New Media: Who are the real winners now we've all gone Wiki-crazy?

Online sources to which users add their expertise are transforming the way journalists go about research. And, report Ana Kronschnabel and Thomas Rawlings, it's a knowledge revolution that has hardly begun
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The Independent Online

Many believe that the web has entered its newest and most exciting phase: a communal era, which looks to both its altruistic beginnings as well as to its most powerful aspirations. The media technology leading this phase is known as the wiki. This approach to technology, based on sharing information and technology, is echoed among a wider group of web users, the open-source community. Ben Green, from a co-operative called Bristol Wireless, says: "We are starting to see open-source technologies replacing proprietary software and some envisage wikis replacing academic knowledge systems in the same way."

The very word wiki denotes an important insight into the ideas behind this new technology. Other web technology developments have yielded harsh terminology such as firewall, flaming, trolling etc, or a baffling array of letters such as WYSIWYG, DHCP or JXTA. The term wiki is short, catchy and almost friendly.

It is used to denote something quick or fast in the native language of Hawaii and has been adopted to name a form of webpage technology that allows users to go beyond simply reading the page. A wiki page, at first glance, looks much like a web page, but behind the scenes is a powerful, social technology that allows the users to edit its contents, alter the text, add images or video and so on. While there is nothing new in creating an editable web page, prior to the wiki age, it was done behind the scenes, often by specialised techies. What wiki does for its users is what blogging did for web publishing: it provides an easy, quick, means to an end. In the words of Ward Cunningham, an author and an inventor of wiki technology: "Wiki does for knowledge what the assembly line does for material."

The most widely known wiki project is Wikipedia - the online encyclopedia that now contains nearly 40 million articles. While the project is not without its controversies and critics, the sheer size, scope and pace of the documentation of knowledge have led some to the conclusion that what has been unleashed is "a repository of knowledge to rival the ancient library of Alexandria". A study in the science journal Nature reported that "Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries", giving the project kudos from the traditional keepers of knowledge: the academic community.

Nicholas Moreau, who is an administrator for the English Wikipedia, remarks: "When Tim Bernes Lee created the World Wide Web, he felt that editing content was just as important as reading it. This was far from realised when the web was created in 1991." Moreau is also a member of the Communications Committee of the Wikimedia Foundation, which was set up to oversee Wikipedia, a project with grey beginnings but one which has grown from a small database to a digital library of 38 million articles in five years.

Wikipedia is not the only project to take such a collaborative approach. Another example is the merger of the Yellow Pages idea with the wiki concept. Paul Youlten, founder of Yellowikis, says: "Companies get deleted every day from Wikipedia for not being encyclopaedic, which is where my daughter got the idea for Yellowikis. We collect them up and encourage more to be added directly to the system. People are actually making money from adding companies to Yellowikis in the US - we are going to encourage this on a global (and multilingual) basis."

As can be seen from the periodic vandalism that Wikipedia endures, the ability to open-publish and edit information is problematic. But Dr David Weinberger, co-author of the influential guide to business online, The Cluetrain Manifesto and fellow at Harvard's Berkman Institute for Internet and Society, thinks this risk is a price worth paying. "Besides developing shared knowledge, complete with a history of how it was developed, wikis can demonstrate to organisations that frequently the best results come from limiting the control imposed." Paul Youlten concurs. "I know from [my experience with] Yellowikis that it is difficult to resist becoming all proprietorial about what other people do with your 'baby' but the reality is that, in general, good things happen much more than bad."

While wiki technology is not new, it is becoming more and more prominent. The Wikinews project was hailed by many for its coverage of the London bombings and Hurricane Katrina. The appeal of such projects during a time of crisis seems to stem from its very nature; the collective approach to newsgathering which enables concerned communities to pool their knowledge. One current affairs blogger observed: "If more people saw the huge potential of the citizen journalism that Wikinews provides, well, it could by far surpass blogging. It's like the best democratisation process of 'news' as we know it." Not to be outdone, the Online Journalism Review has also began to deploy wiki technology to produce articles via invitation-only wikis.

So where does wiki technology go from here? Nobody is claiming it is an instant cure-all. Dr Weinberger points out: "How would Republicans and Jihadists ever come up with a single wiki page talking about George W Bush? The French and English versions of Wikipedia can't even agree on who invented the aeroplane. So, wikis are going to have to get better at handling genuine differences. But then, aren't we all?"

The authors run www.plugincinema.com, a site for web films

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