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From time to time, I’ll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and hopefully consider trying it out — even if it’s all new to you. I’ve already covered blogging, RSS feeds and citizen journalism; this week I’ll look at wikis.

What Are Wikis?

A wiki is simply a web page that can be written or edited by the public or a group of people. What sets wikis apart from other web pages is the simple way that anyone can edit or add to an existing page, or start a new page.

Ward Cunningham (pictured above) is the Portland-based computer engineer who birthed the first wiki software on March 25, 1995, creating the WikiWikiWeb as a resource and collaborative environment for the early wiki community. Inspired by the “wiki-wiki” shuttles in Hawaii, Cunningham says, “I chose wiki-wiki as an alliterative substitute for quick and thereby avoided naming this stuff ‘quick-web.’” (You can find more wiki history here.)

Wikis have gained prominence thanks to the huge popularity of the collaborative Wikipedia encyclopedia in recent years. They have also become part of the Web 2.0 trend toward social media and community-generated content, with various technology startups offering to host free wikis for anyone.

There are varying levels of editing rules at wikis, with some being totally open to the public, others requiring registration before editing, and still others remaining totally private within corporate networks. Media organizations have been slow to incorporate wikis into the news reporting process, mainly because of the fear of online vandalism and the trouble in balancing openness with editorial standards.

The Wikipedia Phenomenon

Launched in 2001, Wikipedia has become a huge success in community participation and traffic, though it has remained a controversial source for unbiased and complete information. There are now 250 language editions of Wikipedia, with English leading the pack with 1.4 million entries (there are more than 5 million entries total). Amazingly, all this material is created by volunteers who write and edit entries on the site, and Wikipedia is officially run by the non-profit Wikipedia Foundation. The online community that has sprung up around Wikipedia is one of the strongest online, with various ways for “Wikipedians” to discuss articles and debate details.

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Alexa ranks the Wikipedia sites as the twelfth most visited on the web as of October 30. In Europe, Wikipedia sites ranked No. 6, with nearly 60 million unique visitors in September 2006, according to comScore World Metrix.

You can’t search for basic terms on Google without getting Wikipedia links. Wikipedia itself does a grand job of keeping statistics on itself, including a page that keeps track of what Wikipedia is more popular than…. online. According to that page, Wikipedia is now ranked in traffic ahead of the following media sites: BBC, CNN, New York Times, USA Today, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR and many more.

Despite its popularity, Wikipedia has been criticized for being too easy to vandalize, for giving too much power to people with little knowledge of subjects, and for having a liberal bias. Leave it to the community-edited encyclopedia to do the best job cataloging the criticism that Wikipedia itself has received. Here’s part of the comprehensive Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia has become increasingly controversial as it has gained prominence and popularity, with critics alleging that Wikipedia’s open nature makes it unauthoritative and unreliable, with unconfirmed information that is often without any proper sources, that it exhibits severe systemic bias and inconsistency. Wikipedia has also been criticized for its use of dubious sources, its biased but neutrally written perspective towards certain point of views, its disregard for credentials, its lack of understanding and [lack of] international nature and its vulnerability to vandalism and special interest groups.

MediaShift has covered the controversial nature of Wikipedia before during Wikipedia Week; you can start with the blog post, Is There a Neutral View on George W. Bush? and follow the links onward. Wikipedia has branched out into various other projects, including the Wiktionary, Wikiquote for quotations, and Wikinews for breaking news.

Media Experiments with Wikis

One of the best uses for wikis in journalism is to create public-edited wikis to track complex data. The Center for Media & Democracy has set up two such projects: SourceWatch for tracking lobbyists, PR firms and political consultants who shape the public agenda; and Congresspedia for tracking the workings of the U.S. Congress. Both projects are written and edited by the public but overseen by a paid editor.

The traditional media has a more uneven track record with wikis. The Los Angeles Times infamously tried out a wikitorial as a public-edited editorial on the Iraq war in 2005. They warned early on:

We’re calling this a “public beta,” which is a fancy way of saying we’re making something available even though we haven’t completely figured it out. A better term might be “experiment.” We begin with just one wikitorial. Maybe a year from now a link for “wiki this page” will be as common on the Web as “printer-friendly” or “e-mail this article.” Or maybe not.

