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What Is A Wiki?

Older Arguments (see also WhatIsaWiki)

What follows is older than the text on WhatIsaWiki; it provides useful alternative presentations of the term 'wiki', as well as showing how thinking has progressed at MeatballWiki. Note that it is not chronologically sorted, which may be confusing.

Consider first the social metaphor of WikiAsRoom for WhyWikiWorks. A wiki is not a heck of a lot, really. It's simply a place for people to do their work.

But if you are focused on the actual code, then a wiki is Simplicity above all. Wikis are a very pure reflection of a digital text. A single wiki page is just a buffer sitting on a network that anyone can edit — in the sense that it doesn't distinguish between authors and readers. This is like a piece of paper, except without palimpsest.

Everything aside from that is tacked onto a wiki, which is "The simplest database that could possibly work," according to Ward. Some technical things have proven useful. From the single simplicity principle:

From these simple features, organization follows social norms and rules that we all grew up with. (simple governance) However, most importantly, a wiki fosters CommunityLore: a single language that is used amongst the participants for knowledge exchange. In this way, it is simple teaching. Indeed, the creation of language truly emphasizes the need for the easy linking. You must be able to refer to ideas you don't already know or understand. (simple thinking)

If it's not simple, it's broken. People asking for more features don't understand that they are actually often limiting what they can do with a wiki, not expanding what they can do.

Thus, wikis only work for simple (uncomplicated) people.

For those who understand TheWikiWay, the outcomes tend to be quite complex, however.

Wiki Principles

The useful technical principles are usually provided as follows:

Universal editing
The contents of a page can be edited by anyone with a browser, with no hidden EditConflicts.
Uncluttered syntax
At a minimum, a translation of carriage returns to HTML markup. Plain text should come through intact.
Easy linking with backlinks
Some predictable pattern should be provided for linking to pages, like CamelCase or FreeLinks. BackLinks allow name changes and other such structural tasks.
Pervasive peer review
A complete RecentChanges for some stretch of recent time and VersionHistory for each page, allowing anyone who can edit to fix mistakes and abuse. The provided VersionHistory type should allow recovery from vandalism; the higher-profile the site and the more contentious the topics, the more savvy one can expect the vandalism to get. In the modern age, a solution to WikiSpam will probably be needed to avoid community burn-out. More minimal PeerReview, like editable RecentChanges list plus a single EditCopy, still counts as wiki, but generally becomes frustrating to work with as the site grows. This is probably the area with the most innovation, even as of the start of 2006; see for example the RecentChangesCamp.

Other attempts to define some technical restraints on wiki can be found at Wiki:WikiPrinciples


Wikis are not the two-way web. The two-way web is the two-way web. Wikis are a particular simple expression that fit a particular value set, and it is a subset of the two-way web. Making your content management system "more wiki" by allowing certain fields to be editable doesn't make any sense, and it is simply buzzworditis.

Key analogies

See also



LangueFrançaise : French users, please visit CestQuoiUnWiki



The word wiki is so overloaded as to make meaningful communication using it hopeless. While you may be talking about a content management system, another person will be thinking you are referring to an encyclopedia, and another person will feel nostalgic for the good ol' days when everyone just acted Zen. Further, recent attempts to change its grammatical form have made it even more confusing to use it in English. Therefore, the naked term is deprecated. If you have to use it, be very specific. On MeatballWiki, we have very specific SpellingConventions. -- SunirShah

Etymologies surrounding WikiWikiWeb

Since the creation of the WikiWikiWeb as part of the PortlandPatternRepository in 1995, many meanings have been ascribed to the word 'wiki' within the sphere of SocialSoftware. The obligatory mention must be made that wiki means quick in Hawaiian and wiki wiki means very quick. The WikiWikiWeb was meant, thus, to be quick to write and quick to learn and quick to use. Given thus its root, as well as the cumbersome pronounciation of WikiWikiWeb, by 1996 the site acquired the nickname Wiki (note the capitalization). Thus, we have our first meaning for the word wiki (or, rather, Wiki):

Wiki. proper noun. The OnlineCommunity that operates through the forum at http://c2.com/cgi/wiki, as in "Have you visited Wiki lately? They have a new pattern language on Java Wiki:SelfDocumentingCode."

