My 12/16/07 Missoulian column
A wiki is a Web site that’s a little like a blog, where you can easily write and edit content, and a little like a content management system, where multiple people can collaborate and manage information. But a wiki – rhymes with “sticky” – is different from anything else on the Internet in one important aspect: Anyone can write and edit content.
Given what we know about the Internet, a wiki sounds like anarchy. It can be, but it isn’t always. Why would you want a Web site anyone can edit? Wikis first evolved from the idea that collaboration on the Web should be easy and that no one should have a monopoly on the generation or flow of information. A wiki is a manifestation of Internet freedom called “crowdsourcing,” in which a crowd of many people is considered more efficient and more accurate than a select few.
The developer of the first wiki (open source, of course) took the name from the Hawaiian word for “quick” which he heard in an airport, “wiki wiki” being the very quick bus he had to catch to make his flight. The developer wanted a simple database-driven Web site where coders could share programming information. That was 1995; the concept and software have since evolved, but the overall ideal of freedom has stayed the same: the ability for anyone to write and edit content. The free online encyclopedia Wikipedia is largest and most extensive use of the original wiki software, which is now called MediaWiki.
At Wikipedia.org, anyone can register with a username and password, and work on the encyclopedia. The scope and quality of Wikipedia will almost warm the heart of most any Internet cynic. The site has more than 9 million articles in 250 languages, and is updated constantly by thousands of people. Wikipedia is in the top 10 sites on the Web and gets more than 60 million hits a day. If you’re looking for information on organic chemistry, tourism in Albania or the story behind an obscure song on an even more obscure CD, Wikipedia has an answer, powered by the wisdom of the crowd.
Granted, Wikipedia admits to errors and some users have been banned because of vandalism. Some articles on hot topics have been “locked” to prevent editing, and Wikipedia’s writers constantly fight spambots with their own bots that revert bad edits. And if you edit, hundreds if not thousands of people are watching and will keep you and your facts in line, including special administrators and a judicial committee with final authority in disputes.
Another way Wikipedia keeps tabs on writers and editors is recording the usernames and IP addresses, the numbers that identify the network and the location of the computer used. An IP address doesn’t necessarily identify an individual, but it can give clues about habitual vandals.
An obvious question concerns Wikipedia’s overall accuracy. According to the British Journal Nature, Wikipedia is about as accurate as an online or hardcopy encyclopedia such as Britannica. (To be fair, the online Britannica is updated regularly, just not quite as fast as Wikipedia.) A good peer-reviewed article about Wikipedia’s accuracy and issues can be found at First Monday; it goes deep into Wikipedia’s strengths and weaknesses.
Wiki anarchy does exist. As a corollary to Wikipedia, other encyclopedias not associated with the Wikimedia Foundation that have obvious agendas have rapidly appeared, among them Conservapedia.com and Liberalpedia.com. If you’re looking for a rhetorical fight in cyberspace, endless battles await.
Not quite anarchy but still very interesting in terms of the Wikipedia accuracy debate is WikiScanner, a site that has correlated the IP addresses of computers used to make edits with the IPs of corporations and government entities. According to a piece in the New York Times, IP addresses associated with different multinational corporations have been used to edit information about the corporation itself or its products. The New York Times has even been caught making edits.
(Curious, I ran WikiScanner on the University of Montana’s IP blocks and found around 900 edits on articles ranging from Aristotle, the Kazakh language, notable people from various Montana towns, environmental concerns and Moose Drool beer.)
Chaos aside and practically speaking, wikis are very popular in the computing industry for providing information about software and hardware and developing documents that can be quickly updated and written by any user of a product. Thousands of businesses and organizations use wikis to quickly and cheaply collaborate on documents.
You can set up your own wiki for free at PBWiki. But be careful what you wiki – while the crowd will help keep you and your facts in line, you might get addicted to being a part of the “crowdsource” movement and spend hours at it.