net savvy

What’s a Wiki?

It means “quick” or “informal” in Hawaiian. Matthew Buckland explains the latest form of web-based “open content”, which has net wizards in a spin.

If this column was a wiki on The Media’s website, everyone and anyone could edit and change it. Readers would be able to rewrite and modify it to such an extent that it might even end up not being about wikis anymore. Preposterous!

If all went well, people would edit this column via an “edit this page” link somewhere on the article – hopefully making it a stronger piece and correcting any subbing errors. But, on the other hand, vandals could get hold of it and write whatever rubbish they liked. And that would be the swift end of the wiki experiment.

A wiki, meaning “quick” or “informal” in Hawaiian, is a collaborative article that is updated with new and improved information submitted and published by the audience, not just by an author or authors.

With all the legal and quality issues that arise with anyone being able to edit and change a publication’s editorial, surely a publisher would have to be bonkers to get involved in this wiki thing? It didn’t stop the LA Times website from having a go.

This newspaper’s site bravely offered up its editorial, a carefully written thousand-word analysis on Iraq, as a wiki. At first it seemed like it was working – the idea started out well with some intelligent additions and rewrites. But after mere hours the experiment descended into chaos and the editorial eventually ended up a bit tighter than expected, with the somewhat pithy scrawl, “F*ck USA”. Soon thereafter, hardcore pornography photos arrived in the erstwhile editorial’s space. And that was the end of that.

Is this a case of a great idea – made possible by the interactive, many-to-many publishing model of the net – that is simply too utopian? The sceptics feasted on the LA Times failure. They said that when there is no control or gatekeeping over content, it inevitably degenerates into chaos, especially on the anonymous, anarchic internet. No matter how good your intentions, some thug will always spoil the party.

The wiki’ites’ counter argument is that if you have a big enough community involved in a wiki, it becomes self-regulating and self-correcting through its sheer, collective number power. Errors, falsehoods and plain, simple vandalism are picked up by the collective readership and corrected. In other words, if the LA Times had waited around a bit longer before pulling its wiki, the community would have corrected the “F*ck USA” thing, restoring the editorial or a version of it. The bigger the community, the faster it would have been corrected.

Fact is, despite the LA Times failure, the wiki concept is far from utopian. There are actual, working, successful examples of wikis – the most famous of which is Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that has become one of the net’s most popular reference sites. All its entries are created by the great internet population, and are freely editable, without any registration necessary. The project has received acclaim and is mostly held to be a reliable source.

Wikipedia receives an astounding 60-million page impressions per day, with approximately 1,6-million articles, with editions in roughly 200 languages. All contributors are on equal footing in terms of editing power and authority. According to the Guardian website, the Encyclopedia Britannica has 44-million words of text. Wikipedia has six times that with more than 250-million words.

People have experimented by deliberately making mistakes on Wikipedia, and have noted that they were corrected by the community in good time. The basic wiki premise is that continuous improvement will lead to eventual perfection. It makes sense, but essentially it’s a premise that remains unproven. We’ll know in time. Meanwhile, the LA Times has not ruled out trying the wiki experiment again – just expect tighter controls the next time ‘round.

Matthew Buckland is publisher of the Mail & Guardian Online @

One Response to “What’s a Wiki?”
  1. […] The Waler is somewhat of a guru, being the founder and all. My view on the mother of all Wikis is that it is an awesome project, but the model has problems which could exacerbate as it goes more into the mainstream. I am not as vitriolic as The Register who basically thinks Wikipedia is a gangbang. […]

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