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Summary Article: Wikis
from Encyclopedia of Social Networks

Made famous by Wikipedia, wikis can be found all over the Internet, are used for many different purposes, and take many different forms. Wikis originated in the mid-1990s as a simple way of publishing information online. The format both enabled and promoted the idea that Websites were not written by one person and read by many but could, instead, be a collaborative venture. Since that time, wikis have become a critical component in the way the Internet serves as the infrastructure for community informatics. Wikis are available for Web publishing, communication, and collaboration at very low or no cost, with little technical knowledge required to make them work, and with very good controls over who can or cannot access all or part of a wiki. Wikis have become an important part of some businesses, are common in education, and serve to create an instantly shared, cooperative online workspace flexible enough to serve almost any purpose. They can be used as a replacement for basic Website creation and publication by one individual or, as in the case of Wikipedia, for global purposive knowledge work. Wikis are not essential to online social networks by any means, but people who wish to activate, build, and pursue common outcomes through a social network find wikis to be one important option for this purpose.

Where Wikis Come From

Ward Cunningham is usually credited with the substantive invention and development of the idea of a wiki. Cunningham described a wiki as “a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser. Wiki supports hyperlinks and has a simple text syntax for creating new pages and cross links between internal pages on the fly.” While similar ideas for simple computer-networked, collaborative text publishing have been proposed (perhaps as far back as the early 1970s), Cunningham brought to life the first usable public wiki, using his WikiWikiWeb software in 1995 for the Portland Pattern Repository (which collected public information about computer programming with an emphasis on pattern languages). Like many innovative Web developments, the first use was for computer science, but the idea rapidly spread and became a much more general feature of the Internet.

The essential element of a wiki is captured in its name, a shortened form of the Hawaiian word wiki-wiki,which means “quick.” Wikis are a quick form of Web publishing and for that reason have become very popular with those less interested in designing sophisticated, top-down Websites but wish instead to rapidly create and publish information online. Wikis use a modified form of hypertext markup language (HTML) to control the basic display of plain text on a Web page. Simple formatting commands are easily included along with the text to be displayed. The complex page-control elements used within HTML are largely ignored or, at least, rendered automatically by the wiki software. Much more importantly, however, wikis in theory treat the Web page that is displayed on a computer screen as a read/write space—not a page to be authored by one person and read by many but one that can be easily and quickly edited by anyone reading that page.

A key feature of wikis is that the revising and editing process of a page can also be tracked and viewed so as to aid users in understanding the temporal development of the content. Crucial to this read/write capability is that wikis allow editing right inside the Web browser application. Thus, from a user's perspective, there is no complicated process of viewing a page, then using another application to download and edit the page before once again uploading that changed page. There is simply a seamless and simple affordance for collaborative reading as well as writing.

The read/write affordances of wiki software, most famously seen in the operation of Wikipedia, is best understood in the context of its popularity. When wikis were created in 1995, the World Wide Web was gaining popularity within the general community of Internet users (especially new users). Tim Berners-Lee, the originator of the Web, had initially intended that it operate in a similar manner to wikis; as a text-based, read/write space that encouraged its users to both consume information and add to it—sharing, rather than simply reading. However, even by 1995 and certainly by the late 1990s, the commercial and popular adoption of the Web, as it moved from academic novelty to general application, had changed its cultural use significantly. The Web had become a heavily designed space, mostly written and managed by professionals who generated both the look and feel of Websites and controlled their content. For most Internet users, the majority of the Web was more like a magazine or newspaper that offered only limited forms of interactivity. The wiki, much like blogs, created a simple software solution which was then adopted into culture to modify this basic understanding of the Internet.

A wiki is, at base, a simple database that contains one or more linked pages to be displayed on the Web, plus the instructions about how to lay out and present those pages. While originally intended to be a very simple system, wikis have grown in sophistication; in many ways, they now serve as an alternative form to the content-management systems that have also emerged to help free up the Web from the top-down format that predominated in the 1990s and early 2000s. In doing so, wikis have to some extent strayed from their origins by requiring those who maintain and manage them to have more extensive knowledge of Web-publishing protocols and techniques than was initially intended. However, wikis continue to offer a potential Web-publishing experience that can bring together many different users with varying levels of technical skill and sophistication without (for the most part) privileging the more technically skilled user. Whether or not any particular wiki will achieve this goal is, however, dependent on the way it is managed, promoted, and arranged. Wikis demonstrate that it is not just the technology that creates the cultural affordances and opportunities but also the amalgam of social purposes and uses with technological features.

Collaboration and Sharing

One of the key features of a wiki is that it tends to promote the idea of collaborative or shared writing, management, and editing of content. However, this sharing does not need to be conducted publicly. One of the most popular uses for wikis is as shared, but private, spaces for small groups, communities, or networks of individuals who wish to work in private collaboration. The fact that many of the free wiki services now available online make privacy a paid feature suggests that privacy is highly valued in the everyday use of wikis. In many cases, Wikis are used publicly—for example, http://wikitravel.org is a publicly written (but privately owned) Website, where individual users contribute information that assists travelers to specific geographic locations.

Critically, because wikis are powered by sophisticated computer code with built-in identity management and access control, they can be developed and used in ways that provide several kinds of read/write experiences within the same Website. For example, in education, wikis can be created by a teacher to allow some pages to be closed to revision, enabling students to read material but not change it; but within the same site, students can then create additional pages they are allowed to edit individually, collectively, or in some other manner, drawing on the read-only material first presented. The ease and simplicity of creating and editing wiki pages to produce a shared resource makes this software a very powerful tool for managing knowledge work, especially within a group whose abilities and knowledge of the content of the site varies as much as their technical skill.

Ultimately, wikis are most interesting because they permit (and even promote) collaborative individualism. Traditional cooperative publishing activities tend to require considerable discussion and decision making prior to the act of writing and publishing. Wikis, while often needing some degree of collective decision making, offer a distinctly different possibility: that everyone who is encouraged or has some right to author the wiki-based Website can do so as individuals. The collective act, therefore, emerges out of a series of individual acts. In this sense, wikis are fundamentally a part of the way the Internet works as a social network: a network of people emerges out of the points of individual connection rather than as a preformed, preorganized group that sets their minds to a collective task.

See Also:

Blogs and Networks, Computer Networks, Cooperation/Coordination, Internet History and Networks, Knowledge Networks, Network Clusters and Communities, Networks, Privacy in, Scholar Networks, Self-Organizing Networks, Wikipedia.

Further Readings
  • Ebersbach, A., et al. Wiki: Web Collaboration. New York: Springer, 2005.
  • Leuf, B. and Cunningham, W.. The Wiki Way: Quick Collaboration on the Web. New York: Addison-Wesley Professional, 2001.
  • Perna, Gabriel “Wikipedia: Study Says It's Accurate.” International Business Times(April 15, 2011). http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/134783/20110415/wikipedia-study-accuracte.htm (Accessed April 2011).
  • West, J. A. and West, M. L.. Using Wikis for Online Collaboration: The Power of the Read-Write Web. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.
  • Allen, Matthew
    Curtin University of Technology Curtin University of Technology
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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