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Several people have asked me what a TWiki is, and what can it be used for.

This is an early attempt at an answer.

After you've read this page, if you want to edit it, or see how easy it is to edit, go to TWikiRegistration to register. Then come back to this page, scroll to the bottom, and click on the blue underlined word "edit" at the bottom of the page.

(If you simply click on edit at the bottom of the page, after three tries you will be redirected to the registration page.)

Write down your password, as there is no good way (yet) to remind you of your password or to easily allow you to create a new password if it is lost. (This may no longer be true since the 20011201 TWiki release -- I need to check.)

This is a "first draft", but it may answer your questions. If not, tell me what's missing, and what can be improved, as I see the need for pages like this on WikiLearn.

Aside, if you do edit this, I will be able to easily see exactly what you changed using the diff facility (see the bottom of the page).


Table of Contents


A wiki is for (almost) everything -- how you use it depends on what you need or want to do.

The Table of Contents for this page gives you an overview of what a wiki is for. Click on an entry to jump to a section, or just scroll down the page. (The Table of Contents was created automatically by TWiki from the headings on this page after I typed "%TOC%".)

By the way, this is a TWiki page (or topic).

The Question

Someone you know wrote: "I've seen them and looked at them a bit, but I don't understand what they're for."

The Answers

How can I be brief -- a wiki is for (almost) everything ;-), so it depends greatly on your needs or desires.

I'll give you some buzzwords, then elaborate a little, then mention some of the limitations.

These answers are specific to TWiki, and I won't always point out advantages or disadvantages of other wikis.

A wiki is:

A Database

You can put data into a wiki (text, for example) and get it back out. Most wikis also support embedded graphics in various forms. Many support tables. TWiki has plugins to support a sketching tool, simple spreadsheets, and attached files.


In the end, data in a wiki is displayed on a web browser with formatting controlled by HTML tags.

You don't have to know anything about HTML to enter text in a TWiki.

Most wikis use a simple markup scheme to format text as bold, italic, bulleted, or to create numbered (or bulleted) lists, headings, links, etc.

You don't have to know this simple markup scheme to start editing. (As you learn the scheme you can do fancier formatting.)

The simple markup scheme means it is easy to read TWiki in its "raw" form while editing.

Editing is done using the editor built-in to most browsers.

Free Format

You can enter text in any format you wish -- you don't have to create fields beforehand. (Most wikis will play some minor tricks with the free formatted input, but you can learn to deal with those tricks.)

TWiki is one of the few wikis (the only one I know) which allows you to define fields in addition to the free format input. (In the current versions, they refer to the fields as a category table, in the next version, they will be called form fields. The capability is rather limited, but it will evolve.)


I started this web page. You (or anyone else) can click on the blue underlined word "edit" at the bottom of this page and edit this page. I could put a question here, you could add the answer.

I could post my schedule here (as a table for example), along with a request that you schedule a meeting with me to discuss wikis. You could see when I have free time in my schedule, and edit my schedule to show when you'd like to have the meeting.

I could start a sketch of our network configuration. You can edit that sketch to correct my mistakes. Joe can edit it to add the details for the chinese branch of our network. (Perhaps in very little detail, simply due to size constraints.)

I could write a first draft of a "white paper" describing what a wiki is. You can come along and ask questions, make comments, or simply edit my work. (On some other page we may talk about WikiDocumentMode vs. WikiThreadMode, WikiEtiquette, WikiZen, and WikiMasters.)

TWiki (and many other wikis) use RCS or similar tools to keep track of revisions to content. At the next release, attached files will be under revision control.

Aside: Some, but not all, wikis require authentication for editing (or, in some cases, for reading). A username and password is one form of authentication. Authentication is optional on TWiki, but is required on this site (twiki.org). Wikis that don't require authentication depend on the wiki community to prevent vandalism, and are quite successful.


Anyone who uses the Internet is familiar with hyperlinks (or just links) -- they are those underlined words or phrases (often blue) that you click on to jump to a different web page.

One of the primary original goals of a wiki was to allow extremely easy creation of such links within a wiki site . The original concept was that just by ScrunchingCapitalizedWordsTogether you would create a link. Since the link in the previous sentence probably doesn't exist, there is a question mark after it, which tells a knowledgable "wikizen" that the original author of this page thought it might be worthwhile to create a page with that name to elaborate or clarify something.

(Congratulations, you are now a knowledgable wikizen.)

If someone goes to the trouble (really, "simplicity") of creating that page, the question mark will disappear, and the link will appear underlined and in the color representing a followed or unfollowed link (as the case may be).

