Wiki Wiki bus at the Honolulu International Airport. Image Credit: Andrew Laing via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

 
What did we do before Wikipedia?

You might ask this (facetious) question all the time, but wikis, or user-edited websites, are older than you might think—in fact, they're practically the elders of the online world. Long before Twitter, Facebook, or even Google, a computer programmer created software to help colleagues share information about their work. Since then, we’ve used wikis to compile knowledge on Wikipedia, track election patterns, catalog fandoms, preserve cultures, and laugh at ourselves. And unlike Netscape Navigator, Geocities, or Friendster, wikis have yet to become obsolete.

On March 25, 1995, a computer programmer named Ward Cunningham premiered what he called “WikiWikiWeb” on his website, c2.com. The “wiki” part was inspired by the Wiki Wiki Shuttle service at the Honolulu airport—wiki is the Hawaiian word for “quick.” The program was meant to help share knowledge about software design patterns among developers, and worked inside a user’s browser. It also included built-in edit tracking, which implied that article changes were worth preserving and discussing.

“It’s basically a way of writing where you’re reading,” Cunningham told New Relic. “On the Web before that, you would read something in one place but if you wanted to write more, you would have to go through a completely different mechanism. You couldn’t author through the Web before that.”

Ward Cunningham in 2011. Image credit: Matthew (WMF) via Wikimedia// CC BY-SA 3.0

PEOPLE, PROJECTS, AND PATTERNS

Ward’s program meant that with no knowledge of HTML necessary, just a markup language that did formatting and linking for you, anyone could theoretically contribute to a body of knowledge for everyone else to learn from. Today, every popular social media platform owes something to the easy “what you see is what you get” interface that wikis popularized.

The focus of WikiWikiWeb was, and is, what Cunningham called “people, projects, and patterns”—patterns being replicable ideas about software design. “Friends,” Cunningham wrote in a May 1, 1995, email, “I've always been interested in the way programming ideas are carried by people as they move between projects … I've put together a new database to give the project [of documenting ideas about making programs work] another try. You can help.”

As soon as Cunningham released WikiBase, the software underlying WikiWikiWeb, into the wild, wikis began to evolve, branching out to cover any number of topics and communities. We have wikis to thank for sites as varied as TV Tropes, SourceWatch, and the comedy site Uncyclopedia. Formatting has changed, organization has improved, and underlying programming languages have grown, but the wiki has always been about egalitarian, transparent access to information that anyone can replicate and adapt.

That doesn’t mean people don’t try to use wikis to further their own agendas. Wikipedia itself, which celebrates its 16th birthday today, January 15, is full of arguments about whose knowledge is the right knowledge. Sometimes users have edited Wikipedia entries to harass, to spread false information, to profit, to eliminate evidence of wrongdoing, to challenge the neutrality of the entry or, simply, for the lulz. The Twitter account @congressedits tracks changes from IP addresses inside the Congressional offices. Sometimes it flags politically relevant edits, from representative pages to issue-related entries. But other times, it’s just about calling out government employees who should have better things to do than edit encyclopedia entries like “…Not!” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”

The gender makeup of Wikipedia editors has also been a cause of concern—they’re reportedly around 85 percent male, which affects what topics receive the most attention and depth. Bias there matters in part because the site is so influential: it’s the fifth most popular website in the world. Wikipedia has more than 5 million articles in English, and versions of the crowdsourced encyclopedia also exist in about 280 other languages.

FROM "CONSENSUS ENGINE" TO "CHORUS OF VOICES"

However, Cunningham has a vision for his creation’s future, and it’s more like a blog network than a single authoritative source. He calls it the Smallest Federated Wiki. His goal, according to a 2012 WIRED interview, is to put the ultimate control of the wiki in the hands of all its users, rather than one centralized hub.

At present, all edits in a wiki take place on one page that everyone can work on, but it’s the only available version. Cunningham’s federated wiki lets users who wish to edit a page “fork” it, copying the page into their own wiki database and updating it there. He envisions a “chorus of voices” through groups of slightly different wiki copies (others have called the current wiki model a “consensus engine”) to encourage discussions about more subjective issues and opinions.

“Is it too nerdy to catch on?” WIRED asks. Cunningham doesn’t think so. “The assumption is that we won’t be creative, but Facebook proves that everyone wants to have their own page, their own stream,” he told the magazine. In theory, the most accurate article then rises to the top of the pile by being copied the most—it’s a conversation, rather than an argument. Federated wikis could also help users seeking out a particular perspective on a topic—perhaps one written by someone with a background different from their own.

It’s a compelling idea, but only time will tell if it’s as popular as Cunningham’s initial conception of the wiki. You can listen to him describe how he developed the wiki, and where he sees it going in the future, at his TEDxPortland 2012 talk below.