Everyone with a hyperactive brain needs a simple tool to organize lists and notes, and a special type of website, a wiki, could be just the ticket. (The name comes from the word wikiwiki, which is Hawaiian for “quick.”) A wiki is an editable website, like the one that powers the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Anyone can add, update, and remove pages on a wiki site using just a web browser and easy-to-use, free software—no text editor or special knowledge is required.
While Wikipedia proves that wiki software enables large groups to collaborate, wikis have a lot to offer individual users, too. You’ll realize this when we show you how to build your own knowledge base and organization center with a wiki installed on your local PC.
Instiki—free, simple wiki software—is easy to set up and use. It’s written in a programming language called Ruby, so you’ll need to start by installing the Ruby engine. Here’s how to get Instiki running on Windows:
Once Instiki’s installed and running, it’s time to visit your new wiki. Switch to a web browser and type your Instiki installation’s address into the location bar. It will be available at http://localhost:2500/.
There you’ll see Instiki’s initial setup page, where you can set your wiki’s name (you can use My Stuff) and an optional password to require administer privileges to change Instiki settings. When you’re done, click the Setup button. Congratulations! You’ve got your own personal wiki running.
Keep in mind that your wiki will be available only when instiki.cmd has been executed—otherwise, your web browser will give you a “page not available” error. Check out the heading below for more information on starting Instiki automatically as a Windows service.
Set your wiki's title and password and click the Setup button.
Instead of using the command prompt, you can run Instiki as a Windows service. The Instiki service can start automatically with Windows every time you reboot (so you don’t have to do it manually), and it eliminates the unsightly Command Prompt window from your taskbar. There are several methods available; get instructions on how to run Instiki as a Windows service at rubyforge or google's cache of instiki.org's page.
Windows Firewall may pop up and ask if you want to block the Ruby interpreter. Choose Unblock to access your Instiki server.
Immediately, your new wiki confronts you with a gaping, empty text area. Remember: A wiki is a website you author, so the home page is empty until you fill it. Thus, the first thing you should do with your wiki is fill in the home page.
Instiki’s page edit mode has three components: the text area on the left containing the page’s current content (none on a newborn wiki), a text formatting guide on the right, and the Submit button next to an author name on the bottom.
| Instiki's Textile formatting tips detail special wiki markup that formats the text in your pages.
To add text to your home page, simply type in the text area. Before you submit your changes, you can set the author name to your name (by default it’s AnonymousCoward). Specifying the author’s name is more important on a group wiki, where others are likely to check to see who made what updates. If this wiki is for your personal, individual use, it’s not as necessary.
Once you press Submit, you’ll see your newly created home page, which contains the text you entered. From there, you can click the “Edit Page” link on the bottom-left of the page to change or add to the page’s content.
Keep in mind that a wiki is not just one web page. It’s a collection of as many web pages as you wish to create, interlinked using what are called “wiki words.” Double square brackets designate a word or phrase as a wiki word. You’ll use wiki words to create new pages and link to wiki pages throughout your Instiki web.
For example, if you want to create a to-do list on your wiki, first click Edit Page on the home page. Somewhere inside the home page text area, add the wiki word [[My To Do List]]. Save your changes. Your new home page will contain the phrase “My To Do List” with a question mark next to it (minus the brackets). The question mark indicates that the wiki word points to a page that hasn’t been created yet. To compose the My To Do List page, click the question mark and you’ll be in the new page’s edit mode. From there you can start entering your list.
Once you get comfortable editing your wiki’s pages, you’ll want to format your text to your liking for easy readability. Instiki uses the Textile markup language by default and offers a quick guide to Textile formatting on the right side of the edit mode. For example, to create a bulleted list, add an asterisk (*) to the beginning of each line item. When you save your changes, you’ll see you’ve created a bulleted list of items with those asterisks, like the one seen here.
✦ Take clothes to the dry cleaner
✦ Mail the rent check
✦ Finish writing wiki article
Likewise, you can bold, italicize, and color text in your pages and create numbered lists, tables, headings, images, and links to external web pages.
Unlike most specialized software applications—like a project planner or calendar package—your wiki doesn’t have predefined fields for specific types of information. You can create any number of pages, linked from one another in any structure you choose based on the wiki words you enter. Every page is just a wide-open text area, and you format its contents however you choose. Therefore, there’s no limit to the types of information you can store in your wiki. Here are some ideas:
Lists: Whether it’s a to-do list, grocery list, or laundry list, your Instiki wiki’s a great place to stow it. Simply enter one item per line or use the asterisk to bullet each item. While you can’t cross items off a list in your wiki, Instiki stores page-revision history over time. So you can click the “See changes” link at the bottom of any page to see items that have been added to a list (in green) and removed (in red) backward and forward through time.
