Q&A: Who put the “wiki” in wikipedia?

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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