MediaWiki: Wikipedia and Beyond

Reviewed by Major Keary

 Wikipedia and Beyond by Daniel Barrett. Published by O'ReillyWiki is ubiquitous, Wiki-this and Wiki-that are encountered at every turn; Google searches frequently throw up—in the first few references—links to articles in Wikipedia, which runs under the most popular wiki platform, MediaWiki. Unless an ordinary user wants to interact with, for example, a Wikipedia page there is little need to be aware of the underlying engine, let alone how MediaWiki works. For those users, at whatever level, who either need information about MediaWiki, or who are interested in its workings, there has not been much literature. Apart from online documentation and mailing lists, there are few texts dedicated to MediaWiki. Daniel Barrett's book, MediaWiki, is a welcome arrival, providing a detailed and comprehensive account of how MediaWiki works and how to drive it.

A feature of O'Reilly titles is a brief statement in the preface that specifies the intended audience, or—as in this instance—a brief list of "who should read this book":

  • Wiki readers (anyone who reads Wikipedia or other wikis that run under MediaWiki);
  • Wiki authors (anyone who writes or edits wiki articles);
  • Wiki sysops; and
  • Wiki administrators.

I would have qualified "wiki readers" by adding, 'wiki readers who want to be informed of how the system works, or who want to understand the underlying technology'. However, the first chapter includes two sections: "When to Use MediaWiki" and "When Not to Use MediaWiki", which are worth repeating (with some compression).

When to Use MediaWiki
Informal knowledge-sharing: … MediaWiki works well for building a repository of knowledge in bits and pieces … [it is not a commercial content management system].

Quick turnaround: MediaWiki is easy and rapid to use. Not all features are easy to learn … [but once mastered content can be searched, modified, and maintained] very efficiently.

Communication of like-minded people: ? [enables] rapid, informal sharing of knowledge … [and is] … particularly great for technical communities …

Global Communities: MediaWiki is built to be multilingual …

Ease of Administration: A small number of people can run a wiki … for large numbers of users …

Reliability: MediaWiki is stable, solid software … The software just works.

When Not to Use MediaWiki
Applications that need strict access control;

General content management;

Users with limited technical skill: MediaWiki requires its users to learn wikitext, a markup language … which may be a burden for nontechnical users … .

Wikitext should not present a problem for anyone familiar with—but not necessarily expert in—any mark-up language. The book's first two chapters are recommended to all wiki users; the content does not call for any special technical background, but is a lucid description of what MediaWiki is (and is not), and how it works.

Having gently led the reader into the world of MediaWiki the author proceeds to show readers how to:

  • achieve effective searching and browsing;
  • create and edit articles and set user preferences;
  • apply advanced features for authors;
  • organize and maintain large numbers of articles;
  • create a personal wiki;
  • PHP and MySQL.

An often overlooked application is wiki in the enterprise. Corporate wikis can be useful tools, but require careful planning. Anyone thinking of putting forward a proposal should read the book beforehand; it provides an excellent 'road map' for development, both of a wiki itself and of the 'selling' proposal.

A great strength of the wiki is its application to collaborative, community-driven websites. The book is essential reading before laying down any plans for such projects; it provides a MediaWiki manual, an overview of MediaWiki's capabilities, and valuable insights into the 'soul' of MediaWiki.

The book is in three parts. Getting Started is a concise overview that every wiki user should read. Writing and Editing Articles covers creating, editing, and organising articles. The third part, Running and Administering MediaWiki, takes up about half of the content; it deals with installation, wiki design issues, configuration, controlling wiki features, the interface, extensions, and the details of administration.

Very well written, this title is comprehensive in its coverage and offers many examples; readers who don't have a technical background, but who are keen to master MediaWiki—or just understand how it works—should enjoy Daniel Barrett's book. A masterpiece of technical communication.

Daniel Barrett: MediaWiki: Wikipedia and Beyond
ISBN 978-0-596-51979-7
Published by O'Reilly, 358 pp., RRP AU$ 85.00

The Australian distributor of O'Reilly titles is Woodslane


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