While we read history, we make history.”

Though author George William Curtis lived long before the advent of the Internet, his words ring true in a digital age where compiling history has become a group effort.

In fact, Curtis could easily have been talking about a wiki, a form of Web site that allows users to add and update content instantly using their own Web browsers. Today, the most popular wiki is Wikipedia, a massive online encyclopedia containing more than 3.2 million articles in the English version alone.

Wikis aren’t a new technology — the first one was developed in 1995 — but they are reaching a deeper potential for industries that choose to band together to use them.

That’s why the advent of a new wiki for the aquatics industry is so exciting, says Margi Millunzi Web editor at Aquatics International. “There really isn’t one giant repository of information about the people, terms, companies and procedures for the industry,” she explains. “So we decided to create it.”

The Aquapedia (theaquapedia.com) offers a place where information between industry members and consumers can be freely shared. Any company can update its own profile, provide pictures of projects, detail its history and post information on its products.

But The Aquapedia is more than simply a free public relations vehicle: It’s a chance for the industry to expand upon the knowledge shared by everyone.

What’s a wiki?

The term “wiki” means “fast” in Hawaiian, and it’s a good description of how a wiki works. Wiki pages exist in an open forum, meaning they can be created, added to and edited by any user. It’s common to find pages that contain just a sentence or two. These “stubs” are created by wikiauthors who anticipate that over time, someone else will write in the missing information. The “stub” pages develop as other users with expertise on that topic add new information.

“A wiki is basically three things: a tool, a process and a culture,” explains wiki expert Peder Halseide, a communications systems consultant based in Fort Collins, Colo. “As a tool, a wiki is a content management system that allows you to create and edit information easily on a Web site.

“As a process,” Halseide continues, “a wiki allows many people to work together to edit information, add notes and even attach media such as pictures, music or video in one central place. And a wiki can impact the culture of a system when the information on it achieves a critical mass. At that point, simple information becomes knowledge.”

The Aquapedia has many features common to most wikis, along with some that are unique to the industry. Five categories were created to give structure to pool and spa information: People, Events, Companies and Organizations, Legislation, and Terms and Phrases. After creating a log-in, users can start to contribute any information.

Why a wiki?

The Aquapedia has the promise to be a useful tool, but only if it’s updated by the industry as a whole. So why choose a format that must be used industrywide?

“Our Web sites do a good job of showcasing articles, but that doesn’t mean we have everything on every company, or explanations that consumers might be looking for,” Millunzi says. “We thought that if we could create a place to direct people to the right information, they could compare and contrast, and become better consumers.”

Some potential contributors might worry about giving away too much information. “A wiki is by nature a self-checking entity,” Millunzi says. “We don’t expect that this will be a place for trade secrets. For

example, you might not post what your 2011 pool cover patterns will be, but you might share the benefits of using vinyl liners and recommend dealers.”

Halseide agrees. “I look at a wiki as a system and, from that perspective, there really is no competition,” he says. “Instead of competing against people, you’re competing with them to create something better. It’s the same philosophy Toyota used when setting up automobile plants together with General Motors: Both companies gained the opportunity to learn how to improve car-making processes.”

A single authoritative industry source also can help create a more focused message. “Once a core group starts to share, then that community can present the voice of the industry,” Millunzi says.

It would be a mistake to confuse a wiki with social networking, however.

“The Aquapedia wasn’t designed to be a traditional social media platform,” Millunzi notes. “It was meant to be a ‘Who’s Who’ of the industry — where the major players show up and share information. If we can get consumers to go from The Aquapedia to an industry company’s Web site, the lasting effects will be fantastic.”

An industry win

The biggest payoff of The Aquapedia is in the instant access to information. “A company might put its user manuals on the wiki so they can be accessed directly by technicians and consumers, rather than searching for them on a more traditional Web page,” Halseide says.

The Aquapedia contains information for commercial aquatics as well as a large part devoted to residential pool/spa terms, issues and companies — making it a one-stop shop.

Round-table-style discussions with peers also are a feature of a strong wiki community. Anyone can create active, instant discussions based on any entry.

Amy E. Hamaker is head of AEH Editorial, a free-lance editing and writing service based in Santa Clarita, Calif. She has more than 15 years’ experience in publishing on a wide variety of subjects, including business-to-business topics.