You know what the web is like. It’s that thing full of pages that you flit between, clicking on linky things to see more pages. You read, and move on. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. When Sir Tim Berners-Lee came up with the idea of the World Wide Web, he imagined a system where people wouldn’t just “browse” pages, they would “edit” them as they went along. Imagine a web where anyone can add opinions or facts to your carefully crafted musings. It’d never work.

Well, it does exist, it does work, and it’s called the Wiki Wiki Web.

Put simply, a wiki is a website that can be edited by anyone. All you have to do is click a link on a wiki page, usually one saying “Edit this page”, type something and click save.

Such a relaxed system could be a recipe for disaster but, on the whole, wiki sites work well. There are incidents of wiki vandalism, but the larger community of wiki users can clean up damage faster than the abuser can commit it.

Wiki started out as one site, created by Ward Cunningham. His site was called “WikiWikiWeb” but, these days, it is more casually dubbed Ward’s wiki or just WikiWiki.

The word “wiki” came from a phrase in Hawaiian — “wiki wiki” — which means “quick”. It’s quick because the process of editing is entwined with the process of reading. Both are done using a standard web browser. Unlike most websites, there’s no need to edit a file, upload it to a web server, then reload the original to check it looks okay.

It’s easy to feel confused on your first browse around a wiki. Some might be tempted to dive right in and start editing every page they find, but like other electronic communities (think newsgroups or mailing lists), it’s probably a good idea to lurk unobtrusively for a while first. Once you have a good sense of the right tone to adopt and the accepted way of using the site, you can start making changes.

Wiki sites are not usually protected and there’s nothing to stop someone trashing pages, deleting good content and replacing it with rubbish. And, sadly, this does happen. Changes to wiki pages are stored in a database. If someone vandalises a page, the last “good” version of it is still available and can be restored with a click.

The consequence is that most of the time, wiki sites can only be vandalised one page at a time, and as long as there is a community of well-behaved users prepared to sort things out, problems can be fixed quickly and with little fuss.

Very rarely, a wiki might find itself the subject of repeated attacks. One individual did just that on WikiWiki, and Cunningham was forced to act. “Every wiki develops a set of norms of behaviour,” he says. “When people post something that is clearly way out of line with the norms — like pornographic pictures — then it gets dealt with swiftly.

Wiki sites that work include the impressive Wikipedia, a collaborative encyclopaedia covering every topic imaginable. It puts the wiki concept to practical use, drawing on the combined knowledge and experience of all its contributors to create something informative and authoritative.

Then there’s Wikitravel, a travel guide written by travellers. You can use it to plan a trip, and if it doesn’t have the information you want, you can add it when you return. There are wikis about almost everything: wikis about books, London, Tolkien or even juggling. Some people use a wiki as part of a personal website. Others are so excited about wiki technology that they predict a bright future for it.

Links to Wiki sites

WikiWikiWeb: www.c2.com/cgi/wiki

Wikipedia: www.wikipedia.org

Wikitravel: www.wikitravel.org

About books: www.bookshelved.org

Open guide to London: http://london.openguides.org

The Tolkien wiki: www.thetolkienwiki.org

Juggle wiki: www.jugglingdb.com/jugglewiki.

As part of a personal web site: http://joi.ito.com/joiwiki