updated 9/27/2004 8:42:52 AM ET 2004-09-27T12:42:52

Taran Rampersad didn't complain when he failed to find anything on his hometown in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.  Instead, he simply wrote his own entry for San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago.  Wikipedia is unique for an encyclopedia because anybody can add, edit and even erase.  And the Wikipedia is just one — albeit the best known — of a growing breed of Internet knowledge-sharing communities called Wikis.

There are Wiki cookbooks, a compendium of quotations and a repository on guitar players.  College professors use Wikis to spur discussion.  Software developers create online manuals.  Small teams within businesses track projects, exchange ideas and list good places for lunch.

Though their openness can encourage mischief — spammers have been known to add porn links, Wikis have the power to change how we live and work, replacing e-mail as a tool of collaboration and spanning hierarchies.

"Anyone can post to a Wiki in real time," said John Bobowicz, who created several for the Java programming community.  "You can go to a Wiki and you can feel like your voice is just as loud and your opinion is worth as much as everyone else. It levels the playing field."

Wikis, based on the Hawaiian word "wiki wiki" for "quick," grew out of programmer Ward Cunningham's desire for a new way to discuss software design.  He launched the first Wiki in 1995.  Thousands more followed, including Wikipedia in 2001.

Though for now largely the domain of techies, Wikis are poised to become what blogs have turned into — still in the Internet avant garde yet widespread enough to be influential.

At its core, a Wiki is an empty room, devoid of furniture and decoration, said Sunir Shah, founder of an online community called Meatball.  Visitors bring the personality and mission, turning the Wiki into a library, a party or a conference room.

Wikis are also described as online whiteboards, shared notebooks or group memory.  They are forums for sharing knowledge and control — and fostering trust in the process.

World's largest encyclodepia
At Wikipedia, any visitor can make changes without needing to first prove expertise.  This month, it surpassed 1 million articles, including 350,000 in English — three times that of the online Encyclopedia Britannica.  More than 25,000 people have written or edited at least 10 articles.

As a contributor, Rampersad believes he can add insights on the Caribbean region beyond what outsiders can.  He also likes the ability to update articles with news developments more quickly than a traditional encyclopedia can.

Other knowledge repositories work on the same premise.  Stockepedia is a reference on the stock market created by and for the investment community.  Wikitravel is a collaborative travel guide.

Where Wikis can truly take off are in corporate and organizational settings.

The Association of Internet Researchers used a Wiki to craft guidelines on research ethics, while Bowdoin College professor Mark Phillipson had his students annotate and discuss poems.

On an internal Wiki at Net Integration Technologies Inc., workers keep their calendars and managers can rearrange priorities (employees could also change their bosses' appointments, though were they to do so they might not remain employees for long).

Technically, a Wiki's attraction is in its efficiency.

Unlike e-mail and discussion boards, which tend to involve back-and-forth exchanges and lots of attachments, Wikis permit changes directly to the main document.

"Not everything maps that well to chronological discussions," said David Conner, a Web developer at software maker SAS.  "How to do something, for instance, is the same now as next week and three years from now.  If it's in an e-mail from three years ago, I'm not going to remember that or find it."

But editing a Wiki document can be cumbersome.

Internet security company SecureWorks Inc. has decided to abandon Wikis because its sales and marketing employees didn't have the patience to learn.  The few who did ended up burdened with having to make all the changes, said Nathan McNabb, the marketing manager.

And setting up a Wiki typically means running a Web server and installing such software as TWiki or MediaWiki, though companies like Socialtext Inc. offer hosted services and are developing easier-to-use software aimed at businesses.

Who's in control?
Perhaps the biggest hurdle is cultural.  Corporations are accustomed to hierarchy and control.

"For any company or professional organization that has to worry about things like legal liability, brand protection, reputation, those can be scary things," said Bobowicz, who had to get special approval from his bosses at Sun Microsystems Inc.

Gary Boone, research manager at Accenture Technology Labs, said employees typically bring Wikis into the workplace informally, with central infotech managers taking longer to recognize their value.

Because of their openness, Wikis face unique challenges.

Some Wikipedia readers recently tried to test the site's credibility by introducing errors on purpose.  And some contributors have attempted to impose their personal viewpoints; an article on abortion was briefly replaced by "murder" written 143 times.

That's why contributors police Wikipedia. All changes are recorded, so reversions are easy.  Though vandals aren't easily banished — they can reconnect anonymously from another computer — a single troublemaker cannot keep up with 100 users set on preserving the community.

Contributors say the potential for vandalism is outweighed by the speed and breadth of the end product.  Wikipedia's entries reflect the collective interests of its readers; there's even an article on "Survivor: All-Stars" winner Amber Brkich.

Try finding that in the Britannica.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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