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    What Was a Wiki, and Why Do I Care? A Short and Usable History of Wikis

    The meeting occurred on October 7, 2006. On a Milledgeville, Georgia, campus, the new leader of the university system of the ninth largest state in the nation met with a potentially fractious body, Georgia’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).[1] This educators’ union has a reputation for confronting administrators, and while the new chancellor had been on an eight-month tour of the state’s thirty-five campuses, he was only then addressing the thorny issues advanced by this academic crowd.

    The toughest issue on the agenda was labeled as “shared governance.” But, in reality, the power shift at hand was typical of the now familiar conflict between traditional hierarchical power structures and flatter, more cooperative power structures popularized by Manuel Castells.[2] The new chancellor had a business background, which would seem to identify him squarely with a hierarchical power structure. Yet these university professors had, over time, improved their position of power sharing by increasing both their access to and their responsibility for decision making on the state’s campuses. The teachers in that room clearly felt that students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers benefited from a university system that sought input from all ranks before making decisions on planning and budgeting. But the chancellor’s stance sounded more like a power entrenchment in his office rather than power sharing among the faculty as a whole.

    I recognize that in higher education, there exists a very well-established culture of shared governance, and you of course recognize I did not grow up within that culture. … I do believe in that well-worn adage that when every one is responsible no one is responsible.[3]

    Page  2

    While the chancellor amicably characterized responsible leadership as attentive to broad input, he clearly envisioned a hierarchical power structure for the state’s body of creating and disseminating original knowledge.[4] If anyone in the audience found these remarks anachronistic or ill-informed, no such response was indicated in the AAUP newsletter that reported on the chancellor’s speech. Before the advent of the wiki, or, more specifically, Wikipedia, these comments, and this meeting, would have been routine.

    But Wikipedia has made it clear that the business of knowledge creation has been irrevocably altered. Before Wikipedia, the act of creating and disseminating reliable knowledge was entrusted largely to those holding advanced degrees and offering statements that were vetted by the same crowd. Wikipedia has clearly demonstrated, however, that knowledge can be created and disseminated by people who may or may not be credentialed, who contribute as little or as much as they like, who do not need to wait for approval or other works, and who are motivated by something more elusive than cash. No, the statements in Wikipedia are not always reliable. But as the Nature study has shown, they cannot simply be dismissed as unreliable either.[5] Wikipedia has fundamentally and finally altered epistemology itself—our commonly held ideas about knowledge. For the academy at large, the significance of Wikipedia is roughly equivalent to that which the Heisenberg uncertainty principle had in the sciences in the 1920s—stating what is not possible rather than what is. It is no longer possible to plan, tax, and budget for universities as if their model of knowledge creation is the only epistemological path. No matter how improbable it might seem that a Web page that anyone can edit would lead to valuable knowledge, Wikipedia makes clear that there is now another model for knowledge creation. And it also recasts the comments of the diplomatic chancellor in a supremely ironic light: here is the leader of a massive state system for knowledge creation stating that “when every one is responsible no one is responsible,” while he, and certainly everyone in that audience, has probably relied upon a knowledge acquisition path—from Google to Wikipedia—for which everyone is responsible and no one is responsible at once.

    But bureaucratic inertia in the face of a tectonic knowledge shift is not the focus of this essay. Rather, this introduction hopes to show nonbelievers, the uninitiated, and wiki followers alike that the simple act of allowing a Web page to be edited by a reader—which is really all that a wiki does—has createdPage  3 a global transition to networked epistemology that affects most anyone who is concerned with knowledge acquisition, whether it is defined broadly, as the search for teleological ends, or narrowly, as the search for Chinese takeout. I want to introduce this collection, then, by providing interested readers a brief history of the wiki and a bit of thought on what it portends for knowledge creation and acquisition.

    Wiki, or Wikipedia?

    Your author (approaching an acquisitions editor at a book fair): Hi. I’m wondering if I can share a manuscript proposal with you.

    Well-meaning acquisitions editor: Sure. What’s the book about?

    Your author: Wikis!

    Well-meaning acquisitions editor: Oh. We don’t do books on the occult. But if you want, I can give you some ideas on where to look.

    Your author: The occult? No. Wait—I didn’t say “Wiccans,” I said “Wikis.”

    Well-meaning acquisitions editor: What’s a “wikis”?

    Your author: No, “wiki”—singular. Well, it’s a Web page. Which anyone can edit. Usually, but not all the time. I mean, it’s an electronic mailing list with memory. It’s really a collaborative Web space where the mechanics of epistemology and the politics of knowledge creation can be revealed and explored.