Bookmarks: Add web-page links to your Instiki wiki using the yourlinkname:http://example.com notation. Alternatively, simply enter a URL into a page, and Instiki will automatically make it clickable. While plenty of web-based services—such as del.icio.us—can store your bookmarks online, storing links in your Instiki wiki keeps them private and doesn’t limit the amount of information you can enter along with them.
Software serial numbers and website passwords: You just plunked down $50 for the latest version of your favorite software package, and you want to store the license key information in a safe, central place—like your wiki. Create a Serial Numbers page and keep a list of all the license keys you’ve collected over time. Use the same technique for low-security website passwords: Whenever you create a new login, drop it into your wiki for safekeeping.
Recipes: Copy and paste your favorite chicken recipe into your wiki, and when you experiment with the ingredients, update the page with your adjustments. The wiki’s free-form structure makes it perfect for recipes—you can include images, ingredient lists, notes on preparation, and links to the original recipe on the web. And when you’re craving your favorite chicken and mushroom dish? Just type “chicken mushrooms” into Instiki’s search box to retrieve the recipe.
Research: Planning a party, work event, vacation, or home-improvement project? Collecting information for a report at work? Your wiki’s a great place to save web clippings, phone numbers, directions, and addresses, which you can search by keyword later.
Wish lists and gift ideas: Your wiki’s an easy, private place to store wish-list items and gift ideas with links to buy the items online or reminders about what her favorite wine or his favorite cologne is, so you’ll be ready when a special occasion arises.
Digital diary: When was the last time the dog got shots? Or you got the oil changed? Or the kids went to the dentist? How many cigarettes did you smoke today, or pounds did you lose this month, or miles did you run this week? Your personal wiki’s a good place to log information like this for instant recall later on.
Holiday card lists: Easily track the names and addresses of people you sent cards to and whom you received cards from in your personal wiki. If you enter each person on one line, with each piece of information separated by a comma (e.g., name, street address, city, state, zip code) you can easily copy and paste the text from your wiki page into Excel or an online card service to do a quick mail merge. Also, Instiki automatically links email addresses for one-click message composition from any page.
Once your wiki’s an essential part of your digital information store, you’ll want to take advantage of it as much as possible. Here are some advanced Instiki usage tips and tricks.
Roll back changes: Make an edit to a page that you regret later? Here’s the beauty of the wiki: Every version of every page is available to view, compare against the current version, and restore. To roll back a page to a past state, click “See changes.” Using the “Back in time” and “Forward in time” links, locate the version you want to restore and click the “Rollback” link.
View your wiki index: Keeping track of all the pages you’ve created in your wiki isn’t an easy task, especially if you’ve linked them from subpages several layers in from the home page. Luckily, Instiki does it for you. Click the All Pages link at the top of any page to view an alphabetical list of pages in your wiki on the left; on the right, you can view a list of “orphaned pages”—that is, any pages that have no reference via a wiki word elsewhere.
Export your wiki pages: Instiki can export a copy of your entire wiki as a set of interlinked web pages or as Textile markup for importing into another wiki package. To do so, click the “Export” link to the left of the search box and click either HTML or Markup to download a zip file of your wiki’s pages in the respective format. This is the perfect way to back up your wiki data into a read-only format on a thumb drive or CD.
The hosted service PBwiki (http://pbwiki.com) is the perfect way to test your wiki legs without installing anything on your computer. Register at PBwiki and you’ll get a full-featured wiki with unlimited pages, 10MB of space to upload files and attachments, page comments, and an optional wiki password for access control. A free PBwiki option is available, with paid upgrades for extra features like backup, advertisement-free pages, traffic statistics, lockable pages, and a custom domain.
Advanced users who want the features of the granddaddy of all wikis, Wikipedia, can install the software that runs the online encyclopedia, MediaWiki (http://mediawiki.org). MediaWiki is a free, open-source wiki package that requires considerably more setup time but offers advanced configuration options and features, including user registration and login, page discussion, reverse page links, more text formatting options, design customization, and file uploads. To run MediaWiki, you need the PHP programming language engine and the MySQL database server installed on your computer—both are free but are aimed at developers, not casual users. Also, you have to manually edit a PHP file in order to start MediaWiki. Many affordable website hosting packages come with PHP and MySQL for installing software like MediaWiki—or might even come with MediaWiki preinstalled. The advantage of installing MediaWiki on your web host is that you can access it from any Internet-connected computer.
Gina Trapani is the founding editor of Lifehacker.com and author of Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tricks to Turbocharge Your Day (Wiley, 2006).