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Since we're about to roll out a wiki server, that is this weeks topic.

That word "wiki" is an even weirder than "blog". What does it mean?

A Wiki is a collaborative online workspace accessible through a web browser. It is designed to display documents that anyone in a group can edit, while saving all previous versions. Think of it as a shared whiteboard with an unlimited Undo button. A Wiki server allows you to create a Wiki, and other people to view and edit it as well. The word "wiki" came from the Hawaiian word "wiki wiki" meaning "quick"; it refers to the ease of editing documents in the wiki system. A wiki server is a computer program running on a web server, that allows people to create and work with wikis.

Why would I want to set up a wiki?

There are many uses for a wiki. An office could put up documents for collaborative revision. Students working on a group project could keep shared notes or even write a full-scale paper in a wiki. A professor might set up a wiki for students in a class to discuss lectures or share information. Any group that wants a shared online workspace can benefit from a wiki.

But if anyone can see or edit documents in a wiki, wouldn't everything in there get messed up?

First of all, it's not really true that anyone can view or edit a wiki. Often they are public, but they can be protected so only a certain group can view or edit them. Since wikis are designed for collaboration, it's usually best to let everyone who can view them also edit them; if you need a tool for a few people to put out information to many, a blog would be a better choice.

What's the difference between a wiki and a blog?

There are many differences between these two tools. The primary one is that blog entries are made by an author and then usually not changed, with newer entries eventually pushing older ones into an archive. Documents in a wiki are updated on an ongoing basis by many people; no one has special status as an author. A wiki does have archives, but they consist of previous versions of all documents. Where a blog allows readers to comment on posts made by an author, a wiki allows readers to go in and edit the actual document.

What kind of documents can be in a wiki?

Wiki documents mainly consist of text with some formatting codes. Images can be included in most types of wiki server, and files of other types can be attached so that other readers of the document can download them. Documents often include links to other documents.

What if someone intentionally posts false information or deletes something important?

One of the key features of a wiki is a revision history. Any time a change is made to a document, the prior version is saved. Individuals can also sign up to be notified of changes to documents they are interested in. If necessary, the document can be reverted to a prior version, or deleted content can be copied out of an older version and restored to the new one if that is more convenient.

What if I fix an error but the person who posted the original error just edits the document back to their version?

This is an issue with which many widely used wikis have had to cope. Generally, this sort of back-and-forth editing is the result of a disagreement, though it can also be caused by honest mistakes. Most popular wikis have policies on this sort of thing, usually suggesting that both parties in the dispute resolve their differences privately, or perhaps with the help of a neutral third party. By granting editing rights to everyone, wikis embody an expectation that everyone will act in good faith and attempt to solve problems in a mature manner. If someone repeatedly fails to live up to this expectation, an administrator of the wiki can restrict their ability to participate.

Does this mean that wikis aren't worth using?

Any collaborating group, no matter what tools they use, may encounter problems and conflicts. Wikis are just a tool for collaboration and aren't inherently more prone to disagreements than say, email or a forum. The only reason that this FAQ has given attention to potential conflicts is that unlike email, forums, blogs, or nearly anything else on the Internet, wikis allow people to edit what other people have written. Documents are not inherently the property of any one person, but of the entire collaborating group. As long as this fundamental difference is recognized, problems are not likely to arise.

What are some examples of wikis I can look at?

By far the most famous is Wikipedia, available at " http://www.wikipedia.org/. It is a free encyclopedia comparable in scope to most printed encyclopedias, and is completely user-edited and maintained. Conventional wisdom might say such a project would quickly become full of misinformation and bias; however, the opposite is actually true. Since so many people use the site, false information is usually corrected quickly, often by the person who noticed it. All updates can be checked by administrators, and it is easy for them to revert to an earlier version of an article if necessary. While this system might not yield information as authoritative as a conventional encyclopedia, it does result in a wider variety of topics, including ones related to current events.

Since Wikipedia is a public wiki, you yourself can make changes if you spot any mistakes or even want to start an article on some new topic. On the Wikipedia home page, click the language of your choice to be taken to a main page. Click the "Anyone can Edit" link near the top (if you are in the Spanish version, click the "colaborar" link at the end of the first paragraph instead) for an introduction and tutorial.

Where can I go for more information?

Wikipedia has many extremely well-thought-out articles on the wiki system and the issues that may arise from allowing everyone to edit. Like any encyclopedia, Wikipedia includes articles on many controversial topics; past disputes have taught the community valuable lessons which are embodied in policy documents on the site (which are, naturally enough, wiki documents.) On Wikipedia's website, simply search for the work "wiki" to get started!

That's all for this week. Next we'll talk more about the WOU wiki server in specific.


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