    Puzzled acquisitions editor:


    Your author: You ever heard of Wikipedia?

    Well-meaning acquisitions editor: Oh! Wikis!

    Understanding the history of the wiki is inextricably bound up with Wikipedia. This is simply due to the fact that it is clearly the largest wiki with the greatest cultural impact. In fact, probably only a handful of users beyond the initial group of programmers who created the first wiki had their first encounter with a wiki other than Wikipedia.

    But there are significant problems with conflation of all wikis with Wikipedia generally. As we explore the short history of wikis, it is important to examine three key ways in which Wikipedia differs from other wikis. First, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia (or at least it claims the encyclopediaPage  4 as a model—it diverges from those expectations in some significant ways). Other wikis may or may not adopt the model of an encyclopedia for deciding what should or should not be posted.

    Second, Wikipedia started as an open wiki, meaning that anyone who visited the Web page could edit the content. As time passed, it limited its access, but it remains substantially open. And third, and most important, Wikipedia should be acknowledged as much a knowledge creation methodology as a wiki. Plenty of people rely on Wikipedia for timely and knowledgeable references to millions of topics; others eschew it for its lack of editorial control. Other wikis, with a more clearly defined topic, might behave much differently once reaching the number of articles Wikipedia has achieved—or once becoming a large database. But once a wiki grows as large as Wikipedia, it assumes multiple roles. Thus Wikipedia is not only a reference source, but it is the acknowledged site on the Web for claiming an interpretation of knowledge, as well as a place for controlling public image on an important figure. Both of these functions are substantial and substantially beyond the scope of a traditional encyclopedia.

    As we go forward exploring wiki history, it is critical to always understand ways in which other wikis might differ from Wikipedia. But that important exception does not diminish the fact that in order to understand the historical impact of wikis on our culture, and the potential impact on the future, one must begin by reviewing the vanguard of wikis in popular consciousness, Wikipedia.


    The wiki had a coming out party, a debutant ball in large, popular, old media outlets, in the fall of 2004. Multiple mainstream publications including Time, Business Week, Newsweek, and PC Magazine introduced this “new” technology to their readers with articles bearing titles such as “What’s a Wiki?” “It’s Like a Blog, But It’s a Wiki,” and “Something Wiki This Way Comes.”[6] For most writers, the story was Wikipedia. After all, the idea of an online encyclopedia that anyone could edit was quite a novelty. Initial reviews compared the wiki to the blog and generally listed it as the official “next big thing on the Internet” (only to be replaced by Web 2.0 months later). But the more technicalPage  5 analyses acknowledged that there was a difference between a “wiki” and “Wikipedia” and focused on the platform that permitted collaborative authoring, tracing its roots to the software programmer Ward Cunningham rather than focusing strictly on Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia.

    The technical definition of a wiki is, surprisingly, the easiest to understand. A wiki is a Web page that users can modify. The earliest known wiki, the WikiWikiWeb project, was envisioned essentially as a software development tool. On May 1, 1995, Ward Cunningham posted a note to the “Patterns” electronic mailing list. Patterns is an e-mail list of software developers gathered under the moniker “the Hillside Group” to “build on Erich Gamma’s foundation work studying object-oriented patterns, to use patterns in a generative way in the sense that Christopher Alexander uses patterns for urban planning and building architecture.”[7]

    Cunningham had developed a database to collect the contributions of the e-mail list members. He had noticed that the content of the electronic mailing list tended to get buried, and therefore the most recent post might be underinformed about posts that came before it. The way around this problem was to collect ideas in a database and then edit those ideas rather than begin anew with each e-mail list posting. Cunningham’s post states, “The plan is to have interested parties write web pages about the People, Projects and Patterns that have changed the way they program. Short stories that hint at patterns are welcome too.” As to the rhetorical expectations, Cunningham added, “The writing style is casual, like email or netnews, but doesn’t have to be so repetitive since the things being discussed don’t disappear. Think of it as a moderated list where anyone can be moderator and everything is archived. It’s not quite a chat, still, conversation is possible.”[8] Torn down to its basic terms, then, the wiki is a software piece that combines the contemporaneous focus of an electronic mailing list with the data storage capabilities of a database. It’s an e-mail list with a memory.

