This is Part II of my weekly dummy series on web technologies with a social twist. Part I was about the superb social bookmarks manager, this weeks theme is Wikis. Everyone having heard of this term before (in a context other than the Wikipedia) can safely leave now – or on a second thought: stay and correct me where I’m wrong.

What’s that?

A Wiki is the result of the two principles ‘everyone can create, edit, delete and discuss content’ and ‘content is produced in atomic snippets that are linkable to other atomic snippets in a flat way’ applied on some sort of technological infrastructure that makes the creation of this content possible. Usually this takes the form of a website consisting of hyperlinked documents (but not necessarily so).

Why is it great?

  • It’s web-based. Wikis can be accessed across all browsers and machines (the digital divide still applies).
  • It’s social. Everyone (who has access to the internet) can participate. If you want to add content – go ahead. If you want to clarify something – do it. If you don’t agree with a preposition – discuss it.
  • It’s easy to use. No prior expertise with webtechnologies is required to enable you to participate.
  • It’s a self-regulating system (at least potentially). There are monadic Wikis out there, but usually you are not alone. All other participants are watching your interventions as well as you are watching all others.
  • There are tons of Wikis out there already, from the mother of all wikis (c2 – the best Wiki ever), to the wikipedia, to wikis about recipies … Do some research and find one in your area of interest, or start your own.
  • There are lots of implementations available, both for the web and the desktop (try Instiki – a Ruby based Wiki clone I use a lot, or the amazing TiddlyWiki).

Thats it?

Well, almost. The first two thoughts popping up in people seeing a wiki for the first time are usually: ‘so I can write complete bullshit as well?’ and ‘so how can I know that the information is valid?’. Well you can (write bullshit) and you can’t (know). But you do have to consider that others are watching what you do and vandalism is usually rolled back within minutes – given there is a critical mass of users. As for the validity of the content: this is a complex topic (what is knowledge, what is representation, which powerstructures and interests are involved…) but Wikis do encourage some sort of dialogical construction of the knowledge about a certain domain and often very effectively so. The result is sometimes the smallest common denominator of the participants (one of the reasons I don’t like the Wikipedia too much), but make it better if you care.

Check out a few Wikis, contribute something, its fun!