Finding a use for Wiki's

Since last summer, i've been wrestling with the same thoughts on the Wiki: What can i use this for?

A Wiki is simply a website that's pages can be added to or edited by anyone. Anyone with the right permissions that is. The best known example of this is Wikipedia, and it sets the ideal standard for all to follow in that it is truely open.

For folks like you and me though, building such a site is most likely out of the question, leaving me still wondering what exactly I could use a Wiki for, and what would i need in order to work with one.

Follow the title link for the full post.

Lee at Headshift got me thinking about this again early this year with his excellent Blogs are not the only fruit essay. Since then, apart from the continuous thoughts on how to actually use one for commercial purposes, i've been doing a little reading when time permits.

Wiki Software

The overwhelming problem i see with Wiki's is that they are simply to tough for John Q to use - the whole point, for me at least, of using a Wiki for something would be to have users create some kind of resource that benefit other users and be monetized with adsense or similar programs. It's no damn good if people can't use it though is it? The big issue is the interface, not the markup. WYSIWYG style interfaces are very intimidating to my mind, far more so than having to learn a few markup rules, and all those tabs! "edit" "previous versions" - it just leaves me confused and not knowing what to do, what does a less web savvy user feel when confronted with that?

I spoke briefly with Elizabeth Albrycht in email this morning as i'd commented on something she's written on Wiki's and she recommended taking a look at Kwiki, but the url's immediately put me off. So, i set about looking for a decent list of software - im embarassed to say that Wikipedia was the last place i looked heh.. They, unsurprisingly, have a great list of Wiki software including a large list of PHP based ones. I guess there's nothing to do but slowly work my way through the list and try them all out.

Wiki software wishlist
Essentially, i'd want the following features:

  • Good clean urls
  • Robust permissions
  • Support for groups and group level permissions
  • Solid templating engine, preferable Smarty
  • Dumbed down! It needs to be seriously simple in it's interface, or at worst, easily made so via templates
  • Solid support community

After choosing software, what next?

And therein lies the problem. Conceivably you could use one for many, many things, but finding a use has to be balanced with monetization - so it's no small task to come up with a practical application for a Wiki, on a subject that users will want to contribute too.

Shared Knowledge
Shared, colloborative knowledge is surely the key, and i think something like the World 66 Travel Wiki is a great idea. It also has a lovely simple look to it, but unfortunately it's running on Zope which requires root access to the host so that kills that idea.

Areas I've thought about might include:

  • Travel
  • Hobbies and interests (think collectors..)
  • Resource gathering and definitions on themes

Next, what problems would I face?

Unfortunately, the list undoubtably would be high. Assuming I could find some software that met my wishlist, and come up with a viable idea, (no small tasks in themselves) what kind of pitfalls would i face and what level of maintenance would be required?

I think initially, it's simply a matter of whether users "get it", but by having a team of people working furiously on content at the start of such a project, most barriers of that nature can be overcome eventually with a little user interaction and by simple usability testing.

The real worry comes with abuse, and misuse. Im not sure if these could be overcome, not by a one man band at any rate. Perhaps developing a strong core of users that had permissions within their niche areas of the site, and were helped, and could help eachother, to educate and police other users it might work out - for the larger part of Wikipedia, although they do have problems, i'd say it's possible but a LOT of work.

Question is, is it worth all that effort? Sure you can roll back to a previous version of a page, but do you want to be doing that 30 times a day as people mess around with your system?


Im not convinced, but i want to be convinced of the value of the Wiki for someone like me. I think there's enormous potential there and im going to continue to read and learn and test, as there has to be a good use for this stuff in a small commercial environment. Ive just not worked it out yet is all.

Further Reading

If you're interested in Wiki's, I've gathered up a few links on the subject, please add to them in the comments aswell as add your thoughts on how, if at all, this stuff could be used by ordinary webmasters with modest budgets:

If you have links, thoughts or general comments on how Wiki's might be used, please tell us!


WSJ on WIki's

From Wikipedia's Creator, A New Site for Anyone, Anything

talking about Wikicities, a geocities type thing that looks interesting - get yer free links, get yer free links...

More of interest

You might find this of interest claus: Chris Dent of SocialText explaining what he does and a whole bunch of other stuff...