    But it is equally important to remember the context of the wiki’s origin—as a tool for software development. Discussions on an electronic mailing list in an applied sciences community would operate under fundamentally different rhetorical constraints than an open-source encyclopedia such as Wikipedia. As it was originally conceived, readers of the first wiki would share a common goal of producing a verifiable product, a working piece of software. Therefore, both its audience and its writers would have a sharedPage  6 lexicon; shared worldview; and, most important, shared means of verifying truth—the software product. The end goal of a wiki conversation could be confirmed or discredited by the results of a software project. Either the resulting software worked as intended, or it didn’t. This is not to say that all discussions on Cunningham’s wiki were either practical or even related to software development. Surely many conversations were open-ended or even off-topic. But the important fact remains that these software developers formed a rhetorical discourse community—or a community that defines meaning through the context of shared values—and provided themselves with a means of verifying or discrediting the contents of the wiki.

    Compare that situation with the controversy surrounding Wikipedia. Wikipedia works because of the massive scale of the Internet; there are simply so many users that articles can be destroyed and reconstructed overnight because enough readers on any given topic are invested in the discussion. These readers/contributors can be the “wikizens,” or frequent contributors to Wikipedia who share a set of protocols for contributions, or casual visitors. Thus this rhetorical discourse community is radically different from the Patterns group that created the wiki precisely because the Wikipedia community has no shared assumptions on defining and verifying truth. Viewed from a mechanical perspective, then, trouble comes when the perpetually posted content of the wiki, or its e-mail list behavior, is measured against its own database. The basis of many critics’ complaints with Wikipedia lies in the fact that they view the project against the ideal of a singular, verifiable truth, while Wikipedia envisions itself as a project wide enough to host competing truths.

    Nupedia to Wikipedia

    Although Cunningham developed the first wiki in 1995, it was not until 2000 that an erstwhile options trader named Jimmy Wales began a project entitled Nupedia. Nupedia was to have been an Internet encyclopedia that followed the traditional model of peer review to create encyclopedia articles. It lasted from March 2000 until September 2003, completing only twenty-four articles.[9] Wales then reversed course and created the completely open Wikipedia, placing it on wiki software and allowing anyone to edit articles.Page  7 The well-documented growth of the encyclopedia has been phenomenal. During its first year of operation articles were created at the rate of fifteen hundred per month, jump-started in part due to references on the popular Web site Slashdot.org.[10] The encyclopedia quickly expanded to include articles in other languages. Near the time of composing this essay, the English language version contained 1.5 million articles.[11] The basic ideas of how Wikipedia operates, and how it has grown, while novel, are fairly well documented. What is significant in the shift from Nupedia to Wikipedia is its epistemological impact: the move represented not only a change in software platforms but, more important, a change in terms of knowledge development. Ideas in this online encyclopedia were no longer to be peer-reviewed by authorized sources. The jobs of topic selection, content development, review for relevance, and review for accuracy now fell to anyone who would take up the task. The trade-off was obvious: knowledge could be produced rapidly, with much greater responsiveness, with much greater agility, and eventually with a much more comprehensive focus. But could this knowledge be trusted?

    The most compelling way to measure the cultural influence of wikis may be through the history of Wikipedia conflicts about knowledge production. I suggest in what follows that there are five major stages in the cultural history of Wikipedia: the Robert McHenry article, the Nature study, the Seigenthaler incident, Colbert’s truthiness, and the advent of Wikia. Each stage evidences a new aspect in the central question over Wikipedia: namely, can its knowledge be trusted?

    The Robert McHenry Article

    In 2004 Robert McHenry, former editor in chief of Encyclopedia Britannica, brought forth the most infamous and apt criticism against wikis to date. In “The Faith-Based Encyclopedia,” McHenry defines Wikipedia as a Web site where

    Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can submit an article and it will be published. … Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can edit that article, and thePage  8 modifications will stand until further modified. Then comes the entirely faith-based step: . . . some unspecified quasi-Darwinian process will assure that those writings and editings by contributors of greatest expertise will survive; articles will eventually reach a steady state that corresponds to the highest degree of accuracy.[12]

    With McHenry’s heavily nuanced language, a reader entirely unfamiliar with the idea of a wiki would get the impression that Wikipedia is a Web site mired in some underdeveloped nineteenth-century ontological conflict between Darwinian science and religious fundamentalism, a sort of online Scopes Monkey Trial anachronistically returning scholarship to a crisis of intentionality. Repeated phrases such as “irrespective of expertise” leave no doubt in readers’ minds that McHenry values comments from credentialed authors over the insights of those without demonstrated and accepted authority. This is not to say that McHenry fails to appreciate the striking sweep of the changes to scholarship and reference tools both achieved and foreshadowed by the exponential growth of Wikipedia, perhaps the most successful Web site ever launched in terms of potential impact on the pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps as the former editor of Encyclopedia Britannica, the exemplary print-based, peer-edited reference containing eighty-five thousand articles, McHenry is all too aware of the impact of Wikipedia’s then-estimated three hundred thousand or more English articles.

