postheadericon TECH TALK: The Wiki Behind Wikileaks

By far the hottest topic in the tech world this week is more of a political issues then a techno one: Wikileaks. But for those that don’t know what a wiki is, and have often wondered if a wiki could be in their own computing future, then this article is for you – even if you could care less about the hundreds of diplomatic embarrassments released this week as part of Wikileak’s latest: Cablegate.

First, a wiki is a website with a special webserver application that supports the group editing of pages on the site. Most of us know of, or have used Wikipedia (an online encyclopedia of gargantuan proportions), but did you know that the “wiki” is the Hawaiian word for “fast”?

But speed is not what makes a wiki website unique; instead, the collaborative opportunities to contribute does. For example, the reason that the Wikipedia database of knowledge is so vast is that there is an army of wiki editors hard at work (citation needed) creating, editing, and even deleting wiki pages 24x7.

The evolution of any particular Wikipedia page is of interest, as it’s been said that this massive collaboration amongst a general population of writers amounts to “Darwikinism” – meaning that web pages in a wiki environment are undergoing a social Darwinian process, a natural selection if you will, and that wiki sites evolve over time to a higher plane as pages are deleted (killed off), content is revised, and new information is added.

A wiki differs from a blog or normal webpage, in the sense that a blog is usually one person posting and everyone else commenting; a wiki is a place where the content is evolving and is not static, as with a blog posting. Another major feature of a wiki is that the pages are being linked with other related web pages, both by the software and by the editors themselves.

For example, a wiki writer will often create a table of contents or index that links other related pages to their wiki topic. The wiki software is keeping track of all these links, so as pages are deleted or moved the indexes are updated automatically. This is terribly important, as no one wants to click on a link – ever – to only find a “404 error, page not found”.

Another important aspect of a wiki website is that the content of site can be edited easily, even by grandma or bhini. A wiki page can be edited using one’s web browser of choice, with no add-ons needed. There is a simplified mark-up language that must be learned, but the language is much easier to learn then HTML, which is the standard language for all pages displayed on the web today.

For example, if I were writing a sentence that wanted to reference another page on the wiki, I would not have to know about HTML hypertext linking, I could just express the link like this:
The [[US Government]] was embarrassed once again with the release of hundreds of secret/confidential embassy cables this week on Wikileaks.

So a link to an existing page on the US Government is automatically created by just typing [[US Government]].

Formatting is also simplified, so that writers don’t need to remember, for example, how to make a word italic using the HTML tags <i> and </i> – they just surround the word in two single quotes like this: ‘’italicized word’’.

But what does this all mean to groups, organizations, and businesses at large? Well, since wiki server software is abundant and largely open source, it means that any group of knowledgeable folks on any variety of topics, be it on a product or a social agenda, can easily start a wiki database of their own, and then share a living and growing knowledgebase with the world-at-large.

Some samples of wikis started by normal folks like us include Wikituneup, an instructional wiki on how to fix cars, and A Million Penguins, which is a collaboratively written novel. Armeniapedia is an encyclopedia just on the country of Armenia, and Diplopedia is a private US government-run wiki that serves the US Department of State. Unfortunately for them, Diplopedia has been eclipsed by Wikileaks, which has made much of what goes inside that office public for all to read.

So my suggestion to anyone wishing to share knowledge by setting up a collaborative website is to take a look at this wiki page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_wiki_software, which compares all the wiki server software currently in the wild, and also highlights which software is best used for a particular information-sharing purpose.

Whether you are trying to end the free world as we know it, or just want to create a collaborative encyclopedia on Nepal’s best momo recipes, there is wiki application out there just for you.

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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