In the years since its appearance on the internet as a vehicle for collaborative authorship, the wiki has revolutionized the ways in which we seek, publish, and store information. While the American Heritage Dictionary defines “wiki” as “a collaborative website whose content can be edited by anyone who has access to it” [1], the term can also be used to refer to the software which facilitates the operation of such sites, and also to the communities of users who visit and/or modify the content of such sites.

Taking its name from “wiki”, a Hawaiian-language word for “fast”, the first wiki, WikiWikiWeb, was programmed and launched by Howard Cunningham in 1995. At the time, Cunningham and his associates viewed WikiWikiWeb as an innovative tool which facilitated the exchange of ideas between computer programmers, who could freely modify, add to, or delete the ideas of their colleagues. While the wiki was originally conceived as a tool for the facilitation of brainstorming amongst individuals in a closed group, its uses were gradually expanded with the advent of Web 2.0, which, by creating an “architecture of participation” [2], has supported the development of public wikis. Unlike its predecessors, which were conceived of as an innovative method of recording a creative dialogue amongst limited groups of peers, this new generation of wikis functions primarily as a group of factual databases. With a simplified markup language, new wiki software made it easier than ever before to contribute to a wiki. While technological improvements made the wiki a tool that could be used by the casual web-surfer, it was the 2001 launch of Wikipedia, an offshoot of a free peer-reviewed online encyclopedia called Nuepedia, that sparked the debate surrounding wikis.

Regardless of the way that a wiki is used, it is fundamentally a means for the storage, creation, deletion and modification of hypertext. Likening hyper-text to collage in his essay “Hypertext as Collage-Writing”, George Landlow suggests that it is linking that differentiates hypertext (see hypermedia) from regular text. Conventionally, wiki communities embrace this distinction, embedding as many hyperlinks as possible into their text. “If hypertext redefines the function of the author in ways so radical as to fulfill the much-vaunted poststructuralist death of the author,” he writes, “then that major redefinition of our relations to our texts arises not in the absence if an individual author but in the presence of a plethora of them; not in dearth but in plentitude. So it is, perhaps, not the absence of someone writing, contributing, or changing a text that we encounter, but rather the absence of someone with full control or ownership of any particular text” [3]. Landlow suggests that hypertextuality brings about the death of the author by allowing the user to navigate through an almost limitless network of websites. The reader no longer rests within the author’s control, but rather takes a proactive role, moving at will through the writings of many anonymous authors. With more hyperlinks than average webpages, wikis certainly give the reader the freedom to move about at will. The wiki furthers this demise of the traditional author function by utilizing collaborative, rather than individual, authorship to make each reader of a wiki text simultaneously its author.

The creation and subsequent editing of wiki pages is based upon a principle of collaborative authorship. While some wikis only allow registered users to modify content, and log all revisions to the site, thereby attributing specific changes to their author, most allow users to modify content anonymously. Regardless of logging methods, to attempt to track authorship to any individual would be to contradict the wiki’s most fundamental principle. The claims made within a wiki are not supported by a single, authoritative figure, but rather by the consensus of a community.

In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan asserts, "it is a principal aspect of the electric age that it establishes a global network that has much of the character of our central nervous system. Our central nervous system is not merely an electric network, but it constitutes a single unified field of experience" [4]. Web 2.0 and wikis in particular serve as the backdrop to this collective consciousness. Tim O’Reilly, one of the principle founders of Web 2.0, states, “an essential part of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence, turning the web into a kind of global brain” [5]. If we have truly extended our nervous systems across an electrical network, and if Web 2.0 now serves as our “global brain”, the wiki bestows upon this brain the ability to synthesize and store the thoughts of its users.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “memory” as the “capacity for retaining, perpetuating, or reviving the thought of things past”. The wiki gives O’Reilly’s global brain precisely this capability. Individuals can access a wiki, read its contents, and then modify them. The next visitor to the same page sees not what the initial visitor saw, but also the imprint that the page’s last viewer made upon it. After the page has been viewed and modified a sufficient number of times, it ideally reflects not the thoughts of any individual, but rather the marriage of the ideas and knowledge of its users. Thus, the wiki becomes a collective memory. In his discussion of hypertextuality, Florian Brody argues that “the computer spawns the electronic text, a volatile form that paradoxically returns the text to our heads while at the same time enmeshing it in even the most sophisticated apparatus. The rampant confusion, and even revolt, that such a blurring of boundaries brings in its wake can be minimized by placing those rules for places and for images defined for the art of memory, making them hold for books as well as for new media systems” [5]. By blurring this boundary, as well as that between the author and the reader, the wiki takes on the role of a digital and collective memory.

This collective memory is not, however, without flaws. Regardless of whether the wiki is being used as a brainstorming apparatus or as a repository for purportedly factual information, the individual’s ability to edit the wiki is both its revolutionary aspect and its greatest weakness. In his December 2005 article in Nature, Jim Giles observes that, unlike a peer-edited encyclopedia, a solar physicist editing a Wikipedia article about the sun has the same degree of authority as a contributor with no academic background. Politically or socially sensitive articles are often subject to vandalism, making it difficult for wiki communities to establish a standard of reliability as ideological battles amongst individuals are carried out in the name of an anonymous, “collective” consciousness.

As one of the most-visited sites on the internet, Wikipedia has become synonymous with wiki for many. It therefore seems necessary to further explore the issues unique to this particular wiki. Unlike the original wikis, Wikipedia purports itself to contain not ideas, but rather facts. Written, compiled, and edited by experts, traditional encyclopedias claim no specific author, but are believed to be reliable sources due to the expertise of their collaborators. With anyone allowed to update a wiki, Wikipedia can make no such claims. Of course, one might assume that members of a wiki community will only edit, or create, articles in those fields in which they are knowledgeable, but vandalism remains a problem for Wikipedia, which has implemented more stringent editing regulations than most wikis. On Wikipedia, a user may read articles anonymously, but to modify content, she must log in. Her modifications are then logged, and attributed to her avatar. A dedicated group of Wikipedia enthusiasts follow the modification log, policing for vandalism. To further control content, Wikipedia has established a flagging system whereby even the casual user can submit an article for review. The article is then revised and discussed on “talk pages”, discussion boards where Wikipedia users discuss, and attempt to improve, Wikipedia articles. The final, and perhaps the most controversial, safeguard against vandalism is the practice of locking articles. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, stated in 2005 that he intended to introduce ‘stable’ versions of all Wikipedia entries once they achieved a certain quality threshold, allowing users to edit ‘live’ versions which would subsequently be used to modify the ‘stable’ version when they were deemed to improve them substantially. In response to the criticism of the wiki community, he later recanted this statement, agreeing to lock only those articles that are particularly susceptible to vandalism.

As the largest wiki operating today, Wikipedia is perhaps the best example of the successes, and of the weaknesses, of the wiki. Its trumphs, as well as its limitations, parallel those of all wikis; in a perfect world, users might collaborate to formulate a more perfect expression of ideas than that which they could formulate individually, individual dissenters enjoy the power of vandalizing, deleting, or otherwise reversing the efforts of a wiki’s collaborators.

Annelise Pitts
Winter 2007