In Wikipedia's large and nebulous shadow, something interesting is growing.
It has to do with a common misconception people have about the Internet: Wikipedia isn't the only wiki in the world. In fact, the word "wiki" is a generic term for a website that anybody can edit; Wikipedia just happens to be the 600-pound gorilla of wikis, the one that everybody has heard of.
While Wikipedia has propelled the wiki concept to worldwide prominence, there has always been interest in harnessing it for other projects; projects less ambitious in scope than creating a complete encyclopedia of everything in existence.
Enter Wikia, a rapidly growing site for people who want to set up wikis of their own. But instead of trying to embrace the universe, Wikia wikis are meant to provide a home for communities with a specific focus, be it a devotion to the TV show Lost, a Harry Potter fetish, or an interest in something as broad as the study of genealogy.
The software that runs Wikipedia is open-source, which is to say it's freely available for anyone who wants to use it. Wikia sites, therefore, look like miniature Wikipedias, and have almost all of the same functions, including the ability to track the changes that people make to a page over time, and revert a page to a previous version should somebody vandalize it.
Founded by Jimmy Wales, who co-founded Wikipedia, Wikia is a separate, for-profit venture that sells Google ads down the sides of its pages. But unlike most Web ventures these days, Wikia doesn't dole out memberships to anyone with opposable thumbs. Instead, prospective wiki owners need to apply, and demonstrate an idea that Wikia deems likely to attract enough volunteer writers and editors to succeed as a living website.
So why would anyone want a wiki in the first place? They have their uses. Wikis are the ultimate in communal creation, excelling in projects that draw a little bit of information from a lot of people.
This might be why the wiki format has been a smash hit with fans of fictional franchises, the long-running TV shows and book series of the world. Fans use wikis to construct absolutely exhaustive guides to these fictional worlds, starting with episode-by-episode or book-by-book synopses that branch into character biographies, which link to details of pretty much every proper noun mentioned in the original works.
If you think about it, a wiki is the exact opposite of a broadcast. When a TV show hits the airwaves, it goes from one point to many viewers. When people create a wiki about that show, its many viewers combine their efforts to - in effect - piece the show back together. Some contributors might go to lengths in their research, but most will just contribute the knowledge they have on hand: the plot points, trivial bits and favourite episodes that got stuck in their brains.
This might be why some of the biggest wikis on the Internet are in the business of cultural reconstitution. You might look at LyricWiki.org (though it isn't affiliated with Wikia), which people can visit to help build a universal repository of song lyrics. You probably won't look at Memory Alpha), the mighty Wikia-powered encyclopedia of everything that happened in the canon of the Star Trek universe, but I have, and it's there.
But this raises another question: If Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that covers every imaginable topic - and it has already earned a reputation for extensively covering the various exploits of James T. Kirk (and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Jack Bauer, and on and on) - then why do we need separate encyclopedias for each one?
The answer is that, for one thing, even Wikipedians have limits. Fan articles that reach a certain threshold of obsessive detail might find themselves targets for deletion. But more to the point, not every wiki is an encyclopedia, and not every encyclopedia is written according to the same rules. Wikipedia, for instance, forbids contributors to post original research or articles expressing a biased point of view.
The same cannot be said of another one of Wikia's biggest successes, Uncyclopedia. Created as a parody of Wikipedia, Uncyclopedia contains 20,916 pages about things that are untrue, ranging from the "Poof, There it Is Theory" of the universe's creation to the mechanics of the "external combustion engine."
Other wikis might bend the rules in other ways, encouraging contributors to add commentaries to information pages. None of this would fly on Wikipedia.
Wikia is still a young service; until mid-2006, it was known as Wikicities, which proved confusing to users. But it's reported to be growing at a rapid pace, and as more and more people become comfortable with the idea of casually editing a wiki page from time to time, its constituency will only grow. Wikipedia's shadow looms over more or less everything these days, but watch for its little cousins to start getting their days in the sun.