This naturally led to a Wiki:NamingConvention, where pages related to site operations would be prefixed by the word Wiki. For example, Wiki:WikiStatistics, Wiki:WikiNames, Wiki:WikiUrl, and Wiki:WikiHistory. Most such pages were prefixed by the site's more preferred abbreviation, WikiWiki, such as Wiki:WikiWikiSystemNotice.

Wiki. adjective; prefix. Of or relating to the operations or technical aspects of the forum at http://c2.com/cgi/wiki.

All communities have their own culture, their BehavioralNorms, their CommunityLore, and their CommunityExpectations. Wiki was no different. Given that as a CollaborativeHypermedium it was wholly different than anything that had come before, no one came to it with presuppositions of what it should be, nor did anyone know exactly what to do. In those early pioneering days, the Patterns community spent a lot of time just exploring the space, getting used to it as a communications tool that was as rewarding and as deep as it was simple.

Thus social phenomenon sprouting from the medium began to require descriptions. Behaviours such as Wiki:WikiSquatting, Wiki:WikiRefactoring, Wiki:WikiStalking, and Wiki:WikiAddiction; and roles such as Wiki:WikiGnome, Wiki:WikiVandal, and Wiki:WikiButcher, just to name a few.

Wiki. adjective; prefix. Of or relating to the sociology of the forum at http://c2.com/cgi/wiki.

Prevalently, an Eastern flavour began to emerge, not least due to the efforts of PeterMerel (and later, SunirShah). A philosophy of action took shape that was unique to the site, and thus was described as the Wiki:WikiWay, or simply, wiki. A whole host of behaviours became qualified with the adjective wiki, such as the WikiNow, the role of WikiMaster, Wiki:WikiZen (a double entendre), Wiki:WikiSmell, and Wiki:WikiWandering. This includes other mystical metaphors, like Wiki:WikiMagic, Wiki:WikiSingularity, and Wiki:WikiUncertaintyPrinciple. Naturally, this led to the title of the book, TheWikiWay.

wiki. adjective; prefix. Aspects particular to the "Eastern" (Zen, Taoist) or mystical/spiritual culture of the OnlineCommunity hosted on http://c2.com/cgi/wiki; often referred to as the WikiWay. As in, "It is wiki to edit without asking permission, for one relies on the watchful eyes of others."

At the same time, the site itself began to feel like it had an organic, ecological, living sense to itself. It had an identity unto itself that was somehow distinct from the people acting there. Discussions of Wiki:WhyWikiWorks, Wiki:WikiWatering, Wiki:WikiMayBeMortal, and what were the Wiki:ThingsOnWikisMind began as structuring principles, including the heinous concept of the WikiMindWipe whose name followed this metaphor. Also, the concept of collective ownership of the space — Wiki as environment — such as in Wiki:FixYourWiki.

Wiki. proper noun. The holistic full entity/organism of technology, database, server, people, community, network, syntax, structure, and reputation that revolved around http://c2.com/cgi/wiki. As in, "The latest vandal almost gave Wiki a stroke by deleting its most dear pages."

And, of course, since the site catered to programmers, technical aspects of the site or other technical add-ons possible to the site also took on the label Wiki. For example, Wiki:WikiName, Wiki:WikiBadge, Wiki:WysiwygWiki, Wiki:WikiSnagger, Wiki:WikiMirror,

Of course, a site this inspiring could not remain alone. It wasn't too long before it began being "cloned", as it was called. Within a few years, a couple hundred WikiClones erupted on a variety of topics from kayaking, to lighting, to Hammond organs, to programming in LISP. Furthermore, owing to the unavailability of the source code to the original site, and then once published its copyright, not to mention the shear joy of hacking a new wiki, many programmers developed WikiClones in their favourite languages as well such as by important pioneers like MuWebWeb, FoxWiki, and TWikiClone?.

wiki. noun. wikis (plural). Any of the WikiClones?, which emulated the structure, style, feel, and social norms of the forum at http://c2.com/cgi/wiki. As in, "You can facilitate team collaboration by setting up a wiki."

