While trawling the Internet, you may have often landed up at the door of one of the richest sources of information in the virtual world. Called Wikipedia, this Web-based encyclopaedia is by far one of the world’s best repositories of information, and it just keeps getting better.
Simply put, Wikipedia is a wiki, a software that allows collaborative creation of content. In other words, the content is free on Wikipedia, and the entries are written by people from all over the world. You can even start a new entry on a topic of your choice.
The English-language version of Wikipedia was created in 2001, and has grown considerably since then. The site is now one of the largest reference websites available, with more than a million English articles available online. Sounds like a recipe for absolute chaos? Well, yes and no.
Many of the more than 100 wiki engines available today are open-source software. This means you can download, install and use them for free. Even the wiki engine that powers Wikipedia is a free and open-source software. Yes, it is a world of tremendous possibilities just waiting for you to tap. Looking for ways to organize your data and want a platform for creative collaboration? Try a wiki.
Probably the easiest way to start with a wiki is to look for a hosted engine. These are wikis that are already fully set up and all you need to do is register online to get started. Most of them offer a free version with limited capabilities or a small subscription fee to make it fully featured. Some good examples include pbwiki (www.pbwiki.com), Socialtext (www.socialtext.com), Confluence (www.atlassian.com). You can start on these almost instantly and, as your wiki progresses, you can get more features, including your own domain or corporate branding for a fee.
Although the online services of wikis are good for beginners, you may want to install a wiki on one of your own servers eventually. Some popular ones include MediaWiki (www.mediawiki.org), the wiki engine that powers Wikipedia; Docuwiki (www.splitbrain.org), a great tool for maintaining documentation and processes; and Twiki (www.twiki.org), a highly customizable wiki deployed across a number of large enterprises such as British Telecom, Texas Instruments and Yahoo.
You can also get a personal wiki. No heavy downloads needed here, but a simple file that needs to be copied to your computer. Of the several personal wikis, TiddlyWiki (www.tiddlywiki.com) is one of the most popular. It is easy to set up and navigate, and a large number of people use it to create their websites.
Now that you have access to a wiki, what can you do with it? A wiki is literally limited only by your imagination. Take TiddlyWiki for instance.
The most basic task of a wiki is to create a structured information store so that it is easy to collate and search for data. Think of it as a replacement for all the little scraps of paper and Post-its that you currently use.
With a wiki, you can make a list of everything in your To-Do list and even prioritize them. And since it has its own search engine, a wiki can very quickly bring up the data that you enter.
But what is even more important is that you can hyperlink all the items and cross-link them to wade through large amounts of data with total ease.
Once you are on a wiki, you will realize the number of things you can do with it both at your workplace and at home. From simple tasks like tracking your notes to more complex ones like project management, process flow documentation, product design, brainstorming and much more...it is all possible with a wiki.
The flip side
There are, however, a few disadvantages. The biggest, by far, is the disruptive editor. Once you give control to larger groups, you are exposing yourself to both good as well as bad editors. Even the ever-popular Wikipedia has faced this issue where users have put up factually incorrect information. Some have even maliciously deleted data from the site.
While there is no foolproof mechanism to prevent this, some precautions can be taken. In the open-source world, they say that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. It is the same with wikis, too. The good eyes looking at the content tend to outnumber the bad eyes, but in the end you get accurate articles. There is a lot of good stuff there and it keeps getting corrected all the time.
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