How do wikis work?
Wikis are lightweight collaborative technologies. One can write text directly within a wiki page on-line or copy and paste text from a word processor.
Text formatting to date has been kept extremely simple, with each of the many types of wiki determining its own simple markup styles. However, more and more wikis - especially in educational contexts - are choosing (or configuring their wikis to use) what is referred to as a "What You See Is What You Get" WYSIWYG Interface. Specific guidelines for How to WikiWork are in the Production Section.
As Brian Lamb (2004) points out, it is risky to talk about wikis as if they're all the same. Even dedicated wikiheads engage in "perpetual arguments about what constitutes true wikiness. But some fundamental principles (usually) apply". Lamb comments on four "Wiki Essences" that are particularly noteworthy.
- Wiki Essence 1: Anyone can change anything. Wikis are quick because the processes of reading and editing are combined. The signature of a wiki is a link at the bottom of the page reading "Edit text of this page" or something similar. Clicking that link produces the page's hypertext markup, allowing instant revisions. Authoring software, permissions, or passwords are typically not required.
- Wiki Essence 2: Wikis use simplified hypertext markup. Wikis have their own markup language that essentially strips HTML down to its simplest elements. New users need to learn a few formatting tags, but only a few. Most wiki tags significantly streamline and simplify their tasks. For instance, the minimum HTML code needed to create a named hyperlink to EDUCAUSE Review on-line, using the text "EDUCAUSE Review", would be rendered in a wiki within square brackets. The result, Review, saves a minimum of twelve keystrokes and is significantly easier to remember. Raw URLs (web addresses) typically require no markup tags at all to be rendered live on a wiki page.
- Wiki Essence 3: WikiPageTitlesAreMashedTogether. Wiki page titles often eschew spaces to allow for quick page creation and automatic, markup-free links between pages within (and sometimes across) wiki systems. Linking to related pages is easy (you just type in the WikiPage name), which promotes promiscuous interlinking among wiki pages.
- Wiki Essence 4: Content is egoless, timeless, and never finished. Anonymity, though not required, is commonplace. With open editing, a page can have multiple contributors, and notions of page "authorship" and "ownership" can be radically altered. Content "cloning" across wikis — sometimes referred to in non-wiki circles as "plagiarism" — is often acceptable. (This attitude toward authorship can make citations in articles a tricky exercise.) Unlike weblogs, wiki pages are rarely organized by chronology; instead, they are organized by context, by links in and links out, and by whatever categories or concepts emerge in the authoring process. And for the most part, wikis are in a constant state of flux. Entries are often unpolished, and creators may deliberately leave gaps open, hoping that somebody else will come along to fill them in.
What do wikis look like?
The most famous wiki to date is Wikipedia. Typically a wiki is very "clean". This means there is mostly (or solely) text. However, images can be added.
Information is organized according to the author's wishes. That is, there is no built-in hierarchy or arborescence. A wiki author can create one very long page or create as many other interlinking pages (subcategories, directories or links) as they wish. These "structurings" can easily be undone or redone. To see possible wiki components, see the Templates and Tools section.
What have wikis been used for?
Wikis have been used successfully in education (Collaborative Software Lab, 2000; Guzdial, 1999). Research has shown that teachers and students can get very creative and develop innovative and useful activities for learning (Synteta, 2002). For some, wikis become objects to think with (James, 2004b), for others, wikis can help build an understanding of a community's shared knowledge.
Specific examples of wiki work are presented below in the Examples Section.
- Lamb's footnote: Various authors, "Elements of Wiki Essence," WikiWikiWeb.
- Additions to Lamb's text (in parentheses) are added to facilitate comprehension for those unfamiliar with certain terms.