From a wiki about Adele to one on Zoroastrianism, there seems no end to the well of editable online knowledge, writes Rhodri Marsden.
If someone challenged you to name a wiki, you'd probably start by pointing out that it's not much of a challenge. Then you'd shrug and say "Wikipedia". Almost absurdly prominent on the web, Wikipedia has taught us everything we think we need to know about wikis: pools of knowledge, contributed to and edited by their users, a push and pull of information that's constantly in flux.
Often they benefit from the wisdom of crowds; occasionally they suffer from the stupidity of individuals. But that process of negotiating what satirist Stephen Colbert once termed "wikiality" ("a reality we can agree on") has started to bring together huge communities of people dedicated to amassing knowledge bases.
Search the internet for a wiki about Adele and you'll find a standard Wikipedia entry, restricted to the typically dry, encyclopaedic content that's permitted by its fastidious administrators. Next on the list, however, you'll find adele.wikia.com, "The site about the British singer/songwriter Adele that anyone can edit." Contained within this wiki are hundreds of pages of information that may well be deemed too indulgent for Wikipedia, but certainly aren't for Adele fans. They pitch in with everything from analyses of the lyrical content of b-sides to spurious information about choreographers who worked on her videos; a team of like-minded people, dedicated to dealing exhaustively with the subject of Adele Adkins.
If you consider Adele to be limited in her factual scope, perhaps check out the terrifyingly comprehensive memory-alpha.org ("A collaborative project to create the most definitive reference for everything related to Star Trek") or the surreal creative splurge at uncyclopedia.com ("the content-free encyclopedia that anyone can edit"). The wiki is thriving and recent statistics from Wikia, home to many of them, provide us with a useful barometer. Co-founded eight years ago by Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales, and retaining a loose link to the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikia (stress on the second syllable) has seen huge traffic growth of late, with more than 250,000 communities established and 60 million global users a month. Divided nominally into gaming, entertainment and lifestyle sections, Wikia is now the fastest-growing entertainment site on the web, and earlier this year leapfrogged Rupert Murdoch's IGN to become one of the web's premier gaming resources.
"Wikis occupy a really unique place within the social web," says Wikia's CEO, Craig Palmer. "They're very different to the short attention span, individual-focused sites where you put something up and have someone react to it. Here, people band together and produce long-lasting content. You can't collaborate on an original body of work on Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr or Twitter; that's what makes Wikia unique."
It certainly involves a different level of engagement to merely thumbing up something on a Facebook page, and in some cases you could even call it a labour of love. The John Peel wiki at peel.wikia.com, a huge resource of information about the late DJ's shows on Radio 1 and elsewhere, began just four years ago.
"A friend of mine wanted a place where all the information about Peel on the net could be centralised," says contributor Steve Lodge. "And that wiki is what I've spent most of my spare time doing over the past four years."
If you're wondering why a man would devote so much effort to such a thing, Wikia have pondered the same question. "We've done some deep research to understand what motivates people to chronicle this stuff, what compels them to put forward their knowledge in a way that furthers other people's knowledge," says Wikia's senior vice-president of marketing, Jennifer Betka. In Lodge's case, John Peel's death meant that the project had more purpose.
"As there's a definitive beginning and an end it feels calculable," he says. "Maybe realisable. You never know."
The explosion of interest in wikis isn't all about facts, however. AltHistory is a fascinating project where contributors outline alternative historical outcomes based upon crucial events going a different way for example, Joan of Arc's triumphant defeat of the English, or catastrophic nuclear war engulfing Britain in 1983. Or, if you prefer your wiki-ing a little less intense, galaxiki.org lets you create and name your own imaginary solar systems forever more.
But what all these wikis have in common is the proactive diligence of the contributors, and surprisingly high visitor numbers helped in many cases by the high Google rankings Wikia has managed to achieve. "Shows of Peel's are coming up all the time from people who've stumbled across the wiki," says Lodge, "shows that we thought we'd never hear."
Visitors engage wiki resources in many different ways, according to Craig Palmer. "Users of the Glee wiki clearly chat while they watch the show using Wikia tools," he says, "and then add a lot of content when it's finished."
Gamers, meanwhile, will use wikis such as wowwiki.com (World of Warcraft) or callofduty.wikia.com as "second-screen resources" having the wiki open while they play to assist them with making progress through the game.
But from the end users all the way up to the wiki admins, it's a more complex social structure than on most social media sites and one that the entertainment industry is keen to tap into.
Companies such as Warner have already been developing links to Wikia communities as part of their PR drives.
"When communities look for everything there is to know about a subject," says Betka, "it creates a beautiful structure for people to collaborate around. Because it's about being positive, comprehensive and accurate. The underlying principle is the pursuit of knowledge." And, crucially, wikis know no snobbery; from Adele to Zoroastrianism, and pretty much all points in between.