Wikis and structured information

I want to make a comparison of used by different websites. Wikis are an obvious choice, used by many different websites, so let’s start by looking at what defines a wiki.

A wiki is a database for creating, browsing, and searching through information. It enables documents to be written collaboratively, and has these essential features:

  • A user can edit any page and create new pages within the wiki, with a standard browser.
  • Page link creation as almost intuitively easy, and it’s easy to see whether a target page exists yet or not.
  • Rather than being a carefully crafted site, it seeks to involve the visitor in a process of creation and collaboration that constantly changes the site.

Easy creation and updating of pages is key. Wikis don’t always live up to this goal as well as we would like – many people who might become valuable contributors are put off by “wiki markup”, the “==”, “[[” and “{{” scattered through the text. (Actually, it’s safe for a new contributor to just ignore such marks left by other editors, and edit only the text, but it’s still very offputting to a newbie and there are efforts underway to dramatically improve this, and keep these hidden unless you want to see them.)

Another characteristic of wikis is that they are very much a blank slate – when you create a page in a standard wiki, there are no fields to fill in, no boxes to check – you just have a blank edit box to enter your text. Structure is often valuable though, and what happens is that keen users build a structure using:

  • templates, e.g. {{unreferenced}} to flag an unsupported claim, or the infobox you find on any Wikipedia page about a plant, animal or location.
  • special tags, e.g. <ref></ref> for inserting footnotes,
  • parser functions to allow logical operations
  • magic words, to return data from the software such as pagename and date,

…and no doubt other tools I’ve missed. These help to create a structure that maintains consistency between pages, and guides editors in contributing to a page. These structures are never binding, however – content can be added outside the structure, and the structure itself is built within the wiki, and is open to editing.

Another approach to structure is through the use of extensions – Semantic MediaWiki, UniWiki, page comment extensions and others – that allow information to be entered or displayed in different ways. Again, these generally don’t remove the basic freedom of a wiki page – in most cases the editor can choose to use or not use them, as they wish.

So is a wiki “The Answer” for collaborative projects? In areas such as sustainable design, aid and development methodologies, appropriate technology, and related areas, some people have concluded that their collaborative project needs more structure than a wiki provides, and have come up with other models. In coming posts, I’ll be looking at specific approaches to these tasks, using wiki and non-wiki platforms.