The Oddmuse Wiki Engine
In 1995, Ward Cunningham established the first wiki Web site, the WikiWikiWeb, for the Portland Pattern Repository Project. In the years since, a number of wiki engines have been developed in a variety of programming languages. One such wiki engine is Oddmuse, written in Perl by Alex Schroeder.
Although wikis have been around for nearly a decade, they appear to be enjoying a rise in popularity, and many people only now are encountering the wiki concept. Therefore, a brief overview of wikis is in order. If you already are familiar with wikis, you might want to skip to the next section.
The underlying concept of a wiki is simple: a wiki is a Web site that allows any user to add and edit pages by using nothing more than a Web browser. This simple arrangement is quite powerful. It enables arbitrarily large numbers of volunteer editors to contribute to collaboratively created Web sites. It also enables smaller groups or even lone individuals to create and organize information with great ease. Put another way, as Cunningham once said, “[A wiki is] the simplest on-line database that could possibly work.”
In my experience, I've found wikis to be useful tools that make tasks such as organizing projects and creating documentation about almost anything surprisingly less painful and time consuming than they often can be. Perhaps the best way to grasp what wikis are, how they work and the scale and quality of documents that can grow from them, is to explore a mature, established wiki. An excellent example is Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, exactly like a multivolume, printed-and-bound encyclopedia. Unlike a bound encyclopedia, however, the Wikipedia has an enormous “editorial staff” composed of any Internet user with a Web browser. In addition, the text of each article is hyperlinked where appropriate to other Wikipedia articles. Any visitor to the site can create and edit articles, additions and changes that become immediately accessible to other users. A revision control system allows changes to be backed out easily, guarding against mistaken or malicious edits.
As an example of how easy it is to contribute content to a wiki, let's say you are reading, on some wiki Web site, an article about rodents. You notice that, although it's a fine article, it fails to mention the world's largest living rodent, the capybara. To correct this omission, you click the Edit text of this page link, after which you are presented with a standard Web form that allows you to edit the text. You do so by adding a sentence about the capybara, and when you save your changes, the new version of the article instantly is available. It's that easy.
Let's also say you made reference in the article to South America, because it's the habitat of the capybara, and you wanted the words South America to be a link to an article about South America. To create that link, you would use one of the simple wiki linking syntax rules—enclosing South America in double square brackets if the site uses Oddmuse—and the wiki engine creates the link to the South American article when it generates the page. If there is no South American article, the wiki engine then creates a link to a form that allows anyone to write one. In this way, article by article, the wiki grows and becomes increasingly useful.
Another example, and one that demonstrates the usefulness of wikis for small groups, is the wiki that my business partner and I use. We use it to record technical information, such as server configuration changes, project documentation, software installations, standard procedures for common tasks and so on. We also use it to track business data, such as client contact information.
The benefits have been abundantly obvious for us. Based on past experience, we've noticed that a much greater percentage of system administration and project documentation is recorded than if we were not using the wiki. Furthermore, the information is searchable and easy to edit. And, because we have an RSS feed for article changes and additions, everyone involved can stay up to date easily.