    Similarly, it is hardly surprising that McHenry’s comments carry a great deal of merit. In summarizing Wikipedia as he does, he opens up several avenues of conflict. If we push aside the question of whether Wikipedia seeks to compete with the print-based model of reference (Nupedia might be a more accurate comparison), we can thank McHenry for pointing up the key question of revision in evaluating wiki content.

    McHenry offers persuasive evidence that Wikipedia articles are poorly revised. Rather than arguing that each successive edit adds to the worth of the article, McHenry finds that the successive edits contain all the hallmarks of poor writing—they obfuscate accurate statements, harden the prose like arterial sclerosis, and generally retrograde them from a previously more useful state. Though McHenry does not offer this specific comparison, his statements lead wiki readers to conclude that writing, as a product of multiple authors, takes a legislative turn: as a product of compromise between multiplePage  9 parties and competing perspectives, conclusions trend conservative as style worsens.

    But beyond issues of style, McHenry argues that one simply cannot trust the accuracy of content if no one person is assigned responsibility for verifying it. He concludes his article with the following infamously derogatory remark on this point:

    The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public rest-room. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.[13]

    Perhaps a more amicable analogy for Wikipedia is not a public restroom but a public street. What really makes a project like Wikipedia work is that undeniable and apparently universal impulse to simply share knowledge when one is asked for directions by a complete stranger. When placed in these circumstances, almost no one seems able to resist sharing the information; few of us can turn down the role of momentary expert. Equally pervasive, and yet unknown before the Nupedia project transferred itself to a wiki, is the idea that a Web site could perpetuate this proposition across a worldwide electronic network to project the knowledge of a collective consciousness. That is to say, until Wikipedia came along, no one could envision innumerable, perpetual “stranger needing directions” conversations in cyberspace yielding comprehensive and reliable knowledge.

    But whether the act of creating knowledge through a public commons is altruistic or simply naive, McHenry framed a key question: Just how accurate is Wikipedia?

    The Nature Study

    In late 2005, the editors of the science journal Nature set out to answer this question. They decided to compare, through blind review, articles from Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

    Page  10

    In the study, entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature’s news team. Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.[14]

    Rather than settling the question, however, the Nature study occasioned a vitriolic backlash from Encyclopedia Britannica, which found fault with the study for several reasons. As a result, some of the anonymous reviewers employed for the study surrendered anonymity and jumped into the fray to defend their work. In the end, the polarizing study seemed mainly to further entrench those who already held opinions on the viability of Wikipedia as a useful resource. The central assertion of the article—that while Encyclopedia Britannica Online remains more accurate than Wikipedia the difference is negligible—had been challenged but not disproved.

    Later, Wales himself would make news with comments about the reliability and accuracy of Wikipedia. While speaking at a college conference in June 2006 called “The Hyperlinked Society,”

    Wales said that he gets about 10 e-mail messages a week from students who complain that Wikipedia has gotten them into academic hot water. “They say, ‘Please help me. I got an F on my paper because I cited Wikipedia’’’ and the information turned out to be wrong, he says. But he said he has no sympathy for their plight, noting that he thinks to himself: “For God[’s] sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”[15]

    These comments were prematurely heralded by Wikipedia detractors as an admission of its inaccuracies. But in fact, Wales’s comments had more to do with the idea that college-level scholarship should reflect deeper thinking and research skills than an encyclopedia than a wholesale retraction of the worth of Wikipedia.

