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

by Tom Stafford, Matt Webb
07/07/2006
Wiki
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.

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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.

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:

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.

Checklist

OK, you've got your wiki up and running and you're staring at that default front page. What now? We'll go into the precise rationale later, but for the moment you can get off to a flying start by following these steps:

Advantages to Using a Wiki

Why might you want to use a wiki for your project? The wiki is:

Disadvantages to Using a Wiki

OK, you get the picture: we like using wikis. But why might you not want to use one?

Using a Wiki

Given the pros and cons, we'd say your project could use a wiki if there aren't too many of you involved, you don't need to work in public, you're able to do all or most of your work on the wiki (constant exposure is important), and your project is really big.

That said, here are some specific tips when you've decided you're ready to dive into wiki world:

Wiki Organization Tips

Now you're committed to your wiki; here are some tips for staying organized, which will lead to a successful, happy wiki experience:

Wiki Sharing Tips

The wiki is common space for everyone in your group, so here are some suggested house rules to help you get along:

Technical Hints

It's not all about the writing and how to get along. We have a few tips for whoever's responsible for the technical side of the wiki, too:

Conclusion

Wikis are at their best when a small number of people are working intensely on related material. They're messy, immediate, and a powerful way of sharing thinking space with your collaborators.

Once you've used a wiki for a project, you'll find it hard to go back to regular methods. You'll find yourself using wiki syntax in emails, and your own WikiWords in conversation. Using the wiki as your notebook will ensure you don't lose the seeds of good ideas, and spending time browsing and gardening will keep those ideas returning when you need them. Most of all, you'll find that having a shared memory on a large project moves the administrivia out of the way and lets you concentrate on the real job.

Tom Stafford has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience and is currently a research associate in the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield. He is also an associate editor of the Psychologist magazine and has previously worked as a freelance writer and researcher for the BBC.

Matt Webb At Schulze & Webb, Matt Webb engineers, designs, and hacks technology and physical things. He is also the coauthor of Mind Hacks, cognitive psychology for a general audience.


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