These wikis were not content to remain separated. They wanted to talk to one another since they were formed mostly by active members of the WikiWikiWeb. In fact, for the most part, they constituted one very large communited just distributed over many sites. This gave rise to what became known as the Greater Wiki Community.

Wiki. noun, proper noun; alternatively wiki. Those people conceptualized as the Greater Wiki Community, TheCollective of ex-patriots from WikiWikiWeb who had created sites and software derived from and drawing from the experience at WikiWikiWeb. As in, "The Wiki crowd remain mostly unknown to the WebLogs."

In the summer of 2000, FridemarPache decided the term WikiClone was too ambiguous as it encompassed both living communities and the software that ran them. Thus, he split the group of WikiClones into Wiki:WikiForums and Wiki:WikiEngines. This fundamentally altered the conceptualization of WikiClones, as the software was now divorced from the social norms, a fracture in the holistic nature of Wiki's own self-conceptualization. This small edit was like a LethalText to the Greater Wiki Community, as it led to "non-traditional", non-PatternLanguage wiki formats such as a WikiAsPim, WikiLog, wiki as OpenSource documentation, and WikiPedia. It also led to massive JargonFile:FeatureCreep, as what people conceived as technologically "wiki" expanded to included whatever they wanted, most extremely represented in the TWikiClone? community (who had admittedly recognized very early the difference between software and society), TikiWiki, and WikiPedia. These latter projects may only be wikis because they say they are.

wiki. 1. noun; often as a suffix An OnlineCommunity following social norms and practices derived from http://c2.com/cgi/wiki that also calls itself a wiki. As in, MeatballWiki; 2. noun The wiki OnlineCommunity one identifies with, as in "Meatball is my wiki." Here, my is not ownership, but belonging, as in "Canada is my country."; 3. adjective. Of the set of cultural practices that stem from http://c2.com/cgi/wiki and that have been carried on throughout and extended by the Greater Wiki Community; i.e. fostering a cultural relationship to http://c2.com/cgi/wiki

wiki. 1. noun Software that allows editing to some aspect of its rendered representation through an exposed interface. This may or may not appear similar to http://c2.com/cgi/wiki. 2. adjective. Software "inspired" by principles gleaned from http://c2.com/cgi/wiki. "LotusNotes is very wiki."

To make this slightly more confusing, some people optionally refer to either of these definitions as WikiWiki or WikiWikiWeb, as in, "A WikiWikiWeb is a site where a user can edit any page."

Note that for a very long time, at least until 2000, most people on http://c2.com/cgi/wiki were at best loosely aware of other sites similar to itself, and most did not know of them at all. Thus, the phrase "a wiki" rarely appeared except by people who had wandered away from the original wiki. Often, the phrase "a WikiClone" would appear instead. Eventually this changed, and http://c2.com/cgi/wiki began to refer to itself as "a wiki" as well.

Indeed, the confusion of the term wiki by this page had greatly confused the proper noun, Wiki, that described http://c2.com/cgi/wiki. First, often inappropriate capitalization is used, as in "I just wrote a new Wiki," or "Logins are not Wiki nature." The latter example demonstrates how this becomes confusing as it's not clear if logins are not the nature of http://c2.com/cgi/wiki or of the software medium in general. Given the overloading of the terms Wiki, WikiWiki, and WikiWikiWeb it became natural to use qualifiers to describe http://c2.com/cgi/wiki. Many refer to it simply and clumsily as the original wiki. RichardDrake was the first to coin the term WardsWiki shortly after creating the page WardIsLikeGod, but both pages were deleted as they were perceived as ungracious sycophancy. Some people in an attempt to use the "original" name, use the term PortlandPatternRepository (PPR), although the PPR was actually a set of separate webpages also hosted on c2.com. Many also simply refer to the site as c2.

