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Q&A: Who put the “wiki” in wikipedia?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, oh wiki you’re so fine…

Q: Hi AWC, you know the website Wikipedia?

A: Yep.

Q: And there are others, like WikiLeaks.

A: That’s right, there are.

Q: Well, what exactly IS a “wiki”? Is it an internet thing?

A: Yeah, the name was coined right back in the early days of the World Wide Web – in 1995 – by a 45-year-old computer programmer from Portland, Oregon named Ward Cunningham.

Q: He doesn’t sound very familiar.

A: He was a computer programmer, not really known for their fondness for spotlights. But he invented the term “wiki” as part of a collaborative software he called WikiWikiWeb.

Q: Why “wiki” – it sounds rather exotic, while he sounds, well… not.

A: Yeah. He got the name from an earlier visit to Hawaii. At the airport, he’d been directed to take the “wiki wiki” between terminals – what he later found out was an express bus. In Hawaiian, “Wiki” means “to hurry; fast, quick”.

Q: So how did he get from the bus to the Universal Serial Bus?

A: Oh impressive – not many people know what USB stands for. Anyway, that connection protocol wasn’t invented until 1996.

Q: Sure, but I meant how did he come to use the name in computing?

A: Well, that software he invented was very fast. Originally he was going to call it QuickWeb, but ended up remembering his trip to Hawaii and going with WikiWikiWeb for something unique.

Q: What was a “Wiki” in this context?

A: A “Wiki” was an editable website where people could add, delete or revise the content. It fitted nicely with the “fast” definition, as many hands make light work.

Q: Surely you only need one hand to make the light work – just flick the switch, yeah?

A: Hilarious. We see this carry through to fast updates on WikiPedia pages today – if someone famous dies or a big event happens, you effectively have thousands of editors around the world checking up on the page to ensure it has been updated in a quick time.

Q: Okay, so did this Cunningham chap invent WikiPedia too then?

A: No. He basically invented and named the “wiki” concept, but that was it. Wikipedia started in January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. They’d spent a year trying to get another free encyclopedia called “Nupedia” up and running, as a kind of scholar-updated resource. But it was taking too long.

Q: Because it wasn’t a wiki?

A: Yeah, that’s right. Because it worked like a traditional encyclopedia, it was just too time-consuming. And so instead, they were drawn to Cunningham’s wiki model. And Wikipedia was born. While Nupedia had barely managed 20 articles in a year, in Wikipedia’s first year, 20,000 articles were uploaded – in 18 languages.

Q: WikiWiki Wow!

A: Yep. Today there are more than six million English articles alone.

Q: And other sites, like “WikiLeaks”?

A: Well, “wiki” is simply the root word – it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2007. WikiLeaks was established in 2006 by Australian Julian Assange (among others) and is in no way related to Wikipedia. 

Q: And people send in their leaks?

A: Well, perhaps most confusingly, in 2010 WikiLeaks stopped using the “wiki” collaboration method on their site, but kept the name. So, no, you cannot update it like a typical wiki page. It’s basically a closed website updated by its own staff.

Q: That is silly. But any other time you see something referred to as a “wiki”, it usually means that many people collaborate to update the site.

A: That’s right. In Wikipedia’s case, they reportedly get up to 60,000 page update requests every second.

Q: Wow, that’s a lot of foot traffic!

A: Mmmm no, for THAT you’ll be wanting WikiFeet…

Q: Seriously? Surely not (click)… oh. Oh my.

 

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