Or does using a specific type of software necessarily define the product?

I was as excited as everyone else when I heard that the WorldCat wiki was live in Open WorldCat and that people could start adding reviews, tables of contents, and other notes on books. It will add tremendous value to WorldCat! How easy is it to look at most online catalogs and know whether or not a book will meet your information/recreational needs? More often than not, when I am helping a student find books relevant for his/her research that s/he will need to order through ILL, I will first check WorldCat to find books on the subject and will then check Amazon to get an idea whether or not this book will meet the student’s needs.

So, yes, I am excited about this new functionality in WorldCat and I hope it will soon come to our FirstSearch version of WorldCat. But I wouldn’t really call it a wiki.

Lorcan Dempsey at OCLC has since retracted the claim that the new WorldCat functionality makes it a wiki, but Thom Hickey still insists that being somewhat wiki-like makes something a wiki:

I can certainly understand someone objecting to calling this a Wiki, but it is a Wiki in at least a couple of ways. Some of the material is available for general editing (notes and tables of contents). There was general agreement here, though, that people should ‘own’ their reviews, so reviews are not open to everyone to edit.

Well, I’m like a cat in a lot of ways. I have two eyes, a nose, a mouth, the ability to give birth to live young, etc. But the last time I checked, I didn’t have a tail or pointy ears on top of my head. So I’m probably not a cat. Similarly, WorldCat may have some characteristics of a wiki, but it has other characteristics that make it not a wiki.

First, let’s define what a wiki is. Here’s a definition from the Wikipedia:

a web application that allows users to add content, as on an Internet forum, but also allows others (often completely unrestricted) to edit the content.

and from Ward Cunningham (the creator of the wiki):

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.

I’d say a wiki must essentially have three things:

  1. It should be very easy to create and edit content (ie. you don’t have to know HTML)
  2. Members of the community (whether large or small) can edit content
  3. New pages are created simply by creating a link to them

Can anything that does not meet all of these criteria be considered a wiki? It’s one thing to protect certain pages in a wiki from edits, but people should still have the ability to edit content. Otherwise it is not really a wiki. If I can’t go back and make changes even to my own review, I am clearly not working with a wiki. It’s true that anyone can edit the notes and the table of contents in any entry, but nothing in a wiki should ever be irrevocable. That’s what I love about wikis — you can always fix your mistakes. Saying that WorldCat is now a wiki is like saying a blog is a wiki if anyone can comment on a post. Sure, anyone can easily add content (comments) and create links, but in a blog, no one can edit anyone else’s content (nor their own), so it’s not really a wiki. There should be no individual ownership in a wiki. The content is owned by the community of users. It’s a very foreign concept to most people (and perhaps sounds a bit “communistic”), but for certain projects, it works. And for others, a wiki isn’t really the right thing to use.

The new functionality in WorldCat is undoubtedly cool, but I’d say it’s more like Amazon.com or Netflix than like a wiki. People can add information that will allow others to make more informed decisions. I agree with Thom Hickey that people shouldn’t be allowed to change other people’s reviews in WorldCat. But that’s exactly why it’s not a wiki. A wiki would not work well in a WorldCat or an Amazon.com. Wikis are terrific tools (and are certainly the hip thing here in 2005) and I’ve used them for a variety of projects, but they’re not well-suited for something like WorldCat or Amazon or Netflix where there is some content you just wouldn’t want to open up to the community. I’m certainly one of the biggest wiki-evangelists in libraryland, but I don’t think a wiki is a “cure-all” and that is should be used for every project.

OCLC, what y’all did is still really cool… and all the better (in my opinion) that it isn’t a wiki. 🙂