Chapter 1 About MediaWiki
MediaWiki is an open-source wiki engine originally developed for use on Wikipedia, and Wikipedia is still by far the best-known use of it. But MediaWiki is also in use on at least tens of thousands of wikis around the world – it's almost certainly the world's most popular wiki software. It's also most likely the world's most powerful wiki software, although that statement will require more justification – hopefully this book will provide suitable proof.
In this chapter, we'll start with some of the non-technical aspects of MediaWiki.
History of MediaWiki
The history of MediaWiki starts with Wikipedia, and the history of Wikipedia starts with wikis, so we'll begin there. In 1995 Ward Cunningham , a programmer who was already known for his work in defining software design patterns, created the first wiki, on his company's website, c2.com. It was a very simple website, with one bizarre-at-the-time feature: every page had an "edit" link, where random visitors to the website could modify its contents. The wiki was meant to hold information about design patterns, as part of a section on the website called the "Portland Pattern Repository". Cunningham was inspired by HyperCard, an Apple application from the 1980s that stored information on editable "cards" that could link to one another; he wanted to create something similar for the then-new World Wide Web. For the name of this concept, Cunningham originally thought of "QuickWeb", but then remembered the "Wiki Wiki Shuttle", an airport shuttle he had taken in Honolulu, Hawaii, and decided to call his new idea "WikiWikiWeb". "Wiki” or “wiki wiki" means "fast" or “hurry up” in Hawaiian; and in fact it apparently derives from the English word "quickly", so its new presence in English is somewhat of a return.
"WikiWikiWeb" for a while referred to four things: the website hosted on c2.com, the software used to run it (written in Perl), and later any user-editable website (what is now known as a wiki), and any application used to run such a site (now known as wiki software). There was no great distinction for the first five years or so between the code used to run a wiki and the content on it, partly because there was nearly a 1:1 correspondence between the two: many of the original wiki administrators were programmers, and they tended to create their own new, or modified, version of the software to run their own wikis.
In 2000, Jimmy Wales, an internet entrepreneur living in Florida, decided to create Nupedia , a free online encyclopedia that would compete with the various subscription-only encyclopedias like Encyclopedia Britannica. He hired Larry Sanger to edit it. Like traditional encyclopedias, each article was written by an expert on the subject matter. Nupedia was a failure, managing to get all of 12 fully-finished articles in its first year. While the two were thinking about how to increase contributions, Sanger heard from a friend of his about wikis, and suggested the idea to Wales for use as a way to supplement Nupedia's content. Wales, though skeptical at first, put up a wiki. Sanger suggested that it be called "Wikipedia", and Wales agreed, obtaining the domain names "wikipedia.com" and "wikipedia.org". On January 15, 2001, Wikipedia was launched at wikipedia.com. Though interest was low at the beginning, it started to increase exponentially, and Nupedia was soon forgotten. Several months later, the first subdomains for non-English languages were created; the first was "deutsche.wikipedia.com" in March 2001. In August 2002, the content was transferred to wikipedia.org, reflecting Wales' new view of Wikipedia as a non-profit public resource, instead of part of a for-profit website.
Wales and Sanger later had a falling-out over philosophical differences, and now Sanger has become one of Wikipedia's most vocal critics. That fascinating turn of events is a subject for another book; but in any case, the path was in place for Wikipedia to achieve its meteoric rise in popularity. It soon fundamentally altered the course of wikis, and later it would fundamentally alter the world as well.
The software that Wales and Sanger originally ran Wikipedia on was UseModWiki, a Perl application written by Clifford Adams. UseModWiki, like most wiki software at the time, was the work of tinkerers: it was based on AtisWiki, which was based on CvWiki, which in turn was based on WikiWikiWeb, Cunningham's original application. And again like most wiki software of the time, UseModWiki used flat text files to store all page revisions. That approach was slow, and, given Wikipedia's constant growth, was proving unworkable. Wikipedia also needed functionality that UseModWiki didn't provide, so in late 2001 Wales hired Magnus Manske, a German programmer and active Nupedia contributor, to rewrite the software in PHP, now storing edits in a MySQL database. In January 2002, Wikipedia switched over to this new (unnamed) software. This new software had performance problems of its own, though. Programmer Lee Daniel Crocker started working on a newer version of the software, and in July 2002 Wikipedia switched to that software. Crocker's code was now known as "phase III", with UseModWiki and Manske's code retroactively referred to as "phase I" and "phase II", respectively.
A year later, in June 2003, Wales created the Wikimedia Foundation, also known as the WMF, to manage Wikipedia and its growing number of sister sites, like Wiktionary. The name "Wikimedia" was based on "Wikipedia", and had been suggested by Sheldon Rampton on a Wikipedia mailing list in March. The next month, Wikipedia enthusiast Daniel Mayer, writing on that same mailing list, suggested a name for Crocker's "phase III" software: "MediaWiki", a play on "Wikimedia". The name stuck, and was quickly made official.
