Catching the Wiki Wiki bus

If you’re around web-savvy people you’ll eventually hear the term Wiki being bandied about.

I didn’t know too much about them, except that they had something to do with the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, and decided I needed to know more. Wikipedia itself, at www.wikipedia.org, seemed to be the logical place to start in getting to grips with the concept.

It seems that a Wiki is actually a software package that allows users to very easily create and edit pages on a website and to make hyperlinks between pages. The software is now commonly used as a collaborative tool for many different purposes, including internal company websites.

Other uses include publicly accessible websites with just about as many purposes as you could imagine. There are Wiki-powered encyclopaedias, dictionaries, and there are many sites used by computer programmers to discuss projects they’re working on.

The first Wiki, WikiWikiWeb was started by Ward Cunningham in 1995 and he developed it for users to share ideas on people, patterns and projects in software development. The name was inspired by the fast Wiki Wiki bus at Honolulu airport, which runs between the various terminals.

Cunningham once said that a Wiki was the ‘simplest possible online database that could possibly work’. The software for creating Wikis is now freely available on the Internet to anyone that wants it.

Probably the most famous Wiki is Wikipedia which now boasts well over two million articles in English and many more in lots of other languages. Articles can be contributed or edited by anyone who cares to do so and is prepared to sign up on the site.

Most Wikis have the characteristic that they can be edited by users and Wikipedia is no exception. The first thought that most have when they hear this is that the system is going to descend into chaos as users input incorrect information either unknowingly, or deliberately.

This has happened on certain occasions when articles have been edited to cast doubt on the parentage of well-known politicians. In other cases, articles apparently written by academics, have been found to have originated from other, less qualified sources.

Proponents of Wikis don’t deny that the quality of information in publicly accessible Wikis can be poor, but they believe that honest and knowledgeable users will correct mistakes and misinformation over time so that, what will eventually remain, is an accurate and valuable body of knowledge for the benefit of all.

I must say that the system does appear to work in the case of Wikipedia, at least, and I have often found the information I needed there. Sometimes, when looking for something, you get a warning that the information contained in an article may be suspect as it is not sufficiently backed-up by references to other publications where it can be checked.

Wikipedia is a great place to start to look for information and links to other informative websites. It wouldn’t do, however, to bet the farm on the accuracy of facts you find there; ideally you shouldn’t even do that with books.

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