Fàilte! Welcome back to #TechTuesday.

Aleen is the Digital Heritage Specialist for Language in Lyrics.

Last time, we were talking all about WordPress, and the advantages and disadvantages of using WordPress.com and WordPress.org to create your own website. This time, we’re moving on to talk about another way to make your own website: wikis. While they are similar to other platforms we’ve mentioned, wikis are also very different in ethos and design from anything we’ve talked about before. They are their own digital breed.

Chances are, most of you have consulted a Wikipedia page in the past day or two. To check if that certain song did in fact go to number one in seven countries, or to see about the historical accuracy of the portrayal of Bonnie Prince Charlie on Outlander, or to help remember the definition of Digital Humanities (true story).

Wikipedia is an endless font of information. It is also the most famous wiki in the world.

But Wikipedia is just one of many wikis out there in the internet world. A wiki is something altogether different than Wikipedia. Wikipedia is merely a website that uses an underlying wiki software – in this case, MediaWiki – as a foundation to build their site.

What is a wiki?

So what exactly is wiki software? (Also sometimes called a wiki engine). There are self-hosted software options like MediaWiki, TikiWiki, and DokuWiki, or more full-service web-based options like Wikidot, Tettra (a spin-off of Slack), Wikia, and PBWorks.

And what do they do? Well, the actual dictionary definition of the word “wiki” gives us a clue. It’s an abbreviated form of the Hawaiian word wikiwiki, which means “quick.” And if any website could be described as quick, it’s a wiki. They are definitely fleet-footed. A wiki is a website built page-by-page by multiple editors and authors. It’s collaborative, cooperate, and ever-changing. Think about Wikipedia – it’s constantly being edited, altered, and added to every single day. (For more on the definition, I thought it would be fitting to direct you to Wikipedia’s entry for wikis here).

The basic idea for wikis is that any visitors can edit the site’s content directly through their web browser. That’s why they are so popular with crowd-sourced encyclopedias like Wikipedia or pop culture fandom sites in Wikia. It’s the freedom and the accessibility of it. But wikis can also be private, used internally by companies for internal knowledge sharing between employees (say, in a large research university or a Silicon Valley tech company).

Interestingly enough for a collaborative software, we can trace the invention of the wiki to a single person. Ward Cunningham created what is now named WikiWikiWeb in 1995. In case you’re interested in falling down a rabbit hole of wiki history, he has a page detailing the full year-by-year development of the wiki approach on his site. Overall, Cunningham’s vision for a wiki is, in his words, “The simplest online database that could possibly work.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

This collaborative, unstructured approach to a website may seem like a world away from what we talked about last week with WordPress. But in reality, both WordPress and wikis are content management systems, albeit different types. And at heart, both are based on the ethos of the open web.

But unlike WordPress, a wiki is not necessarily built to be a blogging platform. They’re not built to be anything in particular, actually. Wikis have very little internal structure. But that’s part of the appeal. You can build a wiki as you go. It’s not built in stone – think of it as built with lego blocks and held together with stretchy elastic.

Examples of wikis

But you may be wondering, what does this look like in practice?

Let’s start with the obvious examples. You’ve probably heard of WikiLeaks, Wiktionary, Wikiquotes, or WikiHow. They are all based on wikis. There are also plenty of other, lesser known wikis. But for now, let’s start with one of the more famous ones, one you’ve probably used yourself at some point or another.


Let’s take WikiHow for example.

WikiHow was founded in 2005, and now, fifteen years later, the site continues its mandate of accessible public education on an amazing plethora of topics in bite-sized how-to articles. Its mission is “to empower every person on the planet to learn how to do anything.” Like Wikipedia, WikiHow uses MediaWiki as its backend structure. In fact, WikiHow was inspired by Wikipedia’s mandate and its use of MediaWiki. Also like Wikipedia, WikiHow’s articles aren’t written by a single person – they’re written, edited and revised by multiple members of the site. The sharing of information, the connections through hyperlinks, and the advanced search function are all quintessential elements of any wiki.

But WikiHow’s content is a lot different than what we’d be doing with Language in Lyrics.

Scottish Gaelic Grammar Wiki

Another example that’s a little closer to our own mandate is the Scottish Gaelic Grammar Wiki.

