Wiki tools

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... part of the technology for communities project,
started off by the authors of [Digital Habitats], Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith.

Definition / description of a Wiki

A Wiki is a special kind of web server that allows its users to freely create and edit Web page content using a Web browser. Wikis support an internal hyperlink system allowing pages to easily be linked together. This allows users to both change content on a page and the overall structure of interlinked pages. Wikis can be set up so that anyone in the world can edit a page or so that only specific people are permitted to read or edit a page (login required and/or password protected). There are a range of wiki applications available, from "the simplest that could possibly work" (which was the original vision and today and may only appeal to the technically inclined user) to versions with conventions familiar to other types of users. Wikis have begun to be integrated with other tools such as blogs and content management systems.

Wikis for Communities of Practice

Wikis are very flexible in that users can both add, change content, add new pages, and change the connections between them. They are useful for collaborative writing and publishing of community materials. Content can easily be accumulated incrementally over time by the addition of new text or pages. They are useful to communities of practice to collect, organize, synthesize and preserve community knowledge. They can also be used in project management, workflow and even discussion when there are agreed-upon community processes for using the wiki. More complex processes may be more difficult to scale-up to larger sized groups.

Wikis are designed to de-emphasize individual authorship, allowing any user to edit any text. In most wikis, changes in the text are linked to a person and a specific time stamp, but the link is "behind the scenes", rather than front and center as is commonly found in discussion boards and blogs. It's the last version that's presented and often the author is not obvious. There are several implications of this approach. One is if there is sensitivity to changing other people's words, agreements and working practices within a community can have a dramatic effect on how well a Wiki serves a community's needs or how it dovetails with other community tools. For example, although the date and author of each page revision is generally available, the information is usually buried so that communities develop conventions for signing some statements with links to personal pages (which may be no different from any other page in that they can be changed by anybody). The second implication is that often communities benefit from a group of people acting as "wiki gardeners" to keep a wiki space organized, linked and tidy.

Finally, because of a reduced emphasis on individual authorship, wikis may also change a group's experience of themselves. The individual presence is less tangible, while "the group" is emphasized by collaborative authorship.

Video intro

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 #if: Wikis in plain English|Wikis in plain English|
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Lee Lefever explains what wikis are about

Tool Polarities

  • Together/apart, Synch/Asynch: Wikis are primarily asynchronous tools, helping preserve information over time and allowing the negotiation of meaning to happen very slowly. They can be extremely useful when revision cycles are short and calling attention to one page is a way to get a community to concentrate on a topic.
  • Reification/Participation: For a wiki to be useful, some interaction needs to take place. Wikis tools handle this need for interaction in many different ways. However, the most common use of a wiki as a source of published information.
  • Individual/group: Wikis typically represent a group consensus on a topic, although the group is largely invisible. Many wikis support the convention of "personal pages" where an individual has ownership.

Wikis in combination

Wikis can be used as a stand alone community tool, or can be added into a community's mix of tools. The Yi-Tan community blends wikis and weekly telephone calls ( supported with IRC chat. The KM for Development community used a wiki to develop it's first FAQ. The wiki is attached to a larger website with a variety of community tools.


1. Authoring features

  • Wikis make it easy to create a new page, either by using a formatting convention called "SquishedWords" (words with mixed case) or some other mechanism to link to "wanted Wiki pages" do not yet exist but come into existence when you click on the link and add some text. Newer wikis have buttons or text editor functions that facilitate new page creation.
    • Each of the many different wiki instances has its own set of conventions. All are a bit arcane. Most require some user orientation.
  • Can use Raw HTML for more sophisticated formatting.
    • Important where there is a need for more sophisticated formatting, inclusion of external elements (files, photos), etc.
  • Spell check allows users to check spelling before making a posting
    • Helpful where credibility is associated with good spelling or people working in a second language.
  • Page preview lets members see changes before posting final page.
    • Helpful where credibility is associated well edited contributions, testing of formatting, or people working in a second language.
  • Ability to add attachments. In some cases includes inline images.
    • Important in document-oriented communities.
  • Categories. Ability to tag a page with one or more categories and then sort pages by category.
    • Useful in complex, larger wiki ecosystems. Important with search.