Etymologies post-WikiWikiWeb

The Greater Wiki Community was not content to simply remain isolated. Since most of them had come directly from the culture of WikiWikiWeb, and many of them knew each other, and they drew upon each other for experience and comraderie, it didn't take long for them to think of connecting the various sites together. Thus was born the Wiki:FederatedWiki project, and more effectively, the Wiki:InterWiki efforts. This use of the word wiki can be seen as well with Wiki:WikiUrlScheme, ModWiki, WikiInterchangeFormat.

wiki. moniker; brand. Of or related to common efforts by the Greater Wiki Community. Note, originally it had a strong connotation of relating to a community of people that branded themselves as wiki. More recently, this increasingly refers only to technology that labels itself a wiki, even if efforts have nothing to do with people once active on http://c2.com/cgi/wiki.

WikiPedia is also a special case. By far the largest wiki on earth, it boasts one of the largest number of active contributors. Most of these people came to WikiPedia with no knowledge of other wikis. Thus, many of them refer to various Wikipedias as a wiki, the wiki, Wiki. The English Wikipedia in particular is occasionally called just Wiki. Many Wikipedians, especially those who participate on other wikis, fight against this usage; see MetaWikiPedia:Wikipedia_is_not_Wiki.

wiki. 1. proper noun. The English Wikipedia. 2. noun. One of the Wikipedias, as in "simple wiki would be good for middle or elementary school students; http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head" 3. noun. All of Wikipedia. As in, "The wiki is down today," referring wikipedia.org losing its network access.

Finally, from the early days until now, wiki was used as a synonym for a single page on a wiki. In this form, article and pluralization are removed, eg. one would say, "We need to create more wiki," as if wiki were a plural form. This usage has begun to proliferate throughout the Internet.

wiki. 1. noun. wiki (plural). A single editable page. 2. noun. wiki (plural) A collection of editable pages.


After nine years of discussing the topic, we have been unable to define what constitutes a wiki. Mixtures of social requirements (e.g. LoginsAreEvil) and technological requirements (a VersionHistory) complicate matters, as well as our desire to label almost anything a wiki, even things that are greatly contradict the original principles of WikiWikiWeb's design.

Thus, while many people write a page or paragraph similar to WhatIsaWiki, many spin the concept beyond "a website that anyone can edit" to reflect how they specifically want it to be used. This is a reflection of both the open communal nature of wiki culture as well as the medium's incredibly versatility. You will see descriptions of a wiki as a content management system, a document server, an open source database, an encyclopedia, a personal information manager, a hypertext, a personal information manager, a knowledge management tool, and so on.


wiki. wildcard. Anything you want it to be.

In some sense, many are attempting to draw up WikiWikiWeb's reputation the culture that surrounds it as a way of labelling some set of principles they cannot otherwise address. Often they may simply mean CollaborativeHypermedia, but that has less immediate popular appeal these days than the term wiki. Nonetheless, given the vaguery of the term, it's questionable if they are conveying any meaning at all.

Given the total confusion of the four letters w-i-k-i of various capitalizations, not to mention the secondary terms WikiWiki and WikiWikiWeb, it is highly likely when using the term wiki in a conversation on the Internet, you will not convey the meaning you intend. Many people might respond to the term, possibly in a favourable light, but if you are not very careful, you might find yourself disagreeing over some important issue that comes down to how both parties conceive of the word wiki.

For instance, Meatball is interested in wiki as an adjective; CommunityWiki is interested in wiki as a noun. Meatball was only interested in the culture (adjective) of the few-hundred-strong Greater Wiki Community before the split in the term WikiClones. CommunityWiki is more interested in the millions of wikis that came with the isolation of the concept WikiEngine (noun).

