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Getting to Know Wikipedia

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In this lesson, you learn the history of Wikipedia and how it works.

Welcome to the World of Wikis

Wikipedia is, for many users, the primary site for information on the Web; it uses the concept of wikis to create an online encyclopedia. Hence the name, a combination of "wiki" and "encyclopedia."

But what is a wiki?

How Wikis Work

In essence, a wiki is a collaborative database. That is, different users enter data into the database, and the database becomes a source of information for other users.

What makes a wiki different from a normal database is its collaborative nature. Instead of a single monolithic author, wikis have dozens or hundreds or even thousands of different authors, each contributing his or her own expertise to the enterprise. In this fashion, a wiki can quickly grow to encompass all manner of information, using the power of its multiple contributors.

A wiki becomes even more functional when connected to a network—or to the Internet. Any user with a network or Internet connection can access the wiki database, either to retrieve information or add data to the database. This broadens the base of contributors, which broadens the potential information available.

To facilitate data entry and formatting, most wikis use some type of markup language, such as the Web's HTML, for their data entry. Entries are created using the markup language so that all the data shares the same look and feel.

The markup language also enables different entries within the database to link to one another, and to other pages on the Web. In effect, wiki entries—called articles—are their own pages on the larger wiki website. By linking to other articles, a wiki article gains breadth and depth; one piece of information easily leads to related information elsewhere in the wiki.

Wiki History

The first web-based wiki was launched by computer programmer Ward Cunningham in 1995. The WikiWikiWeb (www.c2.com/cgi/wiki/) was created to ease the exchange of ideas between programmers. Cunningham based the site's design on Apple's HyperCard application, which was a graphical database program included with Macintosh computers in the late 1980s. WikiWikiWeb featured user-modifiable pages that essentially created the collaborative database of information.

Users of the site embraced the concept and began to create their own wikis independent of the WikiWikiWeb website. These wikis focused on content other than programming, using wiki engines to create knowledge bases in various content areas. The most notable of these new wikis was a general purpose site, dubbed Wikipedia.

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