For those unfamiliar, a wiki is a collection of web pages which can be edited by their users. That probably doesn't sound impressive, so a better definition would be that a wiki is an encyclopedia written by its users (which is really only one function a wiki can serve, but it's the most common one). If that still doesn't sound impressive, take a few minutes to consider the implications of a reference source which can be edited by its users, and which is available to anyone and everyone with an internet connection.
If you've considered this, then you've also probably already thought of some of the reasons I put the word "potentially" into the sentence above.
First of all, there's the fact that in order to be a great tool, people actually have to use it. We're working on this one. WikiWikiWeb, the first real wiki was created in 1995. Since then hundreds of other wikis dedicated to various subjects (Star Trek, Frank Zappa, etc.) have sprung up, especially in the last couple of years thanks to the popularity of Wikipedia.org, the free, online encyclopedia. Wikipedia's popularity and value will only expand, thanks to its general focus and the fact that it's a useful tool, unlike other internet phenomena, such as All Your Base or Mahir Cagri.
The second big obstacle to the wiki being a great tool is vandalism, which isn't as big an issue as one might think. Real geeks in my audience might be familiar with Project Xanadu, an early ancestor of both the World Wide Web and the wiki. The concept of Project Xanadu is basically the same as that of Wikipedia, and I've always thought it unrealistically idealistic. My first online experiences were in the early '90s, and anybody who has watched the 'net grow and develop as long as I have has noticed that any sufficiently brilliant tool will, given time, either stop being free or succumb to the worst kind of anarchy. Thanks to the GNU Free Documentation License, Wikipedia is owned by its users who care to much to let it fall apart. Wikipedia's entry on itself says that acts of vandalism are corrected, on average, within five minutes. The dedication of Wikipedia's user base is incredible.
The only unsurmountable problem I see with Wikipedia is information overload. It's like having a huge MP3 collection. There's no problem if your music fits easily into the usual classification system of Genre>Artist>Album>Song title. If you're into classical music though, this system creates huge problems. No two recordings of a single piece of music are alike, so it's not unlikely that one person might have several different versions of The Planets by Gustav Holst. On your hard drive, you can devise your own classification system. The most intuitive one I can think of is Composer>Opus>Performer>Movement. On your iPod, however, things are still classified by Artist>Album>Song title. How do you differentiate between several recordings of the same piece of music? What about several different recordings by the same orchestra, but under different conductors? The same conductor at different times? What do you do when you have thirty different tracks called Movement #3, all on different albums, some from the same opus, others from different symphonies by the same composer... Your CD rack has no trouble with this, but your iPod can't handle it.
Wikipedia has the same problems. Right now they're small -- look up "insomnia," and you get an article on the medical condition, plus links to a movie and a Stephen King novel which share the same title. Wikipedia has a system in place to work around this (see the entry on disambiguation), but it really is only a matter of time before there are too many Wikipedia entries with the same title for most people to want to wade through them all. That's where specialized wikis really come in handy. Wikipedia can give you a broad overview of Homestar Runner, but only the Homestar Runner Wiki can give you the full scoop on Gavin the cockroach, and you won't have to sift through 1,512 entries on "gavin."
Anyway, one of my favorite subject-dedicated wikis is This Might Be a Wiki (guess why). Unfortunately, it perfectly illustrates one of the problems of a specialized wiki.
Wikipedia has (note to self: do some reasearch and stick a real number in here) visitors every day. For reasons beyond my comprehension, some of those people take it upon themselves to read the new or updated entries and fix errors, remove vandalism, and otherwise maintain the site. Smaller, specialized wikis don't always have people who are willing to do that.
TMBW is a well-maintained wiki, but its users don't correct each other's mistakes very often. The factual content of the site (song lyrics and quotes, for example) is clean and accurate, while the song interpretations and other opinion-based discussions are rife with misspellings, grammatic errors, and stuff that just doesn't make any sense no matter how many times I read it. Either the people who use the site just don't care, or they're afraid of stepping on each other's toes. I'm guessing it's the latter, which is too bad because the site is full of unintelligible passages like the one below, which describes somebody's interpretation of the lyrics to the song Fun Assassin:
I think this song is about a guy who can't think where he put a thing, so he has to keep getting the attention of his friend who likes to kill fun dead; in its tracks. So then there is a series of vignettes about this friend appearing through out history, killing people and causing general havoc. As a continuity thread, it is worth it to say that this friend is the same person aluded to in Certain People I Could Name. And then what happens is that the man/woman singing the song becomes entrangled in the web, and is killed by the Fun Assassin who, of coarse, turns out to be the man/woman singing the song. It is all a bad dream, or a hallucenation brought on by the use of illicit mans.What in the hell does any of that mean? Not to say that the lyrics are entirely straightforward, but I think I know what the song is about. What's all this stuff about multiple identities?