Was “MediaWiki” an ideal name? Maybe not: its similarity to “Wikimedia” has caused no shortage of confusion, and almost everyone who has discussed the software has gotten those names mixed up at least once. And the presence of the word “media” in the name has led some people to think that the software specializes in audio, video and the like. Nonetheless, after a while everyone seems to get used to the name.
MediaWiki has been used by all Wikimedia websites since 2004. And almost since the beginning of MediaWiki's existence, it started getting heavily used on non-Wikimedia sites as well. By now, there have been tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of wikis, both public and private, that use MediaWiki software.
At this point, most early wiki software, like UseModWiki, MoinMoin etc., is no longer in widespread use, but there are certainly wiki applications other than MediaWiki that are still in regular use and under development. Interestingly, nearly all of the wiki applications in widespread use today were originally created between 2002 and 2006. They include, besides MediaWiki, the open-source applications DokuWiki, PmWiki, Tiki and TiddlyWiki, and the proprietary application Confluence. There are also various content-management systems that include some limited wiki functionality: these include Traction TeamPage and Microsoft SharePoint.
As for the Wikimedia Foundation , it has remained in charge of Wikipedia and its related sites, as well as MediaWiki. It has grown every year since 2003, and currently has nearly 600 employees.
The first released version of MediaWiki was 1.1, and the current version, at the time of this writing, is 1.39. We won't get into the changes that happened in each version here, though suffice it to say that there have been a lot; virtually the entire codebase has been rewritten, in some cases several times. You can see the full version history for MediaWiki at:
During the roughly twenty years that MediaWiki has existed, it has had contributions from hundreds of developers, translators and testers, along with dozens of usability experts, graphic designers, project managers, etc. It would be difficult to list here all of the people who have made significant contributions to MediaWiki. Previous versions of this book at this point listed Brion Vibber and Tim Starling as two names that stood out above the rest, but it would be difficult at this point to say conclusively that these two really contributed the most of anyone (though their total contributions remain invaluable). Suffice it to say that many people have made (and continue to make) MediaWiki the world-class wiki software it is today.
Community and support
There's a strong community of users and developers around MediaWiki, who can provide support. The best ways to get support are the mailing list, the IRC channel, and on the MediaWiki website at mediawiki.org.
There are a large number of mailing lists for MediaWiki-related topics (26, at last count, although not all are still active). Only two are important, though, for average MediaWiki users:
- mediawiki-l – the main mailing list for questions about MediaWiki and most of its extensions
- wikitech-l – discussions about the use of MediaWiki on Wikimedia sites, as well as topics related to MediaWiki development
Special mention should also be made of mediawiki-enterprise, a very low-traffic mailing list about the use of MediaWiki in companies and organizations. In the future, this list may take on a greater role.
You can see information about these and the other mailing lists, like how to subscribe, here:
Support is also always available at the MediaWiki IRC channel, #mediawiki, via freenode.net. There are other IRC channels, though they're not nearly as useful to regular MediaWiki users. You can see a full listing here:
You can also get support at mediawiki.org. To ask questions about core MediaWiki, you can go here:
And for any specific extension, you can use its talk page on mediawiki.org to get support.
There is a MediaWiki podcast: Between the Brackets, an audio podcast hosted by me. The podcast began in early 2018, and so far a new episode has come out every two weeks. I generally interview one person every episode, usually a notable MediaWiki developer and/or administrator. I have had on the show people from the Wikimedia Foundation, General Electric, NASA, Fandom and many other organizations; interviews tend to run about an hour, and often contain useful insights into how people make use of MediaWiki, market MediaWiki to others, make design choices about the software, and so on. Between the Brackets is available on various audio streaming services, and can also be found at:
There is no single comprehensive conference for MediaWiki users and developers; instead, events are split between Wikimedia-focused ones and those for enterprise users. For Wikimedia projects and developers there are usually one or two MediaWiki-focused “summits” and “hackathons” each year, and there is also Wikimania , an annual conference on everything Wikimedia-related, which usually includes a hackathon. For enterprise users, there are EMWCon, the Enterprise MediaWiki Conference, which is held in the spring in the United States; and SMWCon, the Semantic MediaWiki Conference, which is held in the fall in Europe. (EMWCon began as an offshoot of SMWCon, but has a more general focus.)
The mediawiki.org “Events” page shows a constantly-updated list of MediaWiki-related events and hackathons around the world:
If you think you've found a bug in MediaWiki or one of its extensions, or you've created a software patch and want to submit it, the best way to do that is at the MediaWiki bug tracker/task manager (which uses the software Phabricator ), here:
This is often the best place to make feature requests as well.