A mail list, forum, and weblog replacement

A simple web publishing tool

A tool for any collaborative activity

You've read a lot about this already, so I won't elaborate.

There is a modified TWiki to support writing books or instruction manuals.

The easiest to use database you can imagine (almost)

Any authorized person can put data in, any authorized person can find it and read it.

You want pictures, tables, spreadsheets, sketches, attachments in your database -- you put them in.

The "almost" is because most wiki's search tools are not the best. TWiki currently has only an "experimental" boolean search capability. (In TWiki, by default, a search for a group of words assumes the group of words constitutes a phrase, with all words present in the order specified.)

Discussion is going on about how to improve that. TWiki (and most wikis) can be indexed and searched by Internet search engines. I plan to allow WikiLearn to be indexed by well behaved Internet search engines and I plan to install a dedicated search engine on the site (once I find one that provides the capabilities I want). (I want boolean and proximity searching as a minimum, I've got a list of potential TWiki search engines started at home.)

TWiki is indexed by Google, as you probably know, you can restrict a Google search to this site by specifying site:twiki.org as the first term in your search query. For example, to search for "Internet search engines" on this site, enter [site:twiki.org Internet search engine] into the Google query window (without the square brackets).

A Community

Most wikis exist in conjunction with a community -- the wiki supports the community and the community supports the wiki. I'll give a few examples now, but I should add many more:

The Portland Pattern Repository supports communities of object oriented programmers interested in pattterns, programmers interested in extreme programming, people interested in wikis, and others.

Here are links to lists of other wikis supported by a community:


There are many different wiki programs and wiki web sites. (See C2:WikiEngines, and maybe C2:WikiEngineReview, which is pretty rough.)

Many wikis are programmed by one person, many of whom continue to support their program. TWiki was started by Peter Thoeny, who continues to support it, but a community of active developers has grown up around it, at the twiki.org site.


TWiki is written in Perl and is released under the GPL license, which means you can get the source code and modify it yourself.

The community of TWiki developers at this site continues to make improvements to TWiki, and some of those improvements are released as plugins, to allow addtional functionality to be "plugged in".

A new major release is planned for early August.

Annoying, at times:


Yup, they can be annoying. TWiki and several other wikis offer alternate ways to create links. In TWiki I can create a link by enclosing it in double square brackets, with or without spaces, and with or without capitalized first letters, something like this: [ [a test link]], which will appear as a test link on this page, but will appear as ATestLink on the title of the linked page.

I would like to allow links to be displayed on the linked page the same way they are defined in the link, or perhaps capitalized but with spaces.

Limited search capability (today)

Discussed above, see The easiest to use database you can imagine.

Registration often required

Discussed above, see Collaborative.

Crotchitey (sp?)

There are some bugs in wikis, room for improvement, and some bugs in related tools that cause problems for TWiki. IE5 has a few bugs that can make it appear like you've lost data while editing a TWiki page. With careful maneuvering, you can avoid data loss.

Although wiki uses RCS and stores all old revisions so that an old version can be restored in the event of vandalism, only an administrator can do the restoration. (On some wikis anybody can do the restoration.)

TWiki was a challenge for me to install. A lot of that was because I was (and am) a newbie to Linux.

Wiki's Roots

Ward Cunningham is credited with creating the original wiki, somewhere around 1993, IIRC. (I may be off considerably, and I won't check that point today. Ward has written a book, called The Wiki Way, which has just been released. (I should create a link).)

I would not take any credit away from Ward, but wiki has it's roots in things older than that. I'll mention just a few, without elaboration for now:

  • the concept of a free format database (not sure where that came from)
  • the concept of hyperlinking (I should provide some references -- I can't think of the name (or names) of some of the people credited with developing this concept, but they are familiar names)
  • Apple's HyperCard
  • Seaside Software's AskSam (which I've used for close to 15 years)


  • Tool of the Month: TWiki; January 2002; Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier -- decent short article -- some things I disagree with (don't remember them all -- to me it's TWiki markup (not GoodStyle), most wikis do not require registration, using was far easier for me than installing (maybe because of my extensive prior experience with askSam?) -- installing was a bear
  • Wiki.org: What Is Wiki -- nice concise definition, includes these words from Ward Cunningham: "The simplest online database that could possibly work."

<Hmm, I wonder if he made that statement before or after I made the similar observation on this page (and kept drawing analogies to askSam (which is a free format and collaborative database0 before then. (I found wikis when I started my migration to Linux and could not find an askSam workalike.)>


Okay, I still don't get it. What's this thing good for?

-- FaberF - 2001 07 28

I'll try to be more concise at what is a TWiki good for.

-- RandyKramer - 30 Jul 2001

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