What Makes a Wiki?

Posted on October 17, 2008

In Sioux Falls this summer, we had something of a scooter revolution. Scooters were everywhere. And I noticed something – some of the scooters were so big they rivaled the size of motorcycles.

So, I got wondering, what’s the real difference between a scooter and a motorcycle? Where is the dividing line? I suspect it’s awfully blurry.

I’m beginning to think the same thing about the line between a wiki and a traditional CMS. What differentiates one from the other? I suspect this line is awfully blurry as well.

Way back in the day, when wikis were new and I was messing around with early versions of Twiki (we had to GlueWordsTogether to make links...), wikis had some prety clear differentiators:


Everyone could edit any page. To my knowledge, there were no permissions (in fact, the Movable Type wiki (the old, unofficial one) was closed down due to vandalism they couldn’t stop).


There was no structure of pages. They were just all in a big pool.


Revisions were kept for every edit.


There was no WYSIWYG. Just wikitext.


There was no page structure at all – just a title and text.

And that was a wiki, and it was pretty clear that it wasn’t a CMS.

But these days, with a lot of wiki products, those five points of differentiation have been muted quite a bit.


There are permissions models now, in the wiki world. Wikipedia has famously started to massage permissions, and any internal wiki at the enterprise level would almost have to have permissions, since the information held in it can be at varying levels of sensitivity.


You can get wikis with some structure. Google Sites has pages and sub-pages, and I remember a Ruby-based wiki from some time ago called Hierachi that was built in a heirarchy (hence the name).


Revisions are still kept, but this isn’t really a differentiators anymore because any good CMS does this too (every WordPress does it now).


Many wiki products have WYSIWYG capability. Additionally, with the popularity of things like Markdown and Textile, many CMS products are using wikitext-ish syntax.


Page structure is largely a configuration issue in a CMS anyway, so there’s no reason you can’t set up your pages like a wiki.

So, again, what makes a wiki? What are the features that, when present, make you say “this isn’t a CMS, it’s a wiki.” I maintain that this is getting hard to figure out, and a traditional CMS can often lay claim to being a wiki without too many changes.

Ektron includes a wiki module in their latest version. So does Xoops, I just discovered the other day. And I’m poking around Episerver these days and wondering just how hard it would be to give that some wiki-like functionality.

Is it enough to just have an “edit this page” link on every page? If I did that with a traditional CMS, could I say I had a wiki? I think that in a point-by-point comparison, I’d come pretty close.

Or, is a wiki more of a cultural designation, than a technical one? Stewart Moder’s wikipatterns is all about how to get wikis into your enterprise, and it spends about zero time on the technical aspects of it. It’s all about how to overcome mental barriers to using a wiki, and how to get people to embrace the cultre.

There a case study in the book where some guy says something like this:

You can’t turn a CMS into a wiki

More and more, I disagree with this. The line is fine. A CMS can be very wiki-like, very easily in some cases. The concept of a wiki is largely a mental and cultural one, and I think accepting this fact and embracing this is a real key to getting your organization to embrace them.

Reading Stewart’s book wouldn’t hurt either.

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