Campuses Make Way for the Worldwide Wiki

Do you wiki?

Almost sounds suggestive, d'esn’t it?

But while it is a trend on college campuses, where it may be bordering on a craze among the millennial generation, you can still get blank stares when you ask a grayer general audience about wikis.

Sometimes bundled into a product category that marketers at IBM and Microsoft call collaborative computing, the humble wiki is really little more than an accessible and editable Internet-based word processing document open to anyone with a Web browser.

If you’ve ever worked on a memo or letter with a co-worker and taken turns sitting at the keyboard typing in new copy, revisions and edits, you’ve got the basic concept of a wiki. Except that since it’s Web-based, you and your partner do not have to be in the same room. You just need to be on the same planet. Or perhaps you could be on another planet if you have a good enough wireless connection.

All software marketing hype aside, the key concept of the wiki is collaboration. Blogs are getting a lot of mainstream media, especially with the White House providing press credentials to journalistic bloggers. But while they are perhaps cousin technologies, a wiki is not a blog. In a political blog, for example, one writer opines that Social Security is going bankrupt and must be fixed, and the next writer shoots back: “You’re an idiot! Social Security is fine the way it is.” This is a debate, a sort of text version of Fox News, but it is not collaboration.

Where blogs provoke debate, wikis promote cooperation. As some campuses are already discovering, a wiki is an excellent tool for writers who might want to collaborate on a short story or perhaps even an epic novel.

Wikis are also excellent for assembling information as with the already well-known Wikipedia. The best wikis are a place where knowledge, experience and talent can be shared.

In fact, if you want to try your hand at doing the wiki, one place to start is Wikitravel, ( which describes itself as “a project to create a free, complete, up-to-date and reliable world-wide travel guide.” So far, this wiki’s organizers boast, “we have 3600 destination guides and other articles written and edited by Wikitravellers from around the globe.” Here’s your chance to play travel writer and tell about your favorite paradise island or quaint village, or just add some local information about your hometown.

One of the best things about Wikitravel is that it has maintained the spirit of simplicity that is at the heart of the wiki philosophy. This is not always the case. Some of the wikis, especially ones maintained by techies, may remind you of the pre-Web brower Internet, which anyone could use as long as they were fluent in Unix command language. By contrast, Wikitravel offers straightforward access to a page where you can write your heart out, and d'es not even require a user name or password. You just find the area you want to write about and add your knowledge and experience.

Of course, as with all other Web tools, the wiki is subject to abuse. Some wikis require user names and passwords and have wiki police prowling for marketers, spammers and vandals who place commercial or inappropriate content in the wiki, or use the edit function to trash the contributions of others. Certainly colleges will not be immune to such nefarious activity, but self policing by the user community and the sheer volume of wikis may help discourage abuse. How many hackers are going to hunt up an English department wiki for Wordsworth lovers?

With the promise of promoting the cooperative gathering and sharing of knowledge, which sometimes seems like an educational ideal lost in the mists of the Medieval university, the wiki should not be ignored. And as the wiki craze reaches the level where worry warts fret that yet another technology is becoming addictive, that is probably the least of our worries.

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