It was built by the Arizona Scottish Gaelic Syntax Project and the Arizona Gaelic Phonology and Phonetics Project, both funded by the National Science Foundation. At first glance, it looks a lot like Wikipedia. Visually, it has the same rectangular box building blocks, the hyperlinks on the side, and the logo in the top corner. These are classic features we’ve come to associate with wikis. The website has subcategories for semantics, syntax, morphology, phonology, and phonetics, and all the pages are related to each of those subcategories. Every topic has its own article, like on Wikipedia. But it does differ from Wikipedia, WikiHow, and others like them when it comes to its approach. Unlike other wikis, the articles are written by the Scottish Gaelic Grammar Wiki team. While readers can send in comments, they can’t directly edit the pages. Similarly, the copyright to the website’s content is retained by The Scottish Gaelic Grammar Wiki. There’s more central control than in other wikis. But, thinking about the very niche technical knowledge that this wiki contains, and the fact that it is principally authored by the wiki’s staff, this makes complete sense.

Traditional Tunes Archive

One last example, also similar to the mandate of Language in Lyrics, is the Traditional Tunes Archive. The Traditional Tunes Archives uses the ABC and Semantic Web to organize traditional music from Scotland, England, Ireland, United States, and Canada.

Formerly the Fiddler’s Companion, the site takes a slightly different approach to a song database. Their mandate, specified on the homepage, is “the gathering of as much information as possible about folk pieces to attempt to trace tune families, determine origins, influences and patterns of aural/oral transmittal, and to study individual and regional styles of performance.” The Archive focuses on the historical evolution and development of each tune in the database, and how songs are interconnected to one another. In their own words:

“Many musicians, like ourselves, are simply curious about titles, origins, sources and anecdotes regarding the music they play. Who, for example, can resist the urge to know where the title Blowzabella came from or what it means, or speculating on the motivations for naming a perfectly respectable tune Bloody Oul’ Hag, is it Tay Ye Want?

Knowing the history of the melody we play, or at least to have a sense of its historical and social context, makes the tune ‘present’ in the here and now. . .”

Traditional Tunes Archive

Making songs “present in the here and now” could also be described as one of the main goals of Language in Lyrics, actually!

What can we learn from wikis?

When we were doing our research for our own song database at Language in Lyrics, the approach of wikis really appealed to us. They’re stretchy. They’re fun. They’re not authoritative. They fit lots of different uses. They’re often free and open source. They’re not hemmed in by certain categorical constraints or metadata standards. And most importantly, with wikis, it’s not about the experts at all – it’s about the community.

That’s the emphasis we wanted for Language in Lyrics. Yes, the database will mostly be compiled and authored by us, but we want it ultimately to be a living document used by the Gaelic community. Otherwise, what’s the point of the project? Our very best-case scenario is if the database we create becomes a go-to tool for the community. Something to be heavily used, interacted with, and made relevant by people on the ground, working to revitalize Gaelic language through song. For this reason, wikis were an option we seriously considered.

Of course, absolutely perfect options don’t exist. The catch with wikis is, if you want a wiki with no imposed limits (storage, editor permissions, number of pages, etc.), you need to go with a self-hosted wiki. MediaWiki and its self-hosted cousins require quite a bit of coding knowledge. To give you a sense of how much, let’s look at what underlies the Traditional Tunes Wiki on its Version page. Luckily, wikis are often very transparent about what went into building them:

And this goes on for pages and pages. And very few lines of that contain words that most of us can understand. Uh oh! When we began to realize this, we started feeling a little over our heads.

With wikis, we couldn’t really find a good happy medium: we could either sign up with a wiki software like Tettra, and have extreme limitations on content and functionality (which we really needed for our project), or we could downloaded one like MediaWiki, and would be completely on our own.

But we decided to talk about them in our #TechTuesday posts because, even though ultimately we decided we’d go another route, wikis remain very attractive option for many people (including us!). Also, they are a little misunderstood. Most people have probably heard of WordPress, but they might not have realized that Wikipedia wasn’t the only “wiki” that people were talking about.

We hope this dive down into the specifics of wikis was helpful, and perhaps even enabled you to see a favourite site in a different way. That’s what we’re aiming for with #TechTuesday!

Til next time,

Le beannachd,


One thought on “#TechTuesday | More than Wikipedia: Wikis Explained

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