What makes a wiki a wiki? (Or, not everything is a wiki!) David 06 Oct 2005

46 comments Latest by howard

I’ve been more than an affectionate fan of wikis for years. From learning a great deal about software development and patterns on the original C2 wiki, to creating Instiki (the most popular end-user application in Ruby with ~30K downloads, according to RubyForge), to writing my bachelor degree about wikis.

So its with great love of the original concept that I say this: Not everything is a wiki! Not everything should be a wiki. And to come to the origins of this post: Writeboard is not a wiki — despite sharing a number of superficial similarities.

But before I dvelve further on the conclusion, let’s examine the mechanics and nature of the wiki. A wiki has a number of mechanical traits:

  1. Anyone can edit any page
  2. New pages are created by linking to them
  3. Simple markup language

Now that’s just the recap of the original wiki as invented by Ward Cunningham. Since then, people have been busy merging those mechanics with existing document revision tools. Like versioning, like difference highlighting, like access controls. But just because recent implementations have extended the original wiki mechanics with these additions, does not make these additions part of inherent “wiki technology”.

But more importantly. If you take these additions (like versioning) and use them in new ways without the company of the original mechanics, that does not imply a wiki. So please stop diluting the essential mechanics of the wiki by claiming that anything that shares any one of those attributes is a wiki! It devaluates the greatness of the wiki as it transforms it to mean anything with a <textarea/>.

To me, the most essential part of the original wiki mechanics is number #2:

New pages are created by linking to them

That’s the fundamental and deep innovation. One that changed my perspective on writing, sharing, and growing ever since. And the one that renders the notion of a “1-page wiki” paradoxical and uninformed.

But please don’t just take my word for it. Luckily as may be, Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki, was here at Web 2.0 and I wanted to get his perspective on “What makes a wiki a wiki?”. He offered a very nice set of principles under the label of The Wiki Way that I’ll try my best to recollect authentically:

  • A way to build a shared vocabulary through both accident and intent.
  • A space to facilitate and refine communication and stories over time
  • Great examples of wikis being the original C2, wikipedia, and other collaborative efforts between participants with no prior relations

That’s a great summary. One that makes a perfect fit for places like the Rails wiki where we’re trying to build a vocabulary around the development and use of the framework, where we can discuss directions asychronously, and where we can refine the conclusions for easy digesting.

Now, wikis have of course been used for many other things since. Personal information management, book writing, project management, you name it. But that does again not turn any other applications that share some of the attributes and target those off-spring uses into wikis.

Let’s set the wiki free to be a wiki. It’s a pretty amazing accomplishment in itself.

46 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Will 06 Oct 05

Somebody sounds defensive :)

David Heinemeier Hansson 06 Oct 05

Yes, I’m defending the right of the wiki to be itself. Instead of having to shoulder the responsibility of being everything.

David Yee 06 Oct 05

It seems to me that wiki was the first viable online collaborative writing environment, and Whiteboard is—in that regard—its loving child. While the Three Mechanical Traits Of Canonical Wikiness prevent us from calling Whiteboard a wiki, I think collaborative writing is at least the _second_ most essential part of both apps, and people are bound to make the connection.

That said, I was also pretty confused when people started calling Whiteboard a wiki. It’s just not the same unless your document is peppered with RandomlyCapitalizedWords.

Jamie 06 Oct 05

When I first saw the word “wiki” I thought it was a flavor of “wicca”. Too bad that it isn’t.

Don Wilson 06 Oct 05

That’s not what Google define: says :)

Paul 06 Oct 05

I must admit I was stunned to see the declaration “Wikis are icky.” right there in the WriteBoard Q & A!

One of many Davids 06 Oct 05

I, for one, would love to have a single-page wiki. Sure, it isn’t a “true wiki” (not that what a wiki is can’t evolve), but it’d be oh-so-useful.

Anonymous Coward 06 Oct 05

I agree with the gist - an editable page of copy does not a wiki make. I also agree that the fundamental distinguisher of a wiki is:

New pages are created by linking to them

It tends to result in a very compromised (barely functional?) navigation system. the upside of the compromise, of course, is that you get an organically organized, self-running CMS without much training, guidance or administration. but I haven’t found a project yet that could justify that compromise.

jules 06 Oct 05

isn’t tiddlywiki a one page wiki from the bowls of Ajax-javascript-Hell?

Kyle 06 Oct 05

I was one of the folks that compared Writeboard to a wiki a couple of days ago. One of the fundamental elements to a wiki is undoubtedly the create-pages-through-links characteristic, sort of a sine qua non. So Writeboard isn’t *truly* a wiki, and can’t be. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t share a lot of the other characteristics (not just textarea, but the collaborative function and versioning, particularly where the latter has become another sine qua non of wikis).

