New software may lick the sticky 'wiki'

Imagine that you sat down to write your life's story. When it was done, you posted it in a public place. After awhile, as your friends read it, they made small changes. No, it wasn't 1975 when you graduated from high school, it was 1976. Another adds the comment that you could be real cranky if you didn't get your own way. If you didn't like what they were writing, you could erase their comments and restore your original.

You and your friends, it could be said, are having a "wiki-good time," since this group writing and editing process has become known as a "wiki" (a Hawaiian term that means "quick") in Web-speak.

Wikis, which were first developed in the mid-'90s, are software programs that enable anyone to add, edit, or delete items on a webpage. Many organizations and people use them as a tool for collaborating on a project or for debating issues. And this past weekend, hundreds of wiki fans gathered in Cambridge, Mass., for Wikimania 2006 to discuss the many uses of the program.

Wikis can be open to anyone, limited to a specified audience, or a little of both. They are especially good for projects that require the input of many people. For instance, one university professor in Israel has started using wikis to allow students to update and use an older textbook online instead of having to buy an expensive new hardcover edition.

The most famous wiki is the online Wikipedia, which was started by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 2001. Wikipedia currently has expanded to more than 1.2 million entries in English. It is also available in several other languages.

The Associated Press reported recently that Mr. Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that supports the sites, are now also involved with a wiki dictionary, wiki course materials for schools, a wiki collection of famous quotations, and a wiki for biological taxonomy.

Many now use www.wikipedia.com instead of the classic Encyclopedia Britannica, as it is often more up-to-date and has articles on subjects often not found in the older tome. For example, an entry on the 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis was recently updated to include that he failed a second drug test on the same day the information was released to news media. But Wikipedia's open, nonpeer-reviewed structure has also caused some problems.

Last week, comedian Steven Colbert used a humorous approach to show how someone with a malicious intent could "alter history."

Mr. Colbert, whose show "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central frequently skewers hot topics of the day, started editing entries in Wikipedia as the cameras rolled. First he fiddled with his own entry. Then, saying that he didn't believe that George Washington had slaves, he edited Washington's entry to his liking. He then invited his TV audience to do the same thing to other entries on the site, a challenge that led to an overload on the site's Internet servers.

But comedians, it turns out, are not the only ones messing with history. On occasion, Wikipedia has placed a ban on any changes being made by anyone from the US Congress. (The site can do this by blocking Congressional IP addresses.) Apparently members of Congress were getting staffers to delete what you might call uncomfortable facts about themselves, such as certain fundraising events they attended or unpopular bills they may have supported.

And while Wales and the volunteer staff who oversee Wikipedia encourage openness, they will shut down the ability to make changes on controversial topics if changes become "overheated." For instance, an entry titled "2006 Israel-Lebanon Conflict" was locked from further edits after being altered by users more than 4,000 times since it was created on July 12, as reported in the July 31 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

Perhaps sensing some of the concerns generated by the controversy over the Wikipedia project, Wales used his keynote speech at the start of this year's Wikimania to appeal to the site's users, including the 400 or so people in attendance, to concentrate on quality instead of quantity. He also announced that German users of Wikipedia would experiment with a more "stable" version of the project that would result in fewer cases of entries being "vandalized" – entries being overwritten with lies or misleading facts.

Wales said new software eventually will be used on the site to make it easier for people to make entries.

The speech has already generated a lot of buzz on tech blogs and websites, suggesting Wikipedia will enter a new phase, one that will rein in its wide-open nature. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

But since wikis are such a great tool to enable people to work together, don't be surprised if you see new ones appear soon at a workplace, school, or university near you.

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