    Page  11

    The Seigenthaler Controversy

    Implicit in Wales’s statement is the idea that at least some of the knowledge on Wikipedia cannot be trusted. The Nature study states that Wikipedia’s level of inaccuracy is simply comparable to other online encyclopedias. But is it possible that the inaccuracies in Wikipedia can be of a greater magnitude than the errors in peer-reviewed counterparts? This seemed to be the case in November 2005, when John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist and former administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy, wrote an editorial for his former employer, USA Today.[16] In his editorial Seigenthaler detailed his experience of Wikipedia as irresponsible host of character assassination. A Wikipedia entry in his name contained several insulting inaccuracies. Once notified of this, Seigenthaler contacted “executives at three websites,” including the Wikipedia copy sites Answers.com and Reference.com, who removed the inaccurate statements. Seigenthaler also contacted Jimmy Wales, who, while sympathetic to Seigenthaler’s plight, could do little to identify the author of the false information. Almost two weeks later, the culprit would turn out to be a manger of a Nashville, Tennessee, courier company who confessed to planting the story as a joke.[17]

    Seigenthaler’s criticisms of Wikipedia were considered and, given his position as victim, carried considerable weight. In his initial editorial, Seigenthaler wrote, “I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool.”[18] After pointing out that, unlike traditional publishers, Internet publishers were protected from lawsuits of libel and slander, Seigenthaler went on to note that, even though Wales claimed that Wikipedia contributors “correct mistakes within minutes,” false information about him had remained on the Web site for roughly four months. Though the response of many Wikipedians to finding false postings might be “Well, clean it up and move on,” Seigenthaler’s case points up more than one flaw in Wikipedia as a knowledge production system.

    The Nature study showed Wikipedia as generally accurate or at least not substantially less accurate than online encyclopedias produced under the traditional print paradigm. True, if Seigenthaler’s false biography had been posted on Encyclopedia Britannica Online, while he might not have had legal recourse, there would have been a clear author and editor to hold accountable. Wikipedia could not provide this. Instead, Wikipedia relies on those investedPage  12 in a knowledge community on a volunteer basis to provide edits, and the failure of that system is aptly noted in Seigenthaler’s case since one Wikipedian looked at the article after its first post and merely corrected a misspelling, leaving the false content in place. In essence, all that the Wikipedia model could offer Seigenthaler is the opportunity to join this knowledge community and continually monitor his own biography on Wikipedia. Hardly a workable solution.

    In response to the Seigenthaler controversy, Wikipedia did implement several new policies. At first, it appeared that Wikipedia would only allow registered users to make edits, though this was later implemented only in the case of selected articles. The Wikimedia Foundation also introduced a new policy for biographies of living persons. Most important, however, was the foundation’s decision to create a new level of oversight, consisting of seventeen appointed users. These users have the ability to “permanently delete page revisions containing personal information, copyright violations, or libelous content.”[19]

    The Seigenthaler incident is important for understanding the cultural influence of wikis and Wikipedia on several levels. In some ways, it represented a clash of generations; Seigenthaler, though certainly an experienced and accomplished journalist, attacked not only Wikipedia but the entire concept of the online knowledge creation when he wrote, “we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research—but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects.”[20] But just as important, it also occasioned reluctant changes in Wikipedia’s own knowledge creation policies, some of which, such as user registration, could have been justified and implemented long before any damage was done to a bystander. At the resolution of the incident, it was clear to all involved that wiki-based knowledge production was here to stay; both sides seemed weary of a world where the credibility of information was impossible to verify, for once false knowledge was released, the damage was difficult to undo. Seigenthaler phrased it this way: “When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of ‘gossip.’ She held a feather pillow and said, ‘If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow. That’s how it is when you spread mean things about people.’ For me, that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia.”[21]Page  13 This raises the following question: If Wikipedia is able to propagate false information and enough users believe it, what happens to truth?


    This peculiarly postmodern state of affairs is best illustrated by the work of Stephen Colbert, through his television show The Colbert Report. In his initial episode, Colbert lampooned Wikipedia for “truthiness”—or relying on a truth established through consensus opinion rather than verified facts.[22] But Colbert’s perspective is much more sanguine than a straight read of his material would convey. His humor acknowledges that the contemporary landscape of knowledge production over Internet networks prohibits a return to a simpler media culture, where we received our news mainly through a chain of professional journalists. Some six months later, The Colbert Report would cause another Wikipedia controversy with the term “wikiality.”[23] During the WØRD segment, Colbert mocked the idea that truth is merely a product of consensus by editing Wikipedia articles during the show in order to make them support his statements; as he stated, “Together, we can create a reality that we can all agree on—the reality we just agreed on.” He continued to develop the now infamous false statement in a Wikipedia article alleging that there are more elephants in Africa today than there were ten years ago. Stating that “What we’re doing is bringing Democracy to knowledge” (with the subtext on the screen reading “Definitions will greet us as liberators”), Colbert asked his audience to create entries in Wikipedia reflecting a trebling in their numbers. In fact, many viewers did just this, leading Wikipedia to lock the article and many to wonder whether Colbert’s audience understood his satire.

