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A Brief History of the Wiki—and Where It Might Be Going Next

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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.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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