Speaking Notes from a Tech Talks Presentation by Judy Hunter, June 22, 2005

Introduction

This afternoon I will be addressing the concept of wikis & wiki technologies.

  • Define wikis
  • Give a brief history of the technology
  • Go over the basics
  • Offer a glimpse at possible security issues & other common objections
  • Highlight some current ways in which wikis have succeeded
  • Summarize the spirit of wiki

In the Wiki Way (a book in 2001 on page 14) the authors Bo Leuf & Ward Cunningham defined wikis as: "a freely expandable collection of interlinking web 'pages,' a hypertext system for storing and modifying information-database, where each page is easily editable by any user with a forms-capable web browser client."

A wiki is a server application that allows users to add, modify and create content in real time that is then editable by any (and all) other users. Essentially it is an online collaborative document database designed to allow "open editing." Open editing simply means that all pages (in fact all content) in a wiki is always considered a work in progress. Ever evolving as multiple individuals have access to edit the content, hence the collaborative nature of wikis.

Wiki is the Hawaiian word for quick. Ward Cunningham creator of the 1st wiki decided on the term wiki (which he learned from riding the wikiwiki buses in the Honolulu airport). The history of wiki started in March of 1995 when creator Ward Cunningham launched the Portland Pattern Repository (c2.com/cgi-bin/wiki). This wiki was and still is designated to the people, projects & patterns of software development (often considered an informal history of programming ideas).

The origins of wiki technologies can be an issue for debate. Previous technologies with similar purpose such as ZOG, KMS and CASBAH seem to be regarded to some as the wiki predecessor. However, the argument remains clear that Mr. Cunningham was the first to pull it all together and employ a system that, without authentication requirements, based on an ethical standard of fundamentals, allowed open editing & attracted a sufficient number of authors which ultimately cultivated the wiki phenomenon.

When determining the administrative (server admin) needs for implementing a wiki, it is important to remember that it may vary based on chosen application. There are 10-11 primary (meaning widely utilized) wiki apps: Dolphin wiki, Php Wiki, Moin Moin, Swiki Clone, Twiki clone, UserMod Wiki, Tikki Tavi, Zwiki Clone, Open Wiki & Wiki Wiki. Seed wiki is a member of the emerging WYSIWIG wikis. However, there are in excess of 200+ variations of wiki applications available. Most function in similar if not identical ways but often vary by design; Wikis are customizable.

The skills necessary to administer a wiki are varied between implementations (server knowledge, hardware). To a large extent, a programmer may be required to assist in the administration of the wiki. Especially in cases that might include migration because there is not a standard across wiki's for storage of the content.

However, the basics of usage are relatively simple. A single page is referred to as a "wiki page" while a group of interconnected pages, usually connected by hyperlinks is termed the "wiki" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki).

In most cases when using a wiki each page has 3 representations; one in HTML code, the resulting Web page, and the user-editable source code. (according to wikipedia). The wiki application that is running on a server makes the necessary adjustments to the user-editable source code and translates it to HTML. The user-editable page is referred to as the wikitext which is written as a simplified markup language but styles and syntax can vary among implementations. The reason that wikis were designed in this manner was it was believed that HTML was too complicated to allow "fast-paced editing" and that with all the various features available in HTML the content of the document could be "lost." In fact some have argued that the consistency of documents in wiki is a point of strength in their use (fewer distractions).

Some of the newer wikis evolving are utilizing "WYSIWIG" editing. This allows end users to have a graphical representation of what they are editing (usually using JavaScript or ActiveX) which the wiki engine (running on the server) then translates to the corresponding HTML code. (Jotspot= word processor)

Wiki Pages

Wiki pages are connected through hyperlinks, usually embedded throughout the document; this is often referred to as a non-linear navigational structure. Hyperlinks are usually done using what is referred to as CamelCase. CamelCase is when each word is capitalized and spaces are removed from between the words. However, many people have not liked this style and have incorporated other link patterns into their engines which may include brackets, underscores, slashes, etc. An Interwiki though is when 2 different wikis have a link between them. To create new pages, one would usually create a link from a "topically" related page, which becomes a broken link with an editable window where the end user can then creates his or her page. The reasoning for this design was to minimize the amount of orphan pages being created.

The linkage and connective nature is a key aspect of wiki. Most wikis have a set of guidelines to assist newcomers in becoming familiar with a particular style or syntax. Wikis generally have what is referred to as the sandbox. The sandbox is essentially the training ground, a place for new users to "cut their teeth" prior to being unleashed on the primary development areas.

Given the open nature of wikis it is fairly easy to tell that the idea behind it was for quick and easy modification. However, with that comes the potential for mistakes/errors to be made. Although, in general, modifications to wiki pages are instantaneously posted, there are a few components designed to assist in moderating the content. The most common is "Recent Changes" page which may have a list of recent edits or all edits within a given time frame. Also, through most wikis there is a Revision History (where you can view previous page versions) and the diff feature which will highlight the difference between two versions. These 3 features are usually used in conjunction with one another. Through the recent history one could use the diff feature to see if the changes are acceptable. If they are not, then the moderator can consult the Revision History to restore a previous version of the document. These are not necessarily the only forms of content management that will be available through a specific wiki engine or application, it is all dependent on which software you use.