So as insightful as this post is, I’d like someone to explain to me what is the difference between a wiki *page* (not the whole wiki) and a Writeboard doc. I don’t mean that in a negative, you’re-wrong-and-I’m-right way, but honest curiosity: I’m missing something and I’d like someone to set me, and the other folks who agree with me so far, straight.

Alex Bunardzic 06 Oct 05

Why do we, all of a sudden, need a thought police? No one is doing any damage to the wikis by understanding or misunderstanding what they are. If you like them, find them useful, then use them. If you don’t get them, well, that’s your own problem.

Anything can be easily misconstrued. Despite that harsh fact, there is absolutely no need for thought policing.

What's in a name? 06 Oct 05

Blah blah blah, everything’s a wiki. Blah blah blah, everything else is a blog. Skip the name, focus on what you’re doing (businesslogs). Wiki et al where good terms turned into dumb buzz words. Furthermore, “Web 2.0” has always been a dumb buzz word, even if it makes you feel good about being a part of “the next version”. Sigh. Great post, David.


misuba 06 Oct 05

There’s also no need to mistake someone who disagrees with you with someone who’s telling you what to do.

If comparing Writeboard to a wiki helps you think profitably about Writeboard or wikis, you’re free to do it. Wikis can only benefit from more viewpoints.

Jim Jeffers 06 Oct 05

Blogs have much of the same stigma as well. In reality isn’t a blog just a website?

Seb Paquet 06 Oct 05

Kyle: the main difference between a wiki page and a writeboard doc is that you can link from a wiki page to other wiki pages easily (without using URLs) .

Ben 06 Oct 05


Chris 06 Oct 05

nice work 37S.

you took an idea (wiki) told everyone it was crap, added some Ajax and fanboy hype, renamed it to whiteboard and now you got an income.


FAA 06 Oct 05

Income, Chris? Writeboard is free…

David Yee 06 Oct 05


by which I mean, “Writeboard” (sorry).

I guess, like many of the people on this thread, I see the point in clarifying that Writeboard isn’t a wiki, but I don’t understand why it’s so emphatically un-wiki. Let’s say that customer comments eventually prompted you to add Writeboard interlinking (never say never); would the comparison still be so troublesome? I’d say you have about one-third of a wiki-like product in Writeboard. Is it not, in part, inspired by wiki?

David Heinemeier Hansson 06 Oct 05

I think distinctions matter and that one has to differentiate between essential and superficial attributes of concepts. And it’s because I actually care about the term wiki that I want to seperate the essential attributes from the superficial ones.

To me, saying that Writeboard is almost a wiki except it doesn’t share any of the wiki way principles Ward was talking about nor the essential mechanics doesn’t compute.


Vaibhav 06 Oct 05

David, your argument is good but you have to understand that a general user will/may not see these differences and club JotLive, Writeboard, Instiki etc. as Wikis. Most of my buddies/team members felt the same when we looked at it day before. As long as the users like the product, does it really matter whether they perceive it as a wiki-variant or Writeboard?

Christopher Fahey 06 Oct 05

Actually, as someone who’s only ever tinkered a tiny bit with any real wikis, I’m not even sure I know what the hell “New pages are created by linking to them” even means. I know what “Anyone can edit any page” means, though.

Jules 06 Oct 05

despite the cynicism above (Chris), even if writeboards can’t accomplish anything a wiki *page* can’t, there is some valuable in a reputable company remarketing it (wiki pages) with a clear & perhaps different purpose.
I can clearly see myself using writeboards; maybe it’s misperception or prejudice, but I’ve never liked or wanted to use a wiki on a project, or try to explain camelcase linking to them, etc. So what if they are the same thing? if how i think about them is different…

Anonymous Coward 06 Oct 05

Honestly people. If you have urls that look like they are useful page resources for LearningNewThingsProperly then you have a wiki. If you have page urls that look like part of someone’s md5 output grabbag, you have a collaborative editing and writing environment.

John 06 Oct 05


This is my 4th or 5th post. I am wondering is it only me or is anybody else having problem with the updated RSS feed for their writeboard?

Is there any chance that the RSS will be updated regularly for the Writeboard?

My feed hasn�t been updated for more than 72 hours!!!

I was beginning to believe that you guys do listen to your customers … i guess not.

Wiki Wiki Wiki 06 Oct 05

“Signal vs. Noise has a nice case study showcasing the use of their Writeboard tool for collaboration on a book they�re writing.

It makes for an interesting read and a compelling argument for this kind of online collaboration. They�re using their own tool as an example, but I�m sure this could work for any of a number of wiki-like tools.”

