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Happy Birthday, Wiki!

Posted on March 25, 2009 at 4:22 pm by Eugene Eric Kim

Wikis only work in practice, not in theory.Gardner Campbell

The keynote I gave at Wikisym 2006 in Odense, Denmark. I talk about the essence of Wikis and how we can augment them in the future. (Video by Morten Blaabjerg.)

Fourteen years ago today, Ward Cunningham launched the first Wiki, the Portland Pattern Repository (which still runs today). I can’t recall the first time I came across this site, which is a pretty good indication that I didn’t get it at first.

The first Wiki I used was a Zwiki set up by Lee Iverson for Doug Engelbart‘s Open Hyperdocument System project. It never gained much traction, but I was hooked.

I was impressed by how brain-dead simple the tool was. It was so simple that any decent programmer could write a full-featured Wiki in the language of their choice in an evening. That simplicity reflected a brilliance in design, and it also made it easy to take the tool for granted. What was undeniable, however, was the social behaviors that Wikis elicited, behaviors that by all reasonable standards should not have worked.

If email is the original social software and Facebook the current darling, then Wikis are the cool hippie uncles from Portland of the social media world. Wikis taught us that it is more powerful to empower a community than it is to create walls. Wikis showed us that sharing by default scales, resulting in the largest body of collective knowledge on the Internet today. If more people had paid attention to the Recent Changes button when Ward first introduced it, then today, we would be yawning about tools like the Facebook news feed or FriendFeed.

The most important thing that Wikis taught us is a lesson that I think most people still do not get. Shared Language is critical for collaboration, and Wikis are one of the most powerful tools for helping people develop Shared Language. Original affordances like the WikiWord are gradually being replaced by WYSIWYG widgets that sacrifice linkability for the sake of supposed user-friendliness.

When Chris Dent and I started Blue Oxen Associates in 2002, one of our first projects was to develop PurpleWiki, an experiment in augmenting Wikis without sacrificing their beautiful essence. We learned a tremendous amount, but I sometimes fear that those lessons are being lost, that the world of Wikis is gradually taking a step back.

Then I think about the Wiki community, a community I’ve been blessed to be a part of for seven years now. I think about the amazing wealth of knowledge and goodness in that community, starting with the incredible Ward Cunningham. And then hope returns.

I can’t wait to see what happens next. Happy Birthday, WikiWikiWeb!

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6 Responses to “Happy Birthday, Wiki!”

  1. Excellent piece Eugene – many thanks for you thoughtfulness and historical view of the WikiOhana.

  2. RT @StevenWalling “Wikis are the cool hippie uncles from Portland of the social media world.” http://bit.ly/197rjt #wikibirthday
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  3. Wikis taught us that it is more powerful to empower a community than it is to create walls. http://tinyurl.com/dy93ee
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  4. RT @eekim Redent @*blueoxen: An ode to Wikis. http://tinyurl.com/dy93ee #WikiBirthday
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  5. Happy Birthday, Wiki! http://tinyurl.com/dy93ee via @StephanieMcA note to self twitter/wiki birthdays in March
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  6. RT @kanter: Happy Birthday, Wiki! http://tinyurl.com/dy93ee via @StephanieMcA note to self twitter/wiki birthdays in March
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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