2. Reading features

  • Read-Only pages. Page only administrators can change, so protected from vandalism.
    • Helpful for pages which will not change (I.e. instruction pages.
  • Additional navigation tools. Favorite pages, most recently read, user bookmarks or tags.
    • Important in larger or more complex wiki ecologies.'
  • Trust extensions. The wiki model is being extended in many ways.

3. Subscription and tracking features

  • Alert mechanisms/email subscription. Alert to changes in a wiki page - either with link or full copy.
    • To reduce the need to visit pages to see "what is new." Critical in focusing community attention for wiki pages that are not in daily use.
  • RSS feeds. A method for subscriptions.
    • Subscription via RSS is becoming a very important feature not just within tools, but across tools as a way to get a snapshot of what is going on.'

4. Overall site organization

  • User preferences allows a user to set default fonts, formatting baselines, notification options and personal profiles.
    • One page where all one's preferences can be set is convenient.
  • Easy to crosslink to other pages (no HTML needed). Non HTML conventions to allow users to cross link/cross reference pages.
    • Key feature of wikis is web page creation without HTML. However, many wikis actually now support HTML, usually through WISYWIG text editors.
  • Rename Page function allows members to easily rename pages in a way that cascades the change to all other pages previously linked to that page.
    • Critical in complex, ongoing wikis.
  • Page delete function. Ability to delete a wiki page (rather than just let it age into oblivion)
    • Critical in complex ongoing wikis. Nice for removing mistakes!
  • Subpages. A fairly rare feature - ability to nest pages in a hierarchical manner. Most wikis are flat (i.e., site structure is achieved through a naming strategy and all names appear in one list, without resorting to a device like "folders")
    • The flexibility of a wiki interface can invite users to collect content that is more and more complex, stretching the limits of the original concept. As wiki pages typically can't be renamed (only deleted and recreated) subpages are tempting for very complex spaces where nesting has a logical claim.
  • Version track and restore. Ability to see earlier versions and revert if desired to earlier versions. On some wikis only administrators can revert. (oops, I added this above to recent changes! :-(
    • Important for sites with frequent changes or for sites where editing history is part of the community practice. Allows for reversions back to older versions if there has been a problem or error.
  • Skins/Templates. Change look/feel of the wiki. It's important if look/feel integration with an organization or strong personal preferences are involved.
    • Not a critical function.
  • Recent Changes. A site-wide page that lists all pages in a wiki site that have been changed, usually in a chronological format (i.e., today, this week, etc.). In addition some wikis will show the specific changes that have been made to an individual page as well as successive versions of the page.
    • A key feature that allows the reader to see where and what changes have been made at a given point in time.

5. integration features

  • Calendar, click on a date creates a page for that date. As described. Fairly rare feature
    • This sort of addition is an indication of the blurring of lines between pure wiki functionality and larger platforms with integrated sets of features and tools
  • Who's Online/Presence indicator. Integrating presence indictators and IM into a wiki environment.
    • Fairly rare, like calendar
  • IM
  • blogs
  • discussion boards
  • collaboration tool suites

6. misc

  • Easy page printing. Just what it sounds like!
    • A page stripped of the overall page formatting providing just the body text.
  • Statistics package. Track users, subscribers, activity in terms of visits and posting.
    • The philosophy of wikis is that it is not so much who makes a change, but what change is made. The revisions tool pretty much takes care of that statistic. However, if someone wanted to track participation, knowing number of reads / logins might be useful.

User practices

  • Annealing. Small changes to the text that serve to improve syntax, correct spellings and make the writing clearer. These changes are mostly unsigned or attributed. By this means the text comes to represent to group meaning and consensus.
  • Refactoring. Major rewrite of a wiki page, a radical change of structure, organization and flow to promote ease of reading and improve understanding.
  • Wiki gardening. Community members that monitor recent changes for spiteful comments, spam, deletions and regressive alterations. Corrective actions may entail reversion to the previous text or redacting unwanted text or more creative and positive types of gardening tips.
  • Launch ideas:

Wiki Resources & Citations

Wiki Providers and services