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Vandals at the wiki

You may already be familiar with wikis. If not, Ward Cunningham (developer of the original wiki software) called a wiki "the simplest online database that could possibly work." The term "database" might be slightly misleading here; a wiki is a collection of Web pages, each of which has an "Edit this" button somewhere. Any visitor to the Web site can edit any page, or add new pages. The name comes from the Hawaiian word for "quick," referring to how easy it is to set up a new wiki site. All you need to do is post one page and watch it grow.

The original wiki was developed as a way to help track software patterns, and has gradually grown into a repository of tens of thousands of pages on various software development practices, notably extreme programming. Nor is it the largest wiki; Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia, has over 350,000 pages as I write this.

Wikis have been implemented in all sorts of computer languages, and with all sorts of slightly different features, but the core notion of being a user-edited Web site remains constant. And thereby hangs today's tale. You see, there's a .NET implementation of the wiki idea called FlexWiki, which just moved from Microsoft's own GotDotNet project site to the open source SourceForge, where it resides with a shiny new open source license. FlexWiki thus joins a few other Microsoft spinoffs as an open source project.

That in itself isn't all that significant. There are thousands of little skunkwork projects that have some connection to Microsoft, and we're going to see more and more of them trickle into the open source world. What is interesting is that the news of FlexWiki's relicensing was picked up by the "News for Nerds" Web site Slashdot, which is a perennial home for Microsoft-bashing. Along with the comments that trolls posted over on Slashdot itself ("make microsoft bob open source") some bright (if that's the word I'm looking for) realized that they could go over to the FlexWiki Web site itself and edit away.

And so they did. Within an hour after the Slashdot story was posted, pages on the FlexWiki site began to be littered with ads for Mozilla Firefox, scatalogical comments about Microsoft, warnings that FlexWiki was the product of some evil plot, and so on. It's a pity that there are people who view this sort of vandalism as the best way to promote open source, which (in my opinion) is a sensible path for much software. But surely the massed hordes of Slashdot could overwhelm the beleaguered wiki maintainers?

Actually, no. For all that it's a simple idea, the design of the original wiki (which has propagated forwards into other versions) is remarkably well thought out. Two key decisions make it very hard to effectively vandalize a wiki. First, there's a "Recent Changes" page that makes it easy for anyone to monitor, in near real time, which pages are being edited. Second, every page comes with a "Restore Version" button. In one click you can undo an annoying edit that took someone ten minutes to compose. The forces of entropy have a decided upper hand in wikiland.

When I checked back after a few hours, the trolls and vandals had given up, and the FlexWiki site was none the worse for wear. Nor is this an isolated incident in the history of wikis. As long as there's some critical mass of interested people, vandals and spammers tend to get discouraged and move on. That's a pretty impressive testimony to the basic wiki design.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy has been developing software for a quarter-century now, and writing about it for nearly as long. He walked away from a .NET development career in 2006 and has been a happy Rails user ever since. Mike blogs at A Fresh Cup.

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