Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Introduction To Wikis: How The Web Is Transforming Itself - Part III

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Wikis, and similar collaborative web editing tools mark a major element of transformation of the new Web emerging today.

To date, one of the main aims of the World Wide Web has been to provide users with information. In addition to private homepages, large professional information providers, including news services, companies, and other organisations have set up web-sites.


With the development and advance of recent technologies such as wikis, blogs, podcasting and file-sharing this model is challenged and community-driven services are gaining influence rapidly. These new paradigms obliterate the clear distinction between information providers and consumers. The lines between producers and consumers are blurred even more by services such as Wikipedia, where every reader can become an author, instantly.

This paper presents an overview of a broad selection of current technologies and services: blogs, wikis including Wikipedia and Wikinews, social networks such as Friendster and Orkut as well as related social services like, file sharing tools such as Flickr, and podcasting. These services enable user participation on the Web and manage to recruit a large number of users as authors of new content.

In the first and in the second part of this analysis we have given a general introduction to the new ways in which users can interact though the Web while providing an introduction to blogs and their use.

In this part we are now going to focus our attention on the "wiki" phenomenon.



The term wiki is Hawaiian for "quick" and reflects Ward Cunningham's intent to create a concept that makes rapid development and organisation of web-pages possible.

The first wiki was started in 1995 as a collaborative authoring environment. Wikis in general are self-organising web-sites, where anyone on the Internet can edit existing pages and add new documents any time they wish. This means that every reader can instantly become an author.

This characteristic is interesting because initial authors of articles allow other users to edit "their" content. The fundamental idea behind wikis is that a vast number of users read and edit the content, and therefore errors will be found and corrected. Although modifications to the original article can introduce errors, the principle of evolution determines that in the course of time, after a number of changes, the document will become complete.

The aim of wikis is to reach an agreement among the authors. Through the alterations an article undergoes, and the numerous editors, the content is generally agreed upon. For the same reason, wikis tend to be unbiased, which differentiates them from blogs.

Technical Aspects of Wikis


From a technical perspective, a wiki is a web-based content management system (CMS) for generating web-pages that can contain text, images, sound and similar media objects as well as hyperlinks to internal and external resources.

Unlike a regular CMS, wikis usually do not contain sophisticated rights management. Thus apart from a few users with administrative privileges, every user in the system has the same permissions. When the content of a page is modified a wiki-specific source code has to be employed. The complexity of this markup language determines, for example, if the wiki can be used to display tables, mathematical formulas or different fonts.

The visual design of the wiki articles is determined by HTML templates that define the placement of the content on the page, the font to be used, etc. When a wiki page is requested by a user the content entered using the wiki-specific markup is translated into HTML code and is inserted into the template. Thus, a conventional HTML page with a pre-defined design is sent to the client.

The articles of a wiki are stored in a database. However, not only the most current versions of articles but their entire history is retained. Therefore wikis inherently provide version tracking, and users can have access to a list of recent changes of a given page. Moreover, the differences to a previous version of an article can be pointed out.

Application Areas


The concept of wikis is applied in numerous fields, from learning environments to documentation systems. Many companies including computer businesses and car manufacturers offer online documentation and help for business customers and consumers. Traditionally, these support databases contain information provided by engineers and customer support.

Other valuable information such experiences with the actual product gathered by users are handled in discussion forums. With wikis, engineers could provide the first version of a product description, and users could modify the initial content and append complementary information when needed.

This approach can make documentation systems much more effective since the essential description of a product, for instance, is available in a single document. The information can be kept up-to-date by the user community, and new developments such as the influence of a new operating system on an existing software product can be dealt with potentially more effectively. Discussions about topics such as the usability of the product can take place in forums or blogs attached to articles in the wiki.

Another area in which wikis are successfully applied are "knowledge bases" used in companies and organisations for internal communication and documentation. In such repositories information needed for doing everyday business but also information on competitive products, on the use of technologies, etc. can be retained.

With wikis not only a small group of editors but everyone can contribute even small portions of information to articles in an uncomplicated way. When a programmer, for instance, finds a more effective solution to a problem, she can add it to the corresponding article in the wiki, and the result is available to other programmers immediately.

A research project conducted by the CIA suggests a similar concept. Intelligence officers collecting data could insert their information into a wiki and thus make it available to the entire organization. Since an editor does not have to approve the content, the information can be offered faster, and actions such as re-structuring of articles can be performed more easily.

Many state-of-the-art learner-support systems make extensive use of digital libraries. In most cases, the information in these libraries is authored by teachers, lecturers, and professional information providers. More recent projects, however, rely heavily on the students who generate content as part of their homework or lecture.

Although the first version of the digital library will most likely be rather imperfect, subsequent versions--after a few iterations, after a few semesters--will become more and more complete. An example is a wiki that is used by university students of structural engineering to create an online library of lecture material for reinforced concrete construction science.

Further examples for wikis are Wikipedia and Wikinews presented in the future parts of this article. Wikipedia, by far the largest wiki in use today, is of special interest because phenomena of large-scale communities can be observed.

