[This was originally a top level harrywood.co.uk website section, written approximately 2007. Moved to the blog archive]
Wikis are a great thing. Maybe I am not the first person you’ve heard raving about them, so I’ll try not to harp on about them in general terms, but for those who don’t know…
What is a wiki?
A wiki is a website where the text is freely editable by everyone on the internet. Through a process of community contributions the content keeps getting bigger and better. The editing system is simplified so that writing text, and linking between pages, requires no technical skill at all (a kind of CMS)
The prime example is wikipedia.org, a free online encyclopedia. This site is so popular that unfortunately it tends to slow down to a crawl when america wakes up in the afternoon. But go there in the morning look up the definition of some obscure word, or a random historical event. You will be impressed. Look at the ‘recent changes‘ and you can see the wiki is being edited by hundreds of people simultaneously (all these changes have taken place in the last minute or so!).
Here is a list of my contibutions to wikipedia.
A wiki is an ideal way to arrive at a community consensus on definitions of things, and so an encyclopedia site is the ideal application of wiki technology, and wikipedia is the daddy of all encyclopedias, but there are many other wikis around the web. Mostly they are trying to define things on a particular subject, and not doing a very good job of keeping up with the superior wikipedia definitions, but some of them attempt to build up different non-encyclopedic styles of information.
As a keen kayaker, I soon stumbled upon “kayak wiki”
Compared with wikipedia this gets extremely low traffic. Myself and Michael Daly (the guy hosting it) are pretty much the only people editing it at the moment. I think its a project with great potential, especially the “kayaking places” section, which I instigated. This could evolve into a giant free online kayaking guidebook. Building any kind of online community is a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’/’critical mass’ type problem, but some day soon kayakwiki will take off! [Update: Some time since 2007 Kayakwiki went completely offline. I think it got sp@mmed to oblivion]
If you like travelling, or if you just want to share your knowledge of a local area WikiVoyage.org is the wiki for you. It also has language phrasebooks. Like wikipedia, it seems to be very big and professional, with clearly defined goals, but unlike wikipedia you’ll quickly find areas where there’s scope for you to leave your mark, i.e. lots more travel guide information still to be added. There’s also some very interesting ideas in the map-making subproject. Here’s my contributions to WikiVoyage.org
[Update: Previously I linked “WikiTravel”. This still exists but the community moved to “WikiVoyage” under wikimedia’s wing (better)]
OpenStreetMap is a project which I understand the value of, due to my involvement in wikivoyage and wikipedia. These days publishing a map on a website is easy. You use google maps (or possibly the new Ordnance Survey offerings) but once you go beyond the flexibilities offered by the google API, or step outside the realm of straightforward web map display, you hit a very nasty issue of copyright. All of google’s maps are licenced from mapping agencies (such as Ordnance Survey in the UK). The underlying information is all heavily protected by copyright, and there is no easy way around this.
OpenStreetMap is project to provide open content maps. The only way to provide them, is build them from scratch. Without using any existing copyrighted maps, people like me are going out and surveying the streets using GPS receivers. It’s a brute force solution to the copyright problem, which will seem ridiculous until you follow through the reasoning.
Some enthusiasm for the project is fed by the wiki community, who aim to conquer these final frontiers of free and open information, but the project is wiki related for another reason, in that the map editing process of the project is itself modelled on wiki principles. Everyone can get involved in contributing to the map, and correcting each other’s edits.
A third wiki aspect to this project (and actually this has been my main area of contribution) is the OpenStreetMap wiki. A conventional MediaWiki installation used for describing the project, documenting the software, and coordinating mapping activity.
Wiki sp@m and
Everyone knows what email sp@m is. Well wiki sp@m is worse. The community carefully builds up some informative articles, and then along comes a wiki sp@mmer, and dumps a load of advertising links on the page, often completely destroying the text that was there before. It’s not permanent damage, because any change can be reverted, but it’s pretty annoying, and slightly depressing, that such inconsiderate people exist in the world. [Update: Originally I linked chongqed.org here, since they were finding interesting ways of fighting this menace. Sadly they are no more]
As you can see I’ve been on a journey across several wiki projects, but actually you’ll find me getting involved in wiki communities all over the internet. I’ve become a little bit wiki obsessed. I think they appeal to my psychology because I get a buzz from collaboration and I am perhaps more altruistic than avarage. I am willing to chip in a little effort in the name of building something great. I’m also quite pedantic/perfectionistic when it comes to text (documents, websites etc) I sometimes find myself editing technical documents I’m working with, even when I know I can’t save my changes. If only all information was as freely editable as a wiki!