An unfortunate side affect of the open community of wikis is vandalism. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Vandalism) Individuals sometimes abuse the priviledges and intentionally try to destroy the quality of a wiki. Some less offensive but none the less distructive forms of abuse not necessarily considered vandalism may include "WikiSquatting (using the Wiki for personal Web Space), WalledGardens (a series of self-contained pages within a larger wiki), ChatMode (ThreadMode without cleanup) and WikiSpam (commercial advertising). However, to combat vandalism and other forms of abuse most wikis do incorporate the ability to limit write access usually by IP or username if it is known. However ISP can cause issues because with every login the ISP users may be assigned a different IP. So often a range of IPs are blocked. Unfortunately that means that other (well intended) users may also be banned. In an emergency situation wikis can be switched to read-only mode for protection. Defacement is often fairly easy to combat with revision history readily available. None the less it can be a constant battle.

The basic philosophy ingrained in wiki technology promotes the concept of "soft security." Repeated moderates and supporters of the wiki community state they would rather moderate and recover pages (even the maliciously tampering of pages) than restrict & in their opinion stifle the open and collaborative nature of the given project. Soft security essentially is depending on the ethical behavior of others, to respect the community and watch out for your neighbors. A comparison would be back in the day when people felt comfortable leaving their front doors unlocked, because their neighbors were out on the front porch and would keep watch to help discourage any intrusion.

Some of the more public (high traffic wikis) have had to investigate and implement hard security tactics as well. Most wiki applications have the built-in capability to lock pages to read-only in emergencies. Although I did not specifically investigate the vulnerabilities of the application, the server running the application is as open to vulnerabilities as any other server would be. Not only is the threat of intential exploits valid, but so too is connectivity or network stability. One article mentioned that some implementations not thought through completely have become increasingly dependent on the wikis for daily activities, which has allowed network outages to become crippling.

Another aspect of wikis related to security or legal standards is intellectual property rights. For the most part wikis are labeled as public domain, which means contributors forfeit any rights to the content. This is often a point of objection for people, who do not want to forfeit the rights to their information/knowledge. A few wiki communities may be established with either a community copyright or a copyleft copyright. Community copyright is when an individual asserts his or her IP rights but allows for modifications (which of course he or she can overturn). Copyleft is allowing anyone to use the content or derivatives of the information as long as they are released under the same license as the original. Needless to say copyright issues are often muddled and complicated on their own but with the ability for there to be anon. contributors and the collaborative approach to wikis copyright issues can become significantly more complicated.

Unrelated to security, another common objection to wikis is that they are ugly and newcomers often felt lost due to the lack of hierarchical (traditional) organization of the content. Although some wikis allow for hierarchical, the non-linear structure (having the links embedded through the text only) can be disorienting. Wiki supporters claim once you get used to it the nuisance of it goes away.

Some common uses currently gaining popularity include: Knowledge Management (banks or logs) (including a suggestion that a Library in Oregon established a knowledge bank or the reference librarians that the content was managed by the Librarians) Hpertext databases for research & writing, Personal Information Managers PIM or organizers, team collaboration tools, academic instruction (dist ed group projects) system documentation and FAQ's.

The Spirit of Wikis

The spirit of wikis is:

  • Fast retrieval & modification of Web pages
  • Simple markups for editing
  • Links need no mark-ups
  • Flexible and fluid
  • Customizable--any feature one wiki has another wiki can have
  • OPEN Editing
  • Work in PROGRESS

Summary

In conclusion I believe it is important to remember that wikis are a tool. Nothing more nothing less. Well planned project that identifies a wiki as a key tool for achieving a goal is necessary for the success of a wiki. Article after article reiterated that unstructured wikis with no guidance seem to fail. Shel Holts in an article entitled the Wiki backlash stated that there will be examples of both positive and negative implementations of wikis. The difference will most likely be because of the planning. Because there is nothing inherently good or bad about the tools themselves. The point is to establish a true need for the implantation of the tool. Wikis are usually brought up by the end user who sees a way to fill a gap in their current work load. In this sense the implementation is generally valuable to the end user because they see the fit for the technology.

References

Portland Pattern Repository's- the first wiki http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?WelcomeVisitors

EHow- a wiki of how-to's...http://wiki.ehow.com/Main-Page

WikiCities- a collection of wiki communities on various topics http://www.wikicities.com/wiki/Wikicities

Wikipedia- one of the most popular and utilized wikis, an online encyclopedia that continues to grow and is available in a wide range of languages. http://www.wikipedia.org

Wikitionary - Wikitionary, a collaborative project to produce a free multilingual dictionary in every language, with definitions, etymologies, pronunciations and quotations.- http://en.wiktionary.org

Wiki Quote - Wikiquote, a free online compendium of quotations in every language, including sources (where known), and translations of non-English quotes. - http://en.wikiquote.org

Jotspot- a companion application which allows for wikitext (user editable page) to have the look and feel of a word processor. In fact they claim that the feel is very similar to Microsoft word. http://www.jotspot.com/

About the Author:  Judy Hunter manages the Willis 24-Hour General Access Computer Lab.

When

Wednesday, June 22, 2005 - 12:00pm