'Wikis' Taking Over the World

"I've seen things like this happen once or twice before," says Mitch Kapor, software pioneer and head of the Open Source Foundation. "We're at the Big Bang of the next information revolution."

WikiMania is breaking out all over Harvard Yard this week, as hundreds of self-styled 'wikipedians' -- well on their way to the stated goal of providing free online encyclopedias in every language on earth -- invade the august law school's usually sedate environs for their second annual global gathering.

Part scientific conference, part community festival and part uprising, WikiMania 2.0 brings together members of various projects sponsored by the parent Wikimedia Foundation -- Wikipedia.org, of course, but also Wikiquote, Wikisource, the Wiktionary, Wikinews, etc. The purpose is to exchange ideas, build relationships, and report on projects and research, as well as provide opportunities for those wacky wiki-workers to meet the rest of us and share their ideas about free and open source software, free knowledge initiatives, and the relentless spread of wikis worldwide.

In little more than a decade, ever since programmer Ward Cunningham developed the first "writeable web page" and dubbed it a "wiki" after riding one of Hawaii's quick Wiki Wiki buses ("I was going to call it Quickweb," he recalls, "and then I remembered these buses I took during a trip to Hawaii, and I thought, 'That's cooler!'") the wiki phenomenon has exploded into public consciousness, growing at an exponential pace rivaled only by well, that of Wikipedia itself, which adopted and adapted Cunningham's software to become one of the world's most visited websites.

Created at virtually no cost by volunteers who work collectively, using the innovative software that enables anyone to write and edit on a web page, Wikipedia.org has experienced such explosive growth that, were it a commercial venture, the not-for-profit site's valuation would be well in excess of $1 billion.

Cunningham had worked in virtual obscurity for years, creating and running his own private wiki (known as the WikiWikiWeb) and using it to communicate with a group of other programmers called the Portland Pattern Repository software developers community. The software he developed uses a simple formatting language that lets anyone with a browser edit a page. Together the community came up with a uniquely collaborative way of working -- encouraged not just to review, comment on and criticize each other's online contributions, but also to change them. In time, Cunningham saw that when people worked together cooperatively, they could create a product greater than the sum of its parts. Without intending to, he had constructed one of the greatest social networking tools ever invented.

From Answers.com to Ask.com to Apple to Sun to the almighty Google, hundreds of commercial websites and technology companies now use Wikipedia in a variety of profitable ways. Meanwhile, more and more people are inventing different, often highly original wiki applications every day. From enterprise wikis to memory wikis to WikiHow from Congresspedia to wikitorials to ShopWiki.com from Avianfluwiki to Brandwiki to wikimentaries (Read Lisa Voyticki's companion article on the wikimentary HERE) and from productwikis to ComedyWiki, WikiTravel, Wikocracy -- even "Steal This Wiki," an online attempt to wiki-ize Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book" -- the list is growing daily as the wikiverse expands relentlessly from its initial Big Bang into intergalactic information realms none can yet imagine

The wikifuture isn't totally rosy, of course. Questions and controversies often arise about the reliability and integrity of Wikipedia itself, and a short-lived Los Angeles Times editorial page experiment in having readers write "wikitorials" soon devolved into pornographic postings. Guess what? As Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales notes, wiki-centric communities can be difficult to cultivate. "You're seeing a lot of people throwing up a wiki and saying, "Oooh, now we'll magically get all this stuff,'" Wales says. "But it's not about the software."

Instead, it's about the community -- and about the economics, stupid. "Even if you had a hundred million dollars, or a billion dollars and five years, you couldn't have paid people to create a Wikipedia," says Mitch Kapor, whose Lotus 1-2-3 program made him one of the earliest New Media multimillionaires. "It is something which is just beyond money. You couldn't organize them, you couldn't hire them, you couldn't do it! So when you have that kind of a radical shift in economics, you have to ask: Where else is this going to happen? How far is it going to go?"

Even if Wikipedia itself exists somewhere "beyond money," the smart money is still betting on wikis as the next Next Big Thing. Jimmy Wales, for example, received $4 million in venture funding from Marc Andreessen (best known as a founder of Netscape), along with the venture firms Bessemer Venture Partners and the Omidyar Network, to fund Wikia.com, a for-profit website. Authors on that site collaborate on a wide range of topics, often with a far more ardent approach than that of Wikipedia's famed 'neutral point of view.'

The Wikia.com tone, says Wales, is a result of what that site's contributors want, not what he or other Wikia executives might prescribe. "You really have to take a stance where you're guiding the principles of the community rather than micromanaging them," Wales notes. "You really have to respect the communities, not just say that."

Nonetheless, the wiki way continues its inexorable spread around the globe, the hottest thing in information technology since the advent of the blogosphere. Ward Cunningham (who incidentally predicts the coming dominance of wikis over blogs) detailed his own community-over-commerce vision of wiki's future in a recent Wikimedia Foundation interview:
"My dream of 'what wiki could be,'" said Cunningham, "is something where, through the efforts of people who read and understand multiple languages, we create a shared body of work that holds a community of people together despite their not speaking the same language."

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