Wikis are a type of augmenting discourse tool optimized for a particular set of behaviors. Under ideal(tm) conditions they provide an easy path to participation in evolving communication. They do this by being straightforward to learn, quick to respond, and accessible in a distributed fashion. They support changing content and provide an easy way to create and explore connections between things. How something fits in to the larger picture is a large part of how we infer meaning. (PGC)

I think there are three primary audiences for wikis: the individual who hopes to use the wiki as an outboard brain or memory; the nascent group that hopes to discover and solidify the community that lies as potential in their loose connections; and the existing community that hopes to support a shared goal or perform some action. (PGD)


...interesting that wikipedia does not rank #1 in Google for "2000":

Still, that site has a big linking power:

Tracking Changes

One of the main points is tracking changes, you can roll back to previous versions of the page, and a bunch of associated functionality.

Also, although mainy cms' could be rigged to do so, you create pages, and sections rather than add a page to section, the url's are key...

isn't that just a cms

...with authoring rights? (Jasons example) I mean, any cms can have authors that are allowed to edit/contribute, you don't even need the wiki format for that.

So, back to square one - what do you need the wiki format for, exactly?

My bid is that they're good for reference-style material, like the -pedia with lots of interlinking on related subjects and so on. The key, to me at least, is "longer articles with (sometimes extreme) interlinking". And then, Jason's example of an employee handbook could have that format - i just haven't seen any that has it, it's mostly like a collection of directory-style web pages.

A wiki, otoh, is asyncronous (spelling?) and non-hierarchical (spelling, again?).

Also, they could be useful for pure entertainment purposes (or call it "art" if you like fancy words): I remember those books that were very popular some time back; you followed some story one chapter at a time, then you'd have to choose if you should continue in one or the other direction, and your choice changed the whole story. I think you could build a whole wiki on a story like that. Or a blog - why does it have to have a "diary" format if the thoughts in it is not really linked to dates, but more to subjects?

Added: Found yet another impressive list of Wikis, here divided by language (asp, php, etc):


Jason Pettus has a good post on this wiki post that apart from comment on what we've said here, adds some good value to the discussion :)

Use the trackback Jason :) I only delete TB's when they just 'point' to a post here, if they add value they stay...

Wikis are great for communal development projects and/or 'brain dumps' but, like anything else we tend to use, you have to find one that fits the situation. Many really aren't suitable for project management because they lack even basic permissions, i.e., admin/editor/reader.

I did my research 18 months ago and settled on usemod wiki, one of the best KISS scripts out there and because it's an elder in wiki development there are some darn good mod/patches floating around out there (but not well organized).

Server busy

It gets a lot of traffic, but is worth it in the end :)


Well, that could be entirely personal Adam, im not sure.

It seems ever so complex to me though, and i think the less buttons and options the less intimidating an interface - yeah, i think that's what gets me about WYSIWYG, it's intimidating...

Couldnt get up :(

Best use of a wiki to date.

great question...

for me the best use of a wiki is to support project documentation. I envision a wiki system that brings together the various project documentation, business and technical. Currently what happens is some docs are on the lan, some are on a hard drive, some are stored in version control, and some are never published.

A wiki that unified, stored, and allowed disparate members of a project team to collaborate would be a great use of a wiki. Not to mention the long-tail, seeing how project teams are created and destroyed near daily.

Although, I imagine it would take a generation or so time from now for project teams to realize the value and be appropriately trained to implement a unified wiki doc system. :-(

I'm dealing with the same issues!

Great post, Nick!

I'm dealing with the same questions and same concerns. However, unlike you, I'm drawn to WYSIWYG... not for me (I'm fine with markup) but for my friends and potential contributors who seem to all have an aversion to the idea of markup and a contrasting interest in an MS Word-like wywiwyg'iness.

So I'm curious... what is it about WYSIWYG that you find unappealing?

And hey, do keep us posted on what software / hosting you choose on this!


A great use of a community wiki to have others edit your resume for you.

Jeremy from put it together and it rocks.

> and then some

And does not, apparently, produce pure static...

Could not connect do MySQL 4.1 database.

blog or wiki or cms?

[snip the whole thing] ...posted some useless crap. Comment from rcjordan below refers to that post. Sorry about that.


Just found out that there's such a thing as a Bliki (blog+wiki)

Nice long list of examples also.


that's the most wound up I've ever read Mr Sullivan :)

Yes it does have huge gaps and IMHO is flawed for a lot of reasons but it is interesting. Apparantly we have one of the category editors as a member so if you have questions.....

Danny slammed it for a Sham

Dont waste your time on Webs Biggest

Sham or not though, you're right of course...

there's a wiki search engine

interesting concept - you can change descriptions and the keyword search works off the description so I do wonder what will happen as word gets around.