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The Way of Wiki

Take a short hike around the Internet and it's almost guaranteed you'll stumble over a wiki-something.

Wikileaks. Wikipedia. Wikispaces or Wikispots. The Apple Corporation has a wiki (although not open to the public) as does IBM, and GE, and just about every other Fortune 500 firm. And be careful not to get your WikiMedia mixed up with your MediaWiki.

There are wiki sites for term papers, pop stars who wear meat, and funny cat pictures. There's even a wiki for people who like to throw potluck parties.

But what, exactly, is a wiki? And do we really need them all?

Ward Cunningham knows about wikis. He created the world's first, which he dubbed the "WikiWikiWeb", and literally wrote the book on what a wiki is and how it works. And he was the first to apply the word "wiki" to a new kind of web authoring and construction - one that emphasized speed, ease and collaboration.

(The first question Cunningham often gets is "what does 'wiki' even mean?" Thinking back to his travels to Honolulu, he recalled taking the airport "Wiki Wiki" Shuttle, so-called from the Hawaiian word "wiki" meaning quick. "I chose wiki-wiki as an alliterative substitute for 'quick' and thereby avoided naming this stuff quick-web," he notes on his website.)

"It's more about the web than the quick," says Cunningham. "You can forage for the information you want, not take the information you're given."

A wiki, says Cunningham, is essentially a website that provides content that's highly linked and easily editable to meet users' varied needs. Unlike many documents or sites that are highly structured and edited by a few, a wiki at its core is much looser, allowing users to quickly scan for what they want, link to sources for data, and contribute where they can.

Ultimately, a wiki must be useful. User contribution, says Cunningham, is important, but not mandatory.

"If you want to figure out what the price of bread should be, well you just sell a lot of bread and just see what the average that people are willing to pay is. So everyone who buys a loaf of bread gets a little vote on what the price of bread should be...I think what is going on in a wiki is the right people get together and find the pieces of information they need to put together, to tell the story they couldn't tell alone."

For example, Cunningham cites Wikipedia* as a model for a true wiki. With over 3, 400,000 articles in English alone, there's a tremendous amount of information hosted on the site. All article editing is transparent - meaning you can see who did what - and reversible, and links to source citations are a must.

The end product is, ideally, an article that connects the many separate bits of knowledge shared by the public into a single coherent story. "When strangers get together and trust each other enough to create something that they couldn't create alone, that's wiki."

The Way of Wiki

The Way of Wiki

Another popular website - Wikileaks - falls a little short in Cunningham's least as a wiki. "If you really stretch and squint, maybe at its founding there was something wiki-ish about this," he says, but adds Wikileaks' lack of transparency makes it "...more web than wiki."

A wiki should be fast, it should be easy, and it should be useful, Cunningham says. And key to any wiki is trust.

"Humans have an ability to develop trust, and they get that ability by repeated positive experience. Being able to participate in a conversation and be understood, that develops trust, too. We see this in corporate wikis."

Transparent editing means that every user's actions are visible to every other user of that wiki, generating (hopefully) responsible behavior. And linking to sources means that everyone can verify the accuracy of the wiki themselves. The more a wiki's facts check out, the more it's used.

In Cunningham's view, transparency plus accuracy yields trust.

"It kinda proves that this computer network that we built can be more than just a shopping mall. That there's more that we can do than be consumers, we can be producers. We don't have to produce much to be useful. My belief system was that people naturally like to help each other. And that's not widely shared and I just thought that was true."

You might think with the proliferation of wikis on the web that Cunningham might be more protective of his WikiWiki-creation...or at least profiting handsomely from it.

Neither is true. By his design, wiki-authoring software tends to be free, open-sourced and - like a wiki itself - transparent and flexible. And he describes himself as more programmer than prophet, creating tech-tools for others to use how they see fit.

But Ward Cunningham recognizes the wiki is something special - something that transcends the obscure world of computer coding and software development.

"We all need wiki behavior...we all need to find the value of contributing," he says. "The satisfaction that comes from making something together is immense. I think we need it, it's human nature. So if you're not into computers, find some other way to contribute, that's my advice."

*(Cunningham sits on the advisory board for the Wikimedia Foundation, but otherwise is not connected with Wikipedia or any of the other "wiki" websites mentioned in this article.)

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.