It's a Wiki, Wiki World

Illustration: David Goldin

This past summer was mostly hot and sunny in my neck of the urban woods, but here, there, and everywhere it was the summer of Wikipedia. In early August, I was reading the latest issue of The New Yorker, and I came across a lengthy article about Wikipedia with the clever title, ”Know It All” (subtitled, ”Can Wikipedia ­conquer expertise?”). Within days, the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly arrived in the mail, and it, too, contained a lengthy article about Wikipedia, which was titled ”The Hive” (and s­ubtitled, ”Can thousands of Wikipedians be wrong?”). While all this was going on, a small storm was brewing on Wikipedia itself over a segment on the U.S. cable TV show, ”The Colbert Report.” Host Stephen Colbert introduced the world to a new word: wikiality, which means reality as defined by a consensus (it’s a blend of Wikipedia and ­reality). He told his viewers to ”apply [Wikipedia] principles to all information. All we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true.” He then urged everyone to modify Wikipedia’s entry on elephants to include the decidedly untrue assertion that the population of African elephants had tripled in the past six months.

Now, Stephen Colbert has some expertise in coining new words and getting them to stick in the culture. On 17 October 2005, in his very first show, Colbert reinvented the long-lost word ­truthiness—maintaining something as fact without regard to evidence or logic—and by January 2006, the American Dialect Society had crowned truthiness as its Word of the Year. Wikiality may not ascend to such lexical heights, but it may have a longer shelf life than many people think. Its cause was helped by the members of the International Astronomical Union (of all people), who on 24 August 2006 took a vote on a new definition of planet, which to many observers seemed to be a wikiality-like truth-by-consensus decision.

The wiki- prefix comes from the Hawaiian word wiki, which means quick or fast. Programmer Ward Cunningham first used the term in a software context back in the mid-’90s, when he created a collaborative site called WikiWikiWeb. Since then, we use the word wiki (the Hawaiian is pronounced WEE-kee, but most folks say it as WIK-ee) to refer either to a collaborative Web site that allows users to add to, edit, and delete from the site’s content or to the software that enables such collaboration. Feel free to also use it as a verb or an adjective.

Wikipedia is by far the most famous wiki, but there are thousands of others. LyricWiki (lyricwiki.org) is a wiki for song lyrics; Chainki (en.chainki.org) is a wiki of Web site links; and CookBookWiki ­(cookbookwiki.com) is a recipe wiki. There’s even a site called WikiIndex (­wikiindex.com) that’s a wiki that tracks wikis. In big wikis, this socially ­produced knowledge works well, but smaller attempts at collaboration often go awry. The Los Angeles Times launched the Wikitorial—reader-generated edits to the day’s editorials—on 19 June 2005 but shut it down just three days later because the site was flooded with profane language and porno­graphic images.

Wikis are a subset of a larger phenomenon called crowdsourcing, which is a play on outsourcing. Crowdsourcing means obtaining labor, products, or content from people outside the company, particularly from a large group of customers or amateurs who work for little or no pay. With YouTube and its user-made (or user-copied) videos, MySpace and its user-built pages, and iStockPhoto with its user-shot photos, we’re seeing the beginnings of what some are calling the age of the crowd. This crowd comes from all walks of life, but for some, crowdsourcing is a way of life. And by some, I’m speaking, of course, of teenagers. In November 2005, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report saying that 57 percent of online ­teenagers—some 12 million in all—create something on the Web. The reports called them teen content creators. On a more serious level, some companies crowdsource research and development tasks—usually small jobs called microtasks—to amateur hobbyists, who are called solvers.

The secret to crowdsourcing is the size of the crowd. Wikipedia works because it has tens of thousands of Wikipedians. (Not Wikipedists, which would seem to be the proper analogue to encyclopedist; Wikipedian’s editors are members, so the -ian suffix—meaning ”belonging to” or ”involved in”—is more appropriate.) The bigger the crowd, the more effective is the social ­filtering that weeds out the chaff and promotes the wheat. (The Wikipedian sentries managed to beat back the Colbert-inspired hordes that descended upon the site’s elephant page.) A large crowd means lots of eyeballs, a term that echoes open-source guru Eric Raymond’s dictum that ”given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” In the age of the crowd, eyeballs are plentiful.

About the Author

Paul McFedries is a technical and language writer with more than 40 books to his credit. He also runs Word Spy, a Web site and mailing list that tracks new words and phrases (http://www.wordspy.com)

Advertisement
Advertisement