Benefits and Shortcomings of Wikis


Similar to ant colonies, wikis are self-organising systems with a large number of individuals at work. As ant colonies manage to succeed in tasks such as foraging and building nests, wiki communities can successfully author content and create organisational structures.

The fact that basically everyone on the Internet can contribute to wikis in an uncomplicated way makes them more flexible than static editor-based web-sites. Content can be created and published by users easily and, unlike regular web-sites, without profound technical background.

In addition, features such as easy and open access as well as version control make them particularly well suited for collaborative work. Users being both readers and authors at the same time is one of the strengths of wikis but also one of their major drawbacks. Although the wiki concept makes the development of content highly flexible and a system versatile, it makes maintaining high quality standards for entire wikis almost impossible.

Since basically everyone with access to a wiki can modify its content, the credibility of the information provided can be questioned. Users might inadvertently add incorrect information to a page in a wiki, and readers might mistake the content provided for reliable.

Vandalism is also a problem experienced in wikis: wrong data, advertisements, defamatory content are inserted deliberately, existing content is deleted, etc. Although acts of vandalism are usually found and corrected relatively fast they are pestering communities and can impede the authors' motivation to contribute to the system.

After a period of time and several evolutionary cycles, single articles in wikis usually become authoritative, and their level of accuracy and completeness is high. This does, however, not mean that the wiki as a whole becomes authoritative, which might be confusing especially for users not fully aware of the wiki concept. Further issues related to the wiki concept are discussed in the future parts.

Counter Measures


The open access to the content in wikis is one of their disadvantages, particularly when the information presented is critical. Therefore a distinct form of wikis with various levels of permissions is proposed, while the core features of the concept remain unaltered.

For users on the highest level, the "hierarchical wiki" can be used in exactly the same way as traditional wikis, i.e., these users can edit any section in any article. Users on lower levels, however, may only modify parts authored by users on the same level or on lower levels but not portions of text, for instance, written by users on the highest level. Users on the lowest level can only edit information initially authored by users of this level.

The key for making such a system successful is to restrict the majority of all users to the lowest level. While a few users in higher level groups supply essential information, start new articles, and work actively on maintaining quality standards, the large mass of users work only on the actual development of content.

This approach makes it possible to have the most important information provided by high level users, whereas supplementary information is authored by writers on lower level. An example is a product-related wiki, where engineers as high-level users publish a user's manual, and consumers add their experiences or information on the use of the product. Although consumers can add new information and can alter pieces of content authored by other low-level users, they are not capable of modifying the content provided by the engineers.

Potential further application areas for hierarchical wikis include the communities around intelligence agencies. One of the main processes in these environments is gathering pieces of information. As soon as new information becomes available it can, for instance, be inserted into an existing article in a wiki by the officer of the intelligence community.

While the majority of the article can be edited and viewed by everyone of the community, certain parts might be confidential and only be viewed by members of higher levels. Yet other sections such as the "core" of the article might only be edited by users on the highest level.

End of Part III of 7

Read Part I: Blogs, Wikis, Podcasting, Social Networks And File Sharing: How The Web Is Transforming Itself

Read Part II: Introduction To Blogs - How The Web Is Transforming Itself

Next part: Introduction to Wikipedia and Wikinews

Originally published as "The Transformation of the Web: How Emerging Communities Shape the Information we Consume", on by Josef Kolbitsch (Graz University of Technology, Austria), and Hermann Maurer (Institute for Information Systems and Computer Media, Graz University of Technology, Austria) on August, 2006

About the authors

Josef Kolbitsch


Josef Kolbitsch holds a PhD in computer science from the Institute of Information Systems and Computer Media, Graz University of Technology, Austria. He has conducted Several projects in the area of web-based database systems, information processing and information management systems for organisations including the Association of Telematic Engineers, the Association of Austrian Business Engineers, Graz University of Technology, and Lebenshilfe Steiermark. In addition he has been the Software trainer and personal technical trainer for Berufsf├Ârderungsinstitut Steiermark and Symantec Corporation(Auckland Branch), software license manager for Graz University of Technology, and an honorary research assistant at the Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Contact Information: josef.kolbitsch(at)

Hermann Maurer


Hermann Maurer holds a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Vienna. He has been teaching at various universities since 1966, and has been the director of the Research Institute for Applied Information Processing of the Austrian Computer Society 1983-1998; chairman of Institute for Information Processing and Computer Supported New Media since 1988, director of the Institute for Hypermedia Systems of Joannum research since 1990, director of the AWAC (Austrian Web Application Center) of the ARCS (Austrian Research Centers) 1997-2000, member of the board of OCG (├-sterreische Computergesellschaft) 1979-2003, founder and scientific advisor of the KNOW Center (K+ Center), the first research centre on Knowledge Management in Austria. Since January 2004 Hermann Maurer is the first dean of the newly formed Faculty for Computer Science at the Graz University of Technology.

Contact Information: hmaurer(at)

Photo credits: Michael McCloskey, PicsPics, Julian Rovagnati, Ryan Pike.

Josef Kolbitsch and Hermann Maurer -
Reference: Journal of Universal Computer Science [ Read more ]
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posted by Robin Good on Saturday, November 11 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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