This phenomenon of "TradeMark" destruction is the same as when people ran the (six)four letters (w-e-)b-l-o-g up the flagpole of their own projects since they happened to be the cool letters of the day. If you note on WebLog, the word has lost any sense of meaning. Perhaps that is because many people can only see the technology, not the sentiment. Yet, both weblogs and wikis are very simple technically, and that is both their greatest success and their greatest weakness. Socially, they proliferate wildly, but then technophiles feature creep them into unrecognizable mutations carrying the same name and reputation, thus diluting the sense of both name and reputation. Of course, there is no TradeMark legislation protecting these terms, nor should there be. All we can do is shrug our shoulders and hope we aren't harmed too much.

For the most part, though, Meatball has long since deprecated use of the word wiki in page titles, as it isn't very useful, and has SpellingConventions for use in the body text to preserve some meaning at least locally. When you are speaking on the wider Internet, be very precise what you mean, since it is unlikely you will both be thinking of the same thing. If you It may help to refer to this page for clarification.


The word 'wiki' is like 'grok'. Anyone who has read BookShelved:StrangerInAStrangeLand normally gets to read what the martian word grok 'means' — which as far as the book is concerned humans can't understand. When a person says 'wiki', people generally know what they mean, but they can't easily explain it and can mean different things to different people. 'Wiki' as a word seems to fall into one of those odd categories of being a verb, a noun, a concept and an ideal. Few other words fall into that category. ('Cake' being another example)

I think the problems of the term Wiki are exaggerated. It's quite common and part of science that vague terms have to be specified and sharpened over time to fit their purpose. In general we have:

Other uses, like "we need more wiki" (content? pages? webs? engines? enthusiasts?) or "X feels wiki" (X has some wiki features? X follows kiss principles? X has a minimalistic layout?) smell badly and I think they should be replaced by more common expressions.

I think any use of "wiki wiki" except in WikiWikiWeb should be deprecated. It carries no additional meaning. -- HelmutLeitner

I've thought about what you wrote here for a while, and I don't understand. In this case, it seems the situation is anti-scientific, as the word has become less sharp and vaguer over time. If you follow the SocialConstructionOfScience, this would indicate that the field has become increasingly less disciplinized as the InGroup? has been disrupted and overwhelmed by amateurs, laypeople, and other outsiders. I'm not saying that is a bad thing, as it satisfies the original intent of Meatball, but I am saying that the word 'wiki' no longer means anything. It seems more of a totem for a whole range of activities counter to some notion of an oppressive mainstream. Don't be surprised if people start saying ["blogs are wiki"]. -- SunirShah

I think the term wiki does mean something, perhaps more correctly it now means a whole lot of things. This isn't exactly a bad thing, though I can understand why people might be annoyed that their sharpened definitions are now a lot more blurred. Of course, can't we say "wiki community", "wiki software" and "wiki philosophy" and refocus our terms?

Perhaps what the problem is is that once we could describe in a single word what we now need many more to describe, and we see this as bad, whereas we could look at it as if the conceptual space of "wiki" has broadened so much that we can only address a small portion of the concept at a time. It's true that even if we only address a subspace of wiki we're still not that much more focused, but I suspect we may be focused enough for meaningful conversation. -- LeeDavisThalbourne

From WikiDefined

Anybody Can Edit

I think there needs to be some discussion about implementation. For example just because something is run backend as a wiki, but allows only comments, is that really a wiki? It seems to me that we usually are talking about something as wiki if it is publicly editable. My opinion is that BillSeitz set up a really cool WebLog service using a wiki backend, instead of a WikiLog. -- MarkDilleyalthough last night I thought "Well couldn't I just publish the Password as Guest, Guest?" walaa — open WikiLog at BillSeitz site.