    Colbert’s episodes on national television not only document the scope of Wikipedia’s particular cultural impact but also indicate a fundamental and general shift in epistemology. The controversies surrounding the use of wikis in contemporary knowledge production were so familiar that they could be satirized on national television. Together with the Seigenthaler incident, “truthiness” even made some aspects of traditional knowledge production seem appealing again.

    Page  14

    Wikia and Beyond

    What is the next step for wikis and Wikipedia? Writing for Entrepreneurs magazine, Adam Lashinsky interviewed Gil Penchina to explain Jimmy Wales’s latest project, Wikia. Penchina, formerly of eBay, joined Wikia in order to help Wales build a site that will capture much of the rhetorical heat Wikipedia spins off in the process of creating knowledge. Lashinsky writes:

    Whereas Wikipedia aspires to be a neutral reference tool, Wikia’s business plan is to capitalize on opinion. It aims to have articles and discussion groups on any subject under the sun. And while it deploys the same technology as its successful cousin, Wikia is intended as a freewheeling forum for all kinds of topics—from Star Wars to pet diabetes—with argument and advocacy welcome. “Wikipedia is the encyclopedia,” says Penchina. “Wikia is the rest of the library and the magazine rack.”[24]

    It is too early to measure the impact of Wikia, but its mere existence documents an awareness on the part of Wales and others that knowledge creation is inherently controversial. This latest project attempts to use a discourse of argumentation as an attraction point, much of which is now captured in Wikipedia in “talk” pages. Once a full version of Wikia is created, however, the divide between ratified knowledge and controversial statements might become more widely acknowledged.

    So what should be the guideposts for living in a world with networked knowledge production? In the case of Wikipedia, it seems that even the founder of the site is advising us to exercise caution. By expressing surprise and disapproval at the fact that college students are citing the online encyclopedia in research papers, Wales would urge us to develop more awareness of how knowledge is produced and to make use of that awareness when interpreting and applying that knowledge. More bluntly stated, knowing where we get our knowledge is as important as the knowledge itself. The academy needs to react more quickly to the realities of knowledge production in a networked environment if it is to fulfill its role in creating and disseminating knowledge. But, as the Georgia chancellor and his academic audience’s responses show, some three years after Wikipedia emerged in popular consciousness, there is more work to do in publicizing these new epistemological realities among college faculty and decision makers. In printPage  15 culture, we have oftentimes erred by assigning too much credibility to the type of media rather than relying on the skills and reputation of a particular editor—we have found books more reliable than periodicals. Similarly, the challenge to applying knowledge from wikis to our existing knowledge production systems involves a willingness not to underestimate their capabilities. While no one wants to undergo an operation from a physician who has just referenced the procedure on Wikipedia, similarly we all want surgeons to share their knowledge from procedures among themselves. There are as many possibilities for knowledge creation on wikis as there are authors and audiences. The key lies in shared definitions of truth: it is very unlikely that a wiki created by disgruntled Wal-mart employees will produce the same types of knowledge claims as a wiki created for astronomers. But as long as there is an agreed-upon scope for any particular wiki, there is no reason not to apply this tool of networked consciousness to almost any endeavor.


    1. For more background information on the chancellor’s remarks, see either the AAUP’s newsletter, “Chancellor Davis Keynotes Fall Conference Meeting,” The Georgia Conference: AAUP Summary 24, no. 2 (fall 2006): 1, http://www2.gsu.edu/%7Ehishdh/AAUP%20Fall%2006.pdf; or the summary of the chancellor’s remarks at http://www2.gsu.edu/%7Ehishdh/Chancellor%20Davis%27%20Remarks.pdf (accessed December 15, 2006).return to text

    2. See Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, vol. 1 of The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 171.return to text

    3. See chancellor’s remarks, http://www2.gsu.edu/%7Ehishdh/Chancellor%20Davis%27%20Remarks (accessed December 15, 2006).return to text

    4. Like many public universities in the United States, the public universities in the state of Georgia are charged by the state with the missions of “teaching, research, and the extension of knowledge to the public. The personnel at its institutions recognize as two of their major objectives, the production of new knowledge and the dissemination of both old and new knowledge.” Board of Regents Policy Manual: The University System of Georgia, http://www.usg.edu/regents/policymanual/policyman.pdf (accessed December 15, 2006).return to text

    5. There is more discussion of the Nature study later in this essay and in note 14, but the full citation is Jim Giles, “Special Report: