If 2004 was the year of the blog, I think 2005 will be the year of the Wiki. Wikis first came to my attention in 2003 in the form of the Wikipedia, which I thought was a fascinating and fabulous idea. What I didn’t know at the time was that Wikis have been around since 1996, when Ward Cunningham started his first Wiki.

For those who are hazy on what a Wiki is, here is a definition from Ward Cunningham himself:

Wiki is a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser. Wiki supports hyperlinks and has a simple text syntax for creating new pages and crosslinks between internal pages on the fly.

Wiki is unusual among group communication mechanisms in that it allows the organization of contributions to be edited in addition to the content itself.

Like many simple concepts, “open editing” has some profound and subtle effects on Wiki usage. Allowing everyday users to create and edit any page in a Web site is exciting in that it encourages democratic use of the Web and promotes content composition by nontechnical users.

So Wikis are collaborative and democratic. Anyone can delete or add to an entry. It’s a great way for a group to share knowledge without one person – a moderator – exerting control over the dialogue. It really reflects the way we communicate and exchange information in real life, unlike a blog, which (even with comments) still reflects the ultimate control of the author. The beautiful thing about a Wiki is that it documents the experiences in the user community and basically preserves the group’s consensus, or lack of consensus, on a given topic.

On the other hand, the lack of control can easily lead to abuse. People can write excellent articles only to have them defaced by malicious individuals. In the case of the Wikipedia (a collaborative encyclopedia Wiki), many subject experts have said that they do not want to post to the site for that very reason. Wiki creators have tried various measures to prevent abuse – version control, making users register, and having mechanisms of review (kind of defeats the purpose of having a Wiki) – but really the best way to prevent abuse are the people who contribute. You can’t prevent trolls from vandalizing a Wiki, but the community will certainly do its best to shame the troll and quickly change his/her work.

There has been quite an uproar over the utility of the Wikipedia on various blogs and listservs. Since Walt Crawford did such a masterful job of documenting the debate in his most recent Cites and Insights I won’t go into great detail. But many people have suggested that it is not possible to create a useful or accurate encyclopedia using the Wiki model. They argue that greater control is needed over content since the vast majority of people who will contribute to such an endeavor will be crackpots, vandals, or ignorant people. Others have stated that major changes need to be made to the culture that surrounds the Wikipedia, but that it could be a useful resource in the future. Still others think that the fact that the community at large is editing each article makes the Wikipedia’s articles superior to those in traditional encyclopedias. Read Walt’s Wikipedia and Worth to get the full story.

And for more background on the debate, check out Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism from kuro5hin , The Faith-Based Encyclopedia by Robert McHenry , Former Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and Clay Shirkey’s pro-Wikipedia rant in Many2Many.

I agree with some of the points people have made about Wikipedia’s shortcomings. However, I still believe it has value and I am definitely a fan. It was not designed to replace the Encyclopædia Britannica, but it is a reference work nonetheless. Yes, I have concerns about the quality and accuracy of some of its entries – especially considering that most people on the Web are not concerned about distinguishing quality information – but traditional Encyclopedias are also not without inaccuracies and are not meant to be the end of people’s research journey. And what is beautiful about the Wikipedia is that, because articles are reviewed by everyone and anyone, it is less likely that particular biases will permeate any article (or at least it probably won’t stay that way for long).

I agree with Walt that the Wikipedia is a good jumping-off point. Entries often include links to scholarly articles and other sites, encouraging people to utilize other resources in their research. It’s certainly not the best choice for serious research, but when you just want to get the basic gist of what Manichaeism means or want to find out when a particular musician died, it can be a good quick-and-dirty reference.

While most people’s knowledge of Wikis are limited to the Wikipedia, there are many other purposes for which Wikis are used. They are an excellent way to share information in a professional environment. Workgroups often use Wikis to track their progress and work collaboratively. It’s less formal than other onlines means of collaboration and quite easy to update. Those who create software and web applications often use Wikis for their documentation. The blog software I use (WordPress) has a Wiki that “is designed to allow users, hackers, and all others to collaborate and communicate” in order to improve the documentation. Wikis have begun to enter the library world as well. TangognaT has been developing her own Wiki in preparation for “turn[ing] our reference desk manual (currently a giant binder) into a Wiki.” It is a great idea for user manuals, where policies and practices can often change, and it can be difficult to get the word out to everyone. The Wiki’s greatest strength in my opinion is how easily and quickly things can be updated. Wikis could also be used to assist in research. The Digital Librarian suggested that an online finding aid could have the functionality of a wiki:

Imagine if users could leave behind comments or annotations to a finding aid – providing additional information related to the materials located by the finding aid. It would open the door to sharing research experiences, allowing for collaborative research, and making it easier for future researchers to find the materials they need in a particular collection.

There have been some fabulous articles about the uses of Wikis. A new article Making the Case for a Wiki by Emma Tonkin, looks at some unusual uses for wikis and the wiki’s limitations. Quickiwiki, Swiki, Twiki, Zwiki and the Plone Wars Wiki as a PIM and Collaborative Content Tool by David Mattison in Searcher is a great article about what Wikis can do and what they may be able to do in the future. Do a Google search on the subject and you’ll find plenty more information and commentary on Wikis.

If I had to predict anything tech-wise for 2005, it would be that many more libraries are going to start using wikis administratively. I love the concept of the Wiki and I think it has many useful applications in the library and technology worlds. However, I think the Wiki’s greatest strengths can sometimes be its greatest weakness, and I don’t think it is effective in every setting. I look forward to seeing what develops this year in the wacky Wiki world!