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What is a wiki?

André Guyon
(Language Update, Volume 6, Number 3, 2009, page 31)

Depending on the source, as shown by the definitions found on the Web, a wiki can be what you want it to be. The following are some key words and phrases taken from those definitions:

content management, dynamic, user modifiable, rapid content creation, easily edited, scripts, collaborative work

One could say that wikis are a bit like cheese: there’s one to suit everyone’s taste. That said, however, I would like to talk about two of those key phrases: collaborative work and rapid content creation.

Wikis are helping to fuel a movement that is liberating humankind. Moreover, the somewhat anarchical context of wikis reminds us of major social movements in history. What will likely happen is that the law-and-order freaks and others thirsting for power will probably succeed in stabilizing this movement until it becomes ossified, thus encouraging other innovative developments.

Collaborative work is probably embedded in our genes to ensure the survival of the human species. Natural disasters, such as Quebec’s ice storm in 1998, show the extent to which the urgency of some situations leads to creativity and collaboration, sometimes even between people who do not like one another very much.

With the Internet and the global village, everyone is only a keyboard and a screen away. Not so long ago, communication systems between the continents greatly limited the potential for distance collaboration. Telephone rates, time zones and many other factors, particularly languages, limited the potential for collaboration even further.

In the past few years, the public has not only been a consumer of content, but also a producer of content (for better and worse). To the surprise of some experts, when volunteers pool their expertise, they sometimes produce excellent results, and the spontaneous creation of content is increasing at a phenomenal rate. Wikipedia won acclaim when it proved that it was indeed as valid an information source as the off-the-shelf products of a few years ago. Many other initiatives of this kind are making progress and bringing together communities interested in a particular aspect of human life.

Wikis appear to be becoming a fixture in workplaces where collaborative work with little or no hierarchical structure is strongly encouraged. After conquering the world of not for profit organizations, this new way of doing things is also invading the business world and large organizations.1

Multitudes of relatively anonymous people are now rubbing shoulders, figuratively speaking, with the employees of big corporations such as IBM and Microsoft. Recognition of achievements is the prime motivation of the "anonymous" contributors.

Wikis are a computer tool that can help us obtain results at an increasingly faster rate with less and less specialized knowledge. Because all truth contains a bit of contradiction, we should take note that some of these tools offer so many possibilities that we need to rely on the help of wiki experts to get started.

Nevertheless, there are clearly situations where it is possible in a few hours to set up a complete solution allowing members of a community of interests to interact with one another. Whether it is sports events, conferences or genealogies, there is no end to the potential applications of wikis. There is an application for just about everything and just about everybody.

What about applications for language professionals?

For us language professionals, wikis and the collaborative work method they encourage are both a threat and an inexhaustible source of new opportunities. It reminds one a bit of the introduction of microcomputers in the early 1980s.

The threat lies in the fact that non-language specialists can do specialized work and thus invade our areas of competency, as demonstrated by Wikipedia, Firefox and other wonderful products of collaborative work.

In theory, part of the work usually done by language professionals will be done by volunteers, enthusiasts and other dilettantes. Will this trend reduce the need for specialists or, on the contrary, increase the need for specialists, while completely transforming the playing field?

Have the page layout specialists that typographers once were become unnecessary or, conversely, are they tragically in increasingly short supply now that graphics-challenged people are rampant even on the Web pages of prestigious organizations?

It is true that some wiki environments produce content of undeniable quality that was written or translated by volunteers. So yes, part of the work once reserved for specialists can now be done by the masses.

The new opportunities are open to those who can make adjustments. This is a fortunate development because for a very long time, language professionals, more than anyone, have been able to adjust to all kinds of new things. How many accountants, lawyers, engineers or even computer technicians regularly use more than 10 software programs? Being able to adapt is part of the DNA of language professionals.

Future prospects

Wikis could one day contribute to all of the following:

  • More active collaboration with clients
  • Better perceptions of language professionals by clients
  • Significant reduction in the effort devoted to revision
  • Optimized synergy among language professionals2
  • Provision of new services such as live chat rooms
  • Substantial decrease in the preparatory work required for shared tasks
  • Less stress when handling rush requests
  • Fewer disputes between revisers and revised translators
  • Less effort required to manage teams with varying degrees of expertise
  • Sharing of tasks that used to be done individually
  • Increased production in a personalized environment
  • Simultaneous publication of bilingual content
  • Overall simplification of procedures

Potential advantages are numerous. Sadly though, as things currently stand, it is the little things that would be rather easy to fix that make text editing with the help of a wiki about as pleasant as a snowstorm in April in Canada. Let’s hope improvements to this tool will not be long in coming.

NOTES

  • Back to the note1 Representatives of Microsoft and IBM attended the WikiSym 2008 International Symposium on Wikis.
  • Back to the note2 Little use is currently made of wikis for this purpose.