How Wikis Work

Understanding Wikipedia

Because Wikipedia is the largest and most popular wiki on the planet, we will use it as an example to understand how wikis work in practice.

If you go to and look at the home page, you'll see a welcome screen that shows you how to access different versions of Wikipedia, along with a search box.

Type "wing warping" into the search box, and you will arrive at a typical Wikipedia article. The "Wing warping" page offers a brief description of wing warping, links to several related articles inside Wikipedia and several external links.

This is normal for any wiki -- a wiki is nothing but a collection of Web pages interconnected with each other through internal links. In Wikipedia, there are more than a million pages like this in the English version.

If you read the article, you will find that it is a useful source of information. It simply tells you what wing warping is and directs you to other resources. Despite the fact that anyone can edit the page (even you), there is no pornography, profanity or Nazi slogans on the page. All the material is completely on-topic.

Now we can ask the key question when it comes to Wikis -- where did this page on wing warping come from? Who wrote it? With any "normal" encyclopedia, the answer to that question is simple -- the encyclopedia paid someone to write the article. With Wikipedia, the answer to that question is completely different.

The Creation of Wikipedia Pages

At the top of the "Wing warping" page in Wikipedia, you see a tab that says, "Edit this page." That is a wide-open invitation to anyone -- any visitor to Wikipedia (including you) can edit any page. If you have something to say about wing warping that you feel should be on the page, or if you have an external link that you believe would be helpful to other readers who are reading about wing warping, or if you're compelled to write something completely unrelated, then you can add whatever you have to say to the page. Simply click on the "Edit this page" tab and type away.

To many people who have never spent any time with an active wiki before, that last sentence is uncomfortable. The idea that anyone can come to Wikipedia and edit any page at any time and do so with complete anonymity is extremely disconcerting. Obvious questions arise immediately:

  • What if the person is a vandal and inserts profanity?
  • What if the person is a vandal and either completely erases the page or corrupts it?
  • What if the person is a spammer from a porn site who adds porn links and pictures to the page?

­ While it does happen, that kind of thing is relatively rare. The key thing that makes a wiki work is its community. Using a variety of tools, the community sees to it that vandals, dummies and spammers do not corrupt the encyclopedia.

Let's learn more about this community.