What Makes a Wiki?

By Deane Barker on October 17, 2008

In Sioux Falls this summer, we had something of a scooter revolution. Scooters were everywhere. And I noticed something – some of the scooters were so big they rivaled the size of motorcycles.

So, I got wondering, what’s the real difference between a scooter and a motorcycle? Where is the dividing line? I suspect it’s awfully blurry.

I’m beginning to think the same thing about the line between a wiki and a traditional CMS. What differentiates one from the other? I suspect this line is awfully blurry as well.

Way back in the day, when wikis were new and I was messing around with early versions of Twiki (we had to GlueWordsTogether to make links...), wikis had some prety clear differentiators:


Everyone could edit any page. To my knowledge, there were no permissions (in fact, the Movable Type wiki (the old, unofficial one) was closed down due to vandalism they couldn’t stop).


There was no structure of pages. They were just all in a big pool.


Revisions were kept for every edit.


There was no WYSIWYG. Just wikitext.


There was no page structure at all – just a title and text.

And that was a wiki, and it was pretty clear that it wasn’t a CMS.

But these days, with a lot of wiki products, those five points of differentiation have been muted quite a bit.


There are permissions models now, in the wiki world. Wikipedia has famously started to massage permissions, and any internal wiki at the enterprise level would almost have to have permissions, since the information held in it can be at varying levels of sensitivity.


You can get wikis with some structure. Google Sites has pages and sub-pages, and I remember a Ruby-based wiki from some time ago called Hierachi that was built in a heirarchy (hence the name).


Revisions are still kept, but this isn’t really a differentiators anymore because any good CMS does this too (every WordPress does it now).


Many wiki products have WYSIWYG capability. Additionally, with the popularity of things like Markdown and Textile, many CMS products are using wikitext-ish syntax.


Page structure is largely a configuration issue in a CMS anyway, so there’s no reason you can’t set up your pages like a wiki.

So, again, what makes a wiki? What are the features that, when present, make you say “this isn’t a CMS, it’s a wiki.” I maintain that this is getting hard to figure out, and a traditional CMS can often lay claim to being a wiki without too many changes.

Ektron includes a wiki module in their latest version. So does Xoops, I just discovered the other day. And I’m poking around Episerver these days and wondering just how hard it would be to give that some wiki-like functionality.

Is it enough to just have an “edit this page” link on every page? If I did that with a traditional CMS, could I say I had a wiki? I think that in a point-by-point comparison, I’d come pretty close.

Or, is a wiki more of a cultural designation, than a technical one? Stewart Moder’s wikipatterns is all about how to get wikis into your enterprise, and it spends about zero time on the technical aspects of it. It’s all about how to overcome mental barriers to using a wiki, and how to get people to embrace the cultre.

There a case study in the book where some guy says something like this:

You can’t turn a CMS into a wiki

More and more, I disagree with this. The line is fine. A CMS can be very wiki-like, very easily in some cases. The concept of a wiki is largely a mental and cultural one, and I think accepting this fact and embracing this is a real key to getting your organization to embrace them.

Reading Stewart’s book wouldn’t hurt either.

Comments (8)

Justin says:

“You can’t turn a CMS into a wiki” I beg to differ. Drupal can be made into a wiki. Probably not a great one, but it can be done out of the box.

Allan Thraen says:

Good post, Deane. Got me inspired to publish my (not so different) thoughts on the subject: http://allantech.blogspot.com/2008/10/wiki-vs-cms-difference-is-psychological.html

James Robertson says:

I agree that the line is getting pretty blurry! I’ve always said that wikis are a transitional technology, like blogs, which will get drawn into the mainstream of technology in due course.

I’ve also blogged on the same topic, but from the other direction, looking at what CMS’s can learn from wikis:


Cheers, James

MIkael Runhem says:

Hi Deane, It is possible to use the Episerver CMS together with the built-in editing functions for allowing anyone to create and change pages. However, we are developing a Wiki module that will feel just like a true, native Wiki server. The cool thing is that we have the full CMS underneath, allowing a mixture between all content management technologies available. You can start with a corporate website, add discussion forums and extranet areas, embedding corporate blogs (with true metablog server emulation), connecting it to your Salesforce or MS CRM system. With the upcoming module you can let wikis be a native part of the site.! With this synergy, a wiki post can initiate a workflow or automatically become a part of a news letter or appear on the web statistics report as all other content etc etc... You can use the fine grained security to restrict access, you will have versioning and dynamic content (pages in pages). You can even embed external content with the drag-and-drop technology into the Wiki post if you like! The Wiki module for Episerver CMS will be released as open source, allowing anyone to add features. I suggest that you force Allan to give you a demo of it :-)

rgds, Mike

Benxamin says:

You have to straddle a motorcycle, whereas a scooter has some kind of platform for both feet (stand or sit). Having two wheels and a platform for feet makes a Segway a scooter.

Abbe says:

There are a few enterprise wikis that offer free trials. What better way to learn about them than to get in there and start working with one. Try eTouch SamePage at www.etouch.net.

BryanSD says:

I finally got around to reading this post. Deane, you get no argument from me but I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own.

We’ve used mediaWiki behind the firewall with some success. To be honest, I’m not in favor of the lack of WYSIWYG with strange wiki markup. I’m not in favor of creating the “instant links” created by contributors as it lacks some needed structure. I’m also not in favor of wiki-only applications as they don’t offer the same growth in welcomed features as a full CMS. However...I think starting with a “wiki-only” application for many organizations is essential in developing a culture of collaboration.

My workplace has an extreme culture of control with regards to policies, memos, and official documentation. While collaboration isn’t a new term, for organizations such as the one I work for, collaboration is still relatively new to put in practice. Full featured CMS can be confusing to users with regards to where on the Website they can edit other people’s work and where they cannot. When users doubt they should be editing another person’s work...they usually won’t edit the work.

I do agree with Allan Thraen’s comment/article that the difference between a Wiki and a CMS is psychological. However, I’ll also argue that the difference is also cultural. If you have a CMS where traditionally you’ve placed formal controls on the content, then just adding wiki features to the CMS may not be enough to break the established control culture. In this case, you might want to consider adding a wiki-only site instead of integrating a wiki into a CMS.

Bryan (Deane...email me when you get a chance)

Luc says:

Thinking back to the origins of hypertext, wikis and hypermedia systems in general, such as HyperCard it seems to me that the key defining feature of a wiki vs other types of CMSs is the ability of a wiki to create a new page on-the-fly if there’s a link to a page that doesn’t exist.