It partly depends on you. You can help by participating and by avoiding hostile behavior. Wikis can build community, but they also rely on a sense of community. We also count on you to suggest improvements. Who knows where this will lead? It may lead straight into the dumpster of embarrassing failures.

Indeed it did. After the Los Angeles Times web editors went home for the night, the wikitorial was defaced by visitors and the site was shut down.

Also in 2005, I ran a tightly controlled wiki for an article about VJs or video journalists for Online Journalism Review. I wrote some of the article, and posted questions on the site to the main sources in the debate. They then logged on to write their own responses, creating a living document of their discussion. During that process, readers were invited to weigh in through comments.

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In August 2006, Wired News put a draft of a story about wikis into a wiki to let the public edit and add to the story. The writer, Ryan Singel, believes that his story was made stronger due to the edits, but that it lacked the storytelling aspect that a single writer can create. Here’s part of his postmortem on the experiment:

The edits over the week lack some of the narrative flow that a Wired News piece usually contains. The transitions seem a bit choppy, there are too many mentions of companies, and too much dry explication of how wikis work. It feels more like a primer than a story to me.

That doesn’t make the experiment a failure, and we clearly tapped into a community that wants to make news stories better (which, for some, means links to their site). Hopefully, we’ll continue to experiment to find ways to involve that community more.

Wikis in Business and Beyond

Wikis have become receptacles of collective wisdom in private virtual space at corporations, universities and the government, in networks that are closed off for people who want to collaborate without the world peeking in. Various startup companies aim to serve those business needs with what are called “wiki farms” offering free or paid options for hosting your wiki. These companies include Wikia, co-founded by Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame, and JotSpot, which was recently bought by Google. Wikipedia has a big comparison chart of wiki farms here.

In 2006, the U.S. intelligence agencies have used wikis to reach out to the broader intelligence community to share classified information — but of course not with the public. David Kaplan recently wrote in U.S. News about the use of wikis in the CIA and at the office of the Director of National Intelligence:

Two years ago, the CIA launched its own wiki. Dubbed simply the CIA Wiki, it now boasts some 10,000 classified pages. In January, the DNI followed with a community-wide wiki, dubbed the Intellipedia. The DNI’s National Intelligence Council — which produces the government’s weighty National Intelligence Estimates on key topics — has just launched an experiment to produce the first NIE by wiki. The subject: Nigeria. Top experts on the oil-rich African nation are working together on the Intellipedia to help chart its future.

As for public wikis beyond Wikipedia, there are many other interesting wikis that are open to public editing as well. They include:

ArmchairGM — sports commentary and encyclopedia

Bible Wiki — complete text of the Bible open to commentary

CookBook Wiki — thousands of articles and recipes for foodies

LyricWiki — song lyrics database

Marvel Database Project — encyclopedia for Marvel Comics

Meatball Wiki — online community managers share intelligence

TV IV — information on U.S. TV shows, including daily schedule

WikiHow — community-generated how-to manual

WikiTravel — a worldwide travel guide

Wookieepedia — “Star Wars” encyclopedia

Resources

To learn more about wikis, check out some of these wiki pages, news articles and other great resources:

David Weekly’s Presentation about Wikis at Xerox PARC

Crazy Money for Wiki.com — domain sells for nearly $3 million

Google Goes Wild for Wikis — story on Google’s purchase of JotSpot

Heavy Metal Umlaut screencast by InfoWorld’s Jon Udell explains how Wikipedia editing works

Open-Sourcing the News — News.com Q&A with Jimmy Wales about Wikinews

The Web’s Wizard of Working Together — profile of wiki-father Ward Cunningham

Why Wikis Are Conquering the Enterprise — Gartner predicts 50% of companies will be using wikis by 2009

WikiIndex — index to publicly accessible wikis

WikiMatrix — lets you compare various wiki software features

Wikipedia article on Wikipedia

Wiki Spam — Discussion of problem where spammers put their info on wikis to raise Google rank

These lists are far from exhaustive and are only a start for people who want to get to know what wikis are about. If you have more resources or important media experiments to add to the list, tell me in the comments below and I’ll add them above. Also, do you think wikis are more useful in private settings or in public ones, and how might journalists use them in new ways?

[Photo of Ward Cunningham by Peter Kaminski.]

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