005, as did Kevin Zeese, an Independent running for U.S. Senate. Campaigns Wikia, which started last July, allows people to discuss politics in a collaborative setting. Grassroots Wikia allows communities to author public documents in a collaborative fashion.

Several companies are trying to cash in on wikis by making it easy for non-techies to start sites allowing quick and easy collaboration. Among them are Jot, Wetpaint, PBwiki, Wikispaces, and Wikia, started by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Some of these wikis already allow WYSIWYG editing. "I'd like to see the PTA wiki. We are on the cusp of making the tools simple enough for the Parent Teacher Association," said Socialtext CEO Ross Mayfield. Socialtext is attempting to make its WYSIWYG click-and-type editor more widespread; at this year's Wikimania conference, Socialtext announced it was working with Wikia and Wikimedia to integrate Wikiwyg into Wikipedia's software.

Wiki while you work

Wikis have also invaded the workplace. After programmers introduced wikis to large companies by sneaking them inside the firewall to manage software documentation, some large corporations adopted wikis for other purposes as well. From entire intranets to small group projects, enterprises are utilizing the power of wikis to enable simpler, clearer communication within a corporation.

Though they serve the same purpose of collaboration and knowledge sharing, enterprise wikis such as Confluence, Socialtext and TWiki require different functionality than citizen wikis. Enterprise-class features — such as strong permission schemes, advanced search and user management — help organizations share information securely. The enterprise wikis TWiki and Jot move beyond the traditional whiteboard sharing mode of a wiki by providing a platform where users can create simple, embedded applications within the wiki itself. These applications support basic business processes within a workplace; employees can track issues and call center status, manage tasks and reserve resources.

Wikis with the best technical features can still fail if the organization does not fully embrace their use. However, unlike open consumer wikis, in business they are likely to be used in the conduct of work, on specific projects, by people whose own interests are aligned with that of business. This is especially the case if, after the initial grassroots movement, management fully supports the wiki not as an optional, after-the-fact knowledge-sharing tool, but the primary facility to conduct work, eliminating alternate channels. The answer to almost any question has to be "It's on the wiki." Otherwise, depending on the culture, uninitiated employees may ignore this collaborative tool in favor of old habits.

Contributors to this page: drewdevlin and System Administrator .
Page last modified on Friday, April 06, 2007 12:19:42 pm EDT by drewdevlin.

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