My gut response is that a particular site need not be open to everyone to be a wiki, but that for a particular software system to be a wiki such openness needs to be an option, perhaps the default option. Obviously the definition of 'everyone' is also important here. Many closed groups have wikis, which to me would qualify. -- JohnAbbe

Is it enough, if it is open for those who should contribute? -- anon.

My opinion is that a particular site is a "wiki" only for those people who can edit. For example, [wiki.org] may be a wiki for WardCunningham, but it is not a wiki to me (because visitors cannot edit pages). --CliffordAdams

While I see your point, I don't agree. A car allows me to go from A to B or C, quickly, just as I please. Sitting next to the driver, I can't, I can only observe where he is driving to — but it's still a car. -- anon.

An editor is not an editor if it only lets you view things, even if someone else can enable the editorial parts of it. A Wiki without editing is a web-site. -- anon.

Content Management for Hypertext

Any collaborative content management tool can be described as a wiki. It must be easy to link, create, and edit pages.


A wiki is a collaborative content management for hypertext that is as simple as possible. A wiki is "a collaborative, general-purpose, easy-to-use hypertext system which doesn't require special software on the client side." (Wiki:WikiWikiOrigin)


A wiki is a an OnlineCommunity producing a hypertext on some subject via a WikiEngine. The wiki engine allowes easy linking, editing, and creating of pages.

"Big Eight" Features

See below

I think a wiki doesn't need to have

But I think it's also obvious that the most interesting application of the wiki is for open online communities. -- HelmutLeitner

In reference to SebPaquet's [post] at the ManyToMany? weblog challenging Liz's assertion that WikisAreUgly?. However, the example that Seb uses is a website that uses WikiTechnology, but is not yet a wiki.

There is a difference between:

Making a FishBowled personal homepage look perty misses the essence of what makes wikis beautiful. Wikis force us to accept that people really are good; that you don't need guns. In today's fearful tearful world, that's no small shrift. -- SunirShah

A personal thought. I see wiki as a system that provides (delayed, unlike realtime) convesational context. If I cannot converse it is not a wiki for me. I believe I agree with CliffordAdams. -- SelvakumarGanesan
See also Wiki:ElementsOfWikiEssence.

From WikiFeatures

Features that almost all wikis share (Big Eight):

1. Wiki pages can be created and edited by any user quickly and easily (easy contribution).
2. Simple text formatting without the need to learn HTML (easy writing).
3. Automatic linking converts written names of pages, images and websites to links (easy linking). (http://google.com)
4. A RecentChanges page (see what has happened).
5. A diff function shows the latest changes (easily check whether changes are ok).
6. A fulltext search for page titles and text (easily find any content).
7. The BackLink function shows which pages link to the current page (find the context of this page).
8. You can directly link deep into a wiki using readable names (easy starting points). (LinkIsLocation?)

A wiki that hasn't got all of these features usually doesn't feel right.

Maybe this can be added soon:

9. An archive containing page revisions (don't worry about loosing a contribution; KeptPages or an RCS archive)
10. If more than one person tries to edit a page, it's impossible for one person's edits to be silently lost. (don't worry about Wiki:EditConflictResolution)
11. An index of all existing pages (don't worry about orphans; easily access and read every single page)

Valid reasons to violate this list exist but they are rare:

These are examples that really hurt:

Can you distinguish more clearly between points 3 and 8?

Easily. Look at SwikiClone. The URLs are node numbers whereas the links are LinkPatterns.

Hmm, I didn't get it at all. What's the difference between automatic linking and the thing called LinkIsLocation?? What is LinkIsLocation?? -- BerndSchiffer

Automatic linking means "CamelCase" links to a page called CamelCase. LinkIsLocation? means http://www.example.com/wiki/CamelCase links to a page called CamelCase — not http://www.example.com/wiki/22357 -- ChrisPurcell

People are discussing adding more features to the wiki software at http://WikiFeatures.wiki.taoriver.net/


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