Finally, there are various ways to get paid support, either from individuals or from consulting companies. The most definitive list of both individuals and companies doing MediaWiki consulting is here:
It would be odd not to mention my own company here – WikiWorks (https://wikiworks.com). I certainly recommend contacting us, although we are far from the only company that provides such services.
Instead of setting up a new wiki on your own domain, from scratch, you may want to have your wiki hosted on an existing website dedicated to wiki hosting – such sites are usually referred to as "wiki farms", or, as Wikipedia prefers to call them, "wiki hosting services". The advantage of such a setup is that it's much easier to get started – you can often set up a wiki on a wiki farm, and start editing it, in minutes. Also, for the most part, you don't have to worry about the software – you don't have to set up MediaWiki or any extensions, and you don't have to update it as new versions come out, because the wiki farm presumably takes care of that.
On the other hand, there are disadvantages to using a wiki farm, as there are any time that one's data is put in "the cloud". There's no guarantee that the wiki's contents won't be lost, if the website in question stops operating, or there's some technical glitch, or it gets hacked. And if your wiki is meant to be private, there's the risk that its contents will get revealed due to some security leak. Of course, all the same risks exist on any computer network that your wiki might run on – but on third-party websites, the perception, at least, is that the risk is greater.
A short history of wiki farms: in retrospect, the “golden age” of wiki farms seems to coincide exactly with the golden age of wiki software: 2002–2006. It was soon after the launch of Wikipedia, when the potential of wikis seemed limitless. A number of startups formed to provide wiki hosting for companies, schools, fan communities, etc. These first wiki farms tended to use proprietary software, so that in many cases the only way to use that particular wiki software was to run a wiki on that site.
Within 10 years, this first wave of wiki farms had more or less died out; there simply wasn't enough money in paid subscriptions to pay for all the development work needed to maintain their software. Wiki farms that ran on subscriptions either shut down (EditThis.info, Wikispaces, Wiki Site), seemingly turned into shells of their former self (SocialText, PBworks, Wikidot, iMeet Central), or got subsumed into general pop-culture websites (WetPaint, although it too later shut down).
There are a few survivors from this era: the XWiki-based wiki farm xwiki.com (now split into two sites, XWiki Cloud and MyXWiki.org), the hosted Confluence site (now part of Atlassian Cloud), and – most importantly – WikiCities, which changed its name to Wikia in 2006, then in 2016 was renamed again to Fandom .
Fandom is a special case. It was founded in 2004, during the same time range as the other original wiki farms, but it had two major differences: it made money entirely from ad revenue and not subscriptions, and it ran on MediaWiki. (Not surprising, since it was created by two Wikimedia Foundation-affiliated individuals, Jimmy Wales and Angela Beesley.) Fandom, as its name would suggest, mostly hosts wikis related to pop culture topics: on pop-culture topics: TV shows, movies, video games and the like, with a special focus on anything related to science fiction or fantasy. The site has done very well in its nearly two decades of existence: it is the most popular wiki farm of any kind, and according to the web analytics company Similarweb, it is among the top 50 most popular websites in the world.
Since 2006, there has been a new wave of wiki farms. These 2nd-generation services fall into two camps:
- The “cloud” software. Like most of the non-MediaWiki wiki farms that came before them (SocialText, PBworks, and so on), these are sites where the software is only available in hosted form. Unlike most of the previous batch, though, these new solutions don't bill themselves as wikis, or really even as websites; rather, they are billed as all-in-one productivity solutions, which include wikis, task managers, blogging, file managers, chat, and so on. (One could point out that MediaWiki can also do many of these things, but that's another story.) They also tend to have a mobile app component that is considered an integral part of the service. Examples include Nuclino and Notion.
- Standard wiki farms. These all run on MediaWiki. (Yes, really.) Making use of MediaWiki enables much lower development costs. And though there are other wiki applications that could be used, there doesn't seem to be an application other than MediaWiki that has ever been used to run a wiki farm by someone other than the makers of that software. Example include Fandom (fandom.com), Miraheze (miraheze.org), MyWikis (mywikis.com), ShoutWiki (shoutwiki.com) and WikiHoster (wikihoster.net).
You can see a fuller listing of MediaWiki-based wiki farms here:
How to choose one of these? For simple wikis, it shouldn't really matter. But if you have the need for special features, you can try looking at the site's "Special:Version" page, to see what version of MediaWiki it's running, and what extensions it has installed. You can also look at any of the wikis already hosted on that farm (usually there are a few linked from the homepage), to see what they look like, whether they're inundated with spam (you can check Special:RecentChanges for that), how quickly they load, whether they have a distracting amount of ads, etc.