What Is a Wiki (and How to Use One for Your Projects)

by Tom Stafford, Matt Webb
A wiki is a website where users can add, remove, and edit every page using a web browser. It's so terrifically easy for people to jump in and revise pages that wikis are becoming known as the tool of choice for large, multiple-participant projects.

In this Article:

  1. Wikis Work for Big Projects
  2. Choosing a Wiki
  3. Advantages to Using a Wiki
  4. Disadvantages to Using a Wiki
  5. Using a Wiki

Somewhere, in a dimly lit classroom, a library bench, or in a home study, some lucky so-and-so is writing an essay from beginning to end with no notes. This splendid individual is able to craft entire sections without forgetting by the end what the section was intended to include at the beginning, and can weave a carefully paced argument with thoughts and references collected over a period of months, all perfectly recollected. Neither of your authors is this person. Instead, we need help, and that help comes in the shape of a wiki.

A wiki is a website where every page can be edited in a web browser, by whomever happens to be reading it. It's so terrifically easy for people to jump in and revise pages that wikis are becoming known as the tool of choice for large, multiple-participant projects. This tutorial is about how to effectively use a wiki to keep notes and share ideas amongst a group of people, and how to organize that wiki to avoid lost thoughts and encourage serendipity.

Wikis Work for Big Projects

This article was written using a wiki, as were most of the 100 hacks in our book, Mind Hacks. The prime example of a wiki in action is Wikipedia, the open source encyclopedia. Wikipedia is one of the best resources on the internet, and its quality and breadth lends credence to the wiki as a great tool. But it illustrates just one way of using the wiki.

Wikipedia builds on transparency, simple linking, and a low barrier to entry for crowds of people to be involved in editing and authoring. We can use these same qualities with just two or three people for a different outcome: a shared workspace and, in effect, a shared memory.

As with any large project, we found that a book was too big to hold in mind all at once, and definitely too big to guarantee remembering those many promising ideas that came up at times we were least able to pursue them. Some of these ideas would start as off-the-cuff thoughts and, when followed up, grow to change large parts of our major concept. So it was important to record them, and give them room. A large number of recorded ideas means, of course, that it's easy to get out of sync with project partners, and that's where the wiki as shared memory comes in. Using a wiki for your big projects keeps all participants on the same page.

What It's Like to Use a Wiki

Before getting into how to choose the right wiki for you and general tips for using one, it may be useful to know how we used a wiki for our own project. Writing Mind Hacks required several different stages of work: First, we had to determine what the hacks would be, and that tended to come out of research on other hacks, or suggestions, or following up on existing ideas. Gathering material came next, and either a story for the hack would be found, or not. Last would come drafting, more drafting, and finally editing.

Related Reading

Mind Hacks
Tips & Tricks for Using Your Brain
By Tom Stafford, Matt Webb

Something we found happening a lot was this: during research, we'd discover lots of little facts. We'd file these away on pages already devoted to hacks or potential hacks. Later, when we came to write these, we'd find the notes we'd recorded but forgotten, and the writing would be better for it. Often, one of us would make a note, and the other would happen to run across it, and know more about it.

Because the whole book was written on our private wiki, it benefited from these ideas that we could capture without breaking stride--in fact, it was only the easy editing that a wiki provides that allowed us to record these ideas at all. Had it been any harder, we wouldn't have wanted to pause while writing one hack to jot down ideas on another.

But also we benefited because the wiki removed administrative overhead: our meetings were easier because we knew our progress and actions (we had a shared todo.txt). We could confidently post minutes on the wiki because we knew they wouldn't get lost. Our thoughts about the eventual shape of the book were continually on display--and shared--so we didn't have to spend time figuring that out in meetings, either. There's a phrase about wikis: "What you think is what you get." A wiki is a written-down memory with a lot more space than the built-in one, and it's a collective memory, too.

Choosing a Wiki

It might seem like choosing the right software depends on what type of project you're planning to use it for, but choosing which wiki to use depends first and foremost on what your web server already supports. We'll give you a couple of starting points on where to find and how to choose which wiki to install, and also what we like.

  • "Which Open Source Wiki Works For You?" (O'Reilly Network) may be a little dated now (it was written in 2004), but the article is still a great starting point and evaluates wikis based on important criteria. A quick read of this article can give you a good idea of how to choose your wiki.

  • Wikipedia has a "Comparison of Wiki Software" that includes commercial and hosted software. It's a comprehensive and easy-to-read overview.

  • WikiMatrix deserves a special mention. It hosts information on a large selection of wiki software, and lets you perform side-by-side comparisons across criteria, from system requirements to markup syntax. This is great when you're finalizing your choice. There's no rating for how easy each engine is to install, however. You'll have to refer to the Wikipedia comparison article for that, and it's advisable to read the installation documentation of the software before you commit to it.

So what should you be looking for? Full disclosure here: we used MoinMoin to write Mind Hacks and were extremely happy with it (it even got a mention in the book). It isn't the only wiki software we've used, but it does stand up very well against the evaluation points below. Installation and upgrading from version to version may present a small degree of difficulty to a beginner with the command line, but should be reasonably simple for those with some familiarity.

Criteria for evaluating which wiki to use:

  • Ease of installation.
  • User accounts (so your name is automatically attached to all changes you make).
  • Page change subscription by email and RSS.
  • Page history and stored revisions (not all wikis have this, but it can be an important feature).
  • Document attachments.
  • Page edit locking (you don't want two people editing a page at the same time, as one will lose their changes).
  • An easy-to-remember syntax.

Something you don't need, necessarily, is wiki software that looks great. Remember, this is about organizing your project, not making pages good enough to print. Some wiki software sacrifice simple syntax for total layout control--don't bother with that.

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