An introduction to MediaWiki

MediaWiki. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That’s probably because it powers the world’s largest online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, and thousands of other websites.

MediaWiki logo

This introduction to the open source MediaWiki software is aimed as a gentle guide to its core features,  and its potential uses. If you’d like to know more about open source software in general, read our ‘why open source software?‘ essay.

What is MediaWiki?

MediaWiki is a wiki platform, which allows you to run a wiki website. Wikis provide a way of allowing collaborative editing of content for a group (or multiple groups) of people.

MediaWiki is developed by a team of volunteers (as well as a core group of developers funded by the Wikimedia Foundation), who work to improve how MediaWiki works, and fix any issues that occur. Further contributors help to write documentation to help people using MediaWiki, and also create extensions to MediaWiki to achieve desirable features not included by default.

Who uses MediaWiki?

You might be surprised to hear that household names around the world use MediaWiki for various tasks, from IBM to universities around the world, to the Mozilla Foundation who develop the Firefox browser, and even NASA!

What is MediaWiki good for?

MediaWiki is really, really good at allowing groups of people – be they groups of 3 people or groups of 100s of people – to contribute to documents (known as ‘articles’).

Users of MediaWiki can add and edit text within pages, and insert images in to documents. They can format text bold and italic, add links to other pages both within the wiki and externally. This is all achieved through the use of a simple ‘markdown’ language which translates certain characters within the text in to different formating.

Every version of an article within MediaWiki is stored, and users can revert an article back to a previous state if they feel it is better in quality than the current version.

MediaWiki can be used as:

  1. a framework for an intranet or extranet – a portal for members of a company or organisation – to use as a central resource to store documentation on a product or service (for example, many software companies use MediaWiki to store details about how their software works).
  2. a basic project management system, allowing users to monitor their tasks and outstanding issues for the project (so, MediaWiki can also be used as a bug-tracking tool for software projects).
  3. an encyclopaedia, such as Wikipedia.
  4. a dictionary or glossary of terms, such as Wiktionary.
  5. a way to store walk-throughs and how-to guides online.

And, of course, there are plenty of other uses for MediaWiki not seen yet.

What is MediaWiki not good for?

MediaWiki is not particularly strong for managing vast quantities of documents (such as Word documents, or OpenOffice.org documents) and allowing differing versions to be managed.

Nor is it suitable for managing content on ‘normal’ websites, where the majority of visitors should not have permission to edit the content, as MediaWiki is designed to be as open to editing as possible to encourage contribution. A multitude of products exist which are better at acting as a content management system (including the open source WordPress and Drupal).

As with any open source software, MediaWiki needs to be kept up to date to keep it secure, from minor updates for MediaWiki extensions to updating major MediaWiki versions, which can be a time-consuming undertaking for larger wikis. Customising MediaWiki beyond its core functionality can also be a trying task at times, which is where a MediaWiki consultant can help you.