Our bad. You’re obviously right, and everyone else is wrong. Somebody better let those complimentary fools at Lifehacker know that Writeboard is definitely NOT wiki-like. I mean, it’s so obvious…

Mark 07 Oct 05

To me, there is no way to think of a single page wiki. It would be like saying everything can be on one page.

What a wiki allows is a quick way to organize and collaborate. Passwords only hinder that, but I can understand the problem that is trying to be solved by them.

Eddie 07 Oct 05

Christopher Fahey wins. I’m on his side.

IceFan 07 Oct 05

It reminds me of the time Vanilla Ice claimed that because �Ice Ice Baby� used only seven of the eight notes from �Under Pressure�, that it technically wasn�t a sample.

Anytime someone can pull a Vanilla Ice quote or lyric in a conversation such as this, much respect. =)

Adrian 07 Oct 05

I’m so thrilled to find someone who’s more pendantic than I am. Perhaps we could get it together and have lots of little tax attorneys.

If I describe someone as a “tall Tom Cruise”, you know what I mean. The last time I checked, the purpose of communication was to convey meaning but when most humans communicate they prefer implicit to explicit forms. I’ll make an exception for hackers.

Using a statement like that doesn’t diminish Tom Cruise in any way (not that there’s much to diminish). No-one’s getting confused about Cruise’s essential brand attributes. No-one’s being ripped off or misled.

You can describe something in two ways. You can say explicitly what something _is_ or _does_. Or you can say what something’s _like_, relative to something else that the audience is already familiar with. Most people find the latter way to be more effective (and considerably quicker) than the former.

When I first saw Writeboard, the thought, “One-page wiki” popped into my head within two seconds. It still makes sense to me. I know what a wiki does and does not do and I know in which ways Writeboard is similar to it and dissimilar to it. I’m not going to start thinking that something like a one-page wiki is a wiki any more than I’m going to think that our tall Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise.

If I’m speaking to people I suspect don’t know what a wiki is, I’ll describe it differently, perhaps like “a word processor that everyone can work on together”. It’s imperfect and imprecise but that’s life. If people can understand enough about it to ask intelligent questions, it’s good enough.

Get a grip before I start describing 37signals as “like Webvan but without the groceries and the VCs.”

8500 07 Oct 05

“Get a grip before I start describing 37signals as �like Webvan but without the groceries and the VCs.�

I may not agree with this indictment but it is damn funny.

Michael 07 Oct 05

Wonkish Pedantry seems to be a bit like flogging a dead horse, no?

Jason 07 Oct 05

Would someone use Writeboard instead of Microsoft Words “Tracking” functionality?

Charles Jolley 07 Oct 05


I think that one of the reasons so many people are calling Writeboard a wiki is because we desperately want it to be one! Virtually all of Sproutit’s planning documents are done either in Instiki or Basecamp. The biggest problem I have with wikis though is that it is so hard to train new people to use them.

Writeboard has such a great UI that I could really use to store all of our documents if only it had that one critical trait: linking multiple pages together by adding links to them.

I know you want to solve one problem well and do less and all that, but Writeboard is so close to what I have been looking for its too hard not to ask for it. :-)

Javier Cabrera 12 Oct 05

Hey, Writeboard is a Wiki. Maybe isn’t what you guys wanted to develop, but it is a Wiki. But you know what? it doesn’t matter. Is an excellent app and we are all happy of using it, so keep doing what you guys are doing!

Doug 27 Jan 06

Sorry if I’m bumping a dead topic.

I think Adrian has pretty well captured things with his comments about the use of language. Wiki and blog are evolving concepts, and while it may be useful to try to identify the essential attributes of a wiki or blog there’s nothing wrong with someone saying something is wiki-like or blog-like.

I’ve never used Writeboard - why are folks down on it?

Also, I see Instiki comments are very vulnerable to spam. It’s been several months since the spammy posts by Joe and John above. Is there any way to remove those?

howard 17 Mar 06

I agree with the stated definition of a wiki. I’ve built knowledge bases that were similar to wikis but used other page creation mechanisms, and I have to stress that the core feature of a wiki — the thing that makes it vastly easier to use than many other systems — is that new pages are created simply by linking to them in the text. That’s huge.

People can call any knowledge management system a wiki, just as people can call any vehicle a car — but that doesn’t make everything a wiki (or a car!) :-)

No, not every web site is a blog. Blogs have defining characteristics, e.g. they grow over time in a specific way. That isn’t true of just any web site. When you add comments, a blog is simply a personal discussion forum, in which each thread is initiated by the blogger/s and other people can only comment on these threads.