Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, February 17, 2014

Why Wikis Work and other interesting facts

One of the most counter-intuitive online websites you are likely to encounter is the wiki. Genealogists are not immune to this issue because there are several very successful wiki-based genealogy programs. For example the following:

Most, if not all, of the wiki websites are based on a free open source software program from The program is written in PHP, a popular general-purpose scripting language that is especially suited for web development.

The most outstanding feature of the wiki website is its ability to handle huge amounts of data in an efficient and user-based environment. A wiki allows people to add, modify or delete content in collaboration with other users. Quoting from the Wikipedia article on the Wiki, " [A Wiki] differs from a blog or most other such systems in that the content is created without any defined owner or leader, and wikis have little implicit structure, allowing structure to emerge according to the needs of the users."

Here is a further description of the websites from the Wikipedia article:
A wiki enables communities to write documents collaboratively, using a simple markup language and a web browser. A single page in a wiki website is referred to as a "wiki page", while the entire collection of pages, which are usually well interconnected by hyperlinks, is "the wiki". A wiki is essentially a database for creating, browsing, and searching through information. A wiki allows non-linear, evolving, complex and networked text, argument and interaction.

A defining characteristic of wiki technology is the ease with which pages can be created and updated. Generally, there is no review before modifications are accepted. Many wikis are open to alteration by the general public without requiring registration of user accounts. Many edits can be made in real-time and appear almost instantly online. This can facilitate abuse of the system. Private wiki servers require user authentication to edit pages, and sometimes even to read them.
Almost inevitably when I talk about wikis, I get the same question, "Why doesn't the information in a wiki devolve into a pile of garbage?" You may well ask the same question about any complex human organization. Why don't countries and cities collapse of their own weight. I guess the answer is that sometimes they do, but you might note that there are cities that have survived for thousands of years. The reason this is a complex issue is because wikis survive and thrive because of basic human nature. People are more inclined to build than they are to tear down. It is that simple.

The other reasons why wikis work are really very complex. If we focus on genealogy wikis, we see two distinct functions represented. On one hand, we have informational wikis that focus on providing resource material such as the Research Wiki. On the other hand, we have wikis that are designed to host family tree information such as Both applications seem to be very successful in their functions and ability to absorb mountains of information. Wikis work primarily because they fill a very needed function, that is, gathering huge amounts of information in an efficient way with a much reduced expense.

Wikis are not just left out there to live or die, all successful wikis are tightly moderated either by the developer of the wiki, in the case of, or by the wiki community. Most wikis have rules about the kind of content allowed and violations of the content rule are quickly eliminated and in some instances users who violate the rules are excluded from further contact with the wiki.

In actual practice, the wiki format can be so dramatically altered by having a custom designed front-end, that the website is almost unrecognizable as a wiki except for its function. This is the case with the Family Tree program.

If you haven't done so, I would invite you to review the above wiki websites and consider participating in one or more of the wiki communities.


  1. One problem with those wikis that distinguish their "published" pages from user comments (& dialogue) about those pages concerns data backup James.

    Typically, the comments are deemed to be transient, and anything useful would is expected to be incorporated back into the main pages. That means they are rarely backed up.

    A previous company I worked for found this to its cost as when the wiki crashed, they could not reconstruct the dialogue between the support arm of the organisation and the customers.

    The company after that one experienced the same issue, although I was then in a position to warn them in advance.

    Even the BetterGEDCOM wiki suffered from this, and some clever programming was created to manually take a backup... just in case!

    1. Interesting point. I would expect the larger genealogy wikis would have adequate backup.

  2. Note: The link to is broken, as it is missing the 'a' in Media.