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Wikis are websites that can be changed by anyone who accesses them.  Usually, wikis are designed in such a way that modification of any wiki web page is relatively simple.  The philosophical basis of some wikis is the "open source" model, which holds that anyone can gain access to source codes, regardless of occupation or status, and redistribute information free of charge or copyright restrictions. [1]  Other wikis have financial policies built in, so they do not prescribe to the "open source" model.  Wikipedia is arguably the most widely recognizable wiki on the internet, but it is far from the only one and was not the first.  However, no discussion of wikis is complete without some understanding of the history and philosophy of Wikipedia.  Various thinkers of all disciplines have opinions on wikis as a medium and specifically about Wikipedia; theories sometimes deal with the societal implications of wikis for the modern world.  Because of their vast differences from traditional models of information sharing, most thinkers to deal with the subject, both pro and con, realize that wikis will cause (and have caused) immense change in the way humans understand reality. 


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A video that explains wikis in relatively non-technical language.  Note that anyone can contribute in the usual concept of the wiki.  (Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKSxJFKoDb4).


History and Development


Wikipedia was not the first wiki, and the form has been around since the late 1990s.  Wikis are relatively new though theories that relate to them (such as the open source model) have been around much longer.  the internet, which originally was a very secretive, private governmental technology, came to be used by mass culture; wikis can be seen as a technological extension of this process.  As wikis depend on the internet, their emergence resulted from developments in computing power and internet speed.  The first wiki was designed and proposed in 1999 by Richard Stallman, a software developer.  Stallman actually began developing his own "Unix-like" operating system called GNU. [2]  In 1999 he proposed gnupedia, a wiki encyclopedia.  Ward Cunningham also developed open source software in the mid-1990s. [3]  Today the open source idea models the structure and policies of many wikis on the modern internet.  Rules of content for wikis, and enforcement of those rules are essential to the format of any wiki; Jennie Rothenberg argues that the beginning of these rules began with Slashdot and was implemented for many more people with eBay. [4]


Wikipedia, probably the most recognizable wiki on the internet, has a brief but successful history.  Wikipedia was founded by Jimbo Wales, who had previously worked as a financial researcher.  In 1998, Wales founded an internet portal and later used the profits resulting from it to launch his own encyclopedia; in 2000, Wales hired Larry Sanger, a graduate student in philosophy; he intended to start an online encyclopedia--which he would call Nupedia--comprised only of scholarly writing. [5] Stacy Schiff notes that after a period of one year Nupedia only had 21 articles and that a friend of Wales' suggested that he reorganize his idea and create an encyclopedia in wiki format. [5]  The transition to a wiki format made wikipedia revolutionary; it became the first encyclopedia that any user can edit, regardless of educational background. 


The development of wikipedia was historic and unprecedented.  Any user could edit the site if they so chose, and wikipedia developed both positively and negatively.  The way that people understand truth was changed when this process began, and critical opinions differ on whether this was a positive consequence for world societies.  Wales and Sanger created and launched Wikipedia on January 15, 2001 with emphasis on the open-source model, correct information, and little emphasis on occupation or status. [5] After a month, Wikipedia had 600 articles; within a year, it had 20,000. [5] The organization which created wikipedia remained commmitted to its original philosophy.  The site developed rapidly and expanded its number of articles, but this was not without its drawbacks:  Sanger left Wikipedia due to disagreements with organizational policy in 2002 as Wikipedia continued to expand rapidly. [5]  Later developments structured by bureaucratic decisions changed the outlook of wikipedia.  In 2003, Wikipedia became a non-profit organization. [5]  All the while, the site's popularity increased.  In 2006 the wiki reached one million articles; in the same year, it was named the eighteenth most popular site on the internet [3].    


Arguments For Wikis


Wikis, as a form, offer a few advantages that were previously impossible relatively recently in the media environment:  extreme speed and current accuracy.  As a result of the development of the wiki, users can change websites and revert back to previous levels of development to gain relevance on the topic discussed.  For most wikis, changing articles is possible for anyone who desires to do so.  The ability to perform overseeing functions such as reverting to a previous version, correcting errors, or removing inappropriate material is left to positions chosen by the users themselves.  For a corporate wiki or for any other type of wiki controlled by a bureaucratic entity, administrative duties may be left to company officials; however, as long as users can still change the content of pages, these sites are still wikis.  Since most wikis follow the open-source model, administrators are usually selected by their fellow wiki users.  This process of selection opposes traditional notions of credibility based on expertise or formal schooling--it gives value to ideas before people.  There are those who completely disagree wtih this, but there are others who find it empowering to access more opinions and facts in an environment in which everyone has equal footing. 


Generally, those who point out the strong points of wikis emphasize the form's quickness and surprising factuality.  As wikis are relatively new in the media environment, society has yet to make major decisions on their value.  Traditional disciplines that value the written word have had to adjust and will have to further adjust in the future.  Roy Rosenzweig, in his article "Can History be Open Source?  Wikipedia and the Future of the Past", argues that Wikipedia articles are factually accurate for the most part; this factuality comes in the existence of constant vandalism in a form which anyone can change at any time.  Rosenzweig points out the positive aspect of this new form of encyclopedia, noting that Wikipedia is quick like journalism but can always be changed for accuracy. [3]  He also claims that Wikipedia is great for an overview on almost any topic.  Wikipedia is just one example of a wiki, but it is the most recognizable one. [3] Arguments noting the form of Wikipedia instead of the content usually apply to all wikis as a medium. 


Other arguments favor Wikipedia as an online encyclopedia and wikis as a medium.  Stacy Schiff makes an argument based on form rather than content--since wikis are usually not limited in size, they can be "all inclusive." [5]  Such an argument clearly emphasizes the breadth of knowledge, but not the depth.  As Schiff and others celebrate the possibilities of knowing more about every aspect of human existence, others disagree by saying that this value might have no actual relevance at all.  Jennie Rothenberg Gritz argues in her article "Common Knowledge" that, even though Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, a small number of extremely committed and intelligent people do the majority of the work on the site. [4]  This is a major advantage of the wiki medium, and it is one that critics might not have originally suspected.  Pooling of ideas is another of the advantages of wikis.  This is an advantage of form, not content, as any wiki, no matter its size, has a higher probability of including a larger number of user editors.  David Weinberger suggests that the inclusion of more people always leads to better ideas in "Andrew Keen's Best Case" [6] ; this is debatable, but Weinberger shows the community nature of wikis with his point.


Other authors have emphasized the role of wikis in making the human knowledge base more broad but also more factual.  Nicholson Baker, in his article "The Charms of Wikipedia," argues for the legitimacy of Wikpedia.  He asserts that the online encyclopedia imposes no biases based on editors' educational background, and he argues that a very small percentage of intelligent people make most of the changes on the site. [7] He cites a 2007 University of Minnesota study which proves his arguments.  He also argues that the rules and policy statements of Wikipedia, which have developed completely as a result of contributors, have developed in a way that ensures organization and improvement. [7]  Because of the newness of the wiki form, the questions of whether this community approach to knowledge is conducive to a better-educated public or if every wiki will assume the structure of the wikipedian merit-based hierarchy.  Nevertheless, mass user involvement is a defining characteristic of the wiki.  Many authors have pointed to this characteristic as a function of the progress of human knowledge.       


Arguments Against Wikis


Most arguments against wikis have to do with the consequences of the form as a whole, not content.  The quickness and malleability of the format that some critics see as conducive to collective learning others see as anti-factual or non-educational.  The quick changes possible on wikis prompts some to see the form as contradictory to traditional ideas of truth.  Some writers even dismiss the form because of its emphasis on random facts without any connection to larger chronological concepts.  Wikis, especially Wikipedia, are difficult to write about for Roy Rosenzweig:    


     "Writing about Wikipedia is maddeningly difficult.  Because Wikipedia is subject to constant change, much that      I write about Wikipedia could be untrue by the time you read this." [3] 


Quick change is not the only cause for opposition to wikis.  Other aspects of the form have caused reflections of negative consequences for society.


Some critics of the wiki form have argued that it challenges society's existing concepts of truth.  Wikipedia has been the source of this debate since it originated in 2001.  The wiki gives every user equal credibility, and some have claimed that expert opinion has little value as a result.  Others have criticized the writing and research style of wikis, claiming that the millions of users who contribute, modify, and control wiki pages value procedure rather than factuality.  Some have claimed that wikis are impersonal as well; such an argument depends on one's ability to analyze form separately from content.  The opposition to wikis, especially to Wikipedia, legitimize the opinions of those who feel that the wiki form is not the all-inclusive, knowledge-based internet revolution that some have claimed it to be.


The accuracy of Wikipedia in particular has been questioned; the relationship between the site's organizational structure and its factual basis--or the relevance of the facts presented--is superficial or loosely connected, in the opinions of some authors.  Simson L. Garfinkel argues that factuality is not important and that the established policies of "verifiability," "no original research," and "neutral point of view" are much more valuable in some manifestations of the wiki form. [8]  Others have found problems with the order that Wikipedia forces upon its pages.  Geoff Nunberg argues that Wikipedia's factual accuracy is good but also that its accuracy is overshadowed by poor ordering of article sections. [9]  The ordering aspect of the wiki form causes problems that may affect or completely change reader understanding.  Nunberg also claims that the language of Wikipedia is exceedingly official considering that it is not an encyclopedia in the traditional sense of the term.  He writes that Wikipedia's tone is "the way the English language would talk if it had no place to go home to at night." [9]  Wikipedia's tone is the source of many criticisms, and the fact that authors, editors, or contributors are unknown does not help the tone of subject pages.  The problems with anonymity are problems of form, not content--just like Wikipedia's problems caused by the ordered division of pages--and Wikipedia will have to deal with these problems as it continues to develop as a medium, just as other sites using the wiki format will. 







1. "Open Source."  Wikipedia.  15 December 2008.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  15 Dec. 2008.  7:25 UTC.  <http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Open_Source>.

2. "The GNU Operating System."  Free Software Foundation.  21 Nov. 2008.  Free Software Foundation, Inc.  23 Nov. 2008.  <http://www.gnu.org/>.

3. Rosenzweig, Roy.  "Can History Be Open Source?"  The Journal of American History 93.1 (June 2006):  117-46, from <http://chnm.gmu.edu/resources/essays/d/42>.

4. Rothenberg Gritz, Jennie.  "Common Knowledge."  The Atlantic.  1 Aug. 2006.  The Atlantic Monthly Group.  12 Nov. 2008. from <http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200608u/poe-interview>.

5.  Schiff, Stacy.  "Know It All:  Can Wikipedia Conquer Expertise?"  The New Yorker.  31 July 2006. Condenet.  13 Nov. 2008. from <http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/07/31/060731fa_fact?printable=true>.

6.  Weinberger, David.  "Andrew Keen's Best Case."  The Huffington Post.  16 Aug. 2007.  HuffingtonPost.com, Inc. 13 Nov. 2008.  from <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-weinberger/andrew-keens-best-case_b_60785.html>. 

7.  Baker, Nicholson.  "The Charms of Wikipedia."  The New York Review of Books.  20 Mar. 2008.  NYREV, Inc.  12 Nov. 2008.  <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21131>.

8.  Garfinkel, Simson.  "Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth."  All Things Digital.  24 Oct. 2008.  Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  13 Nov. 2008.  <https://www.technologyreview.com/web/21558/?a=f>. 

9.  Nunberg, Geoff.  "A Wiki's as Good as a Nod."  "Fresh Air" Commentary.  5 Jun. 2007.  Geoffrey Nunberg.  12 Nov. 2008.  http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~nunberg/wikipedia.html.



Comments (3)

Jeff Martinek said

at 8:35 pm on Nov 18, 2008

common craft video explaining wikis:

embed code:

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Jeff Martinek said

at 11:41 am on Dec 10, 2008


The authors of the bestselling book "Wikinomics" have a website on wikis which includes a wiki and a blog. here's the blog:


the wiki:

Jeff Martinek said

at 11:45 am on Dec 10, 2008


Please follow the citation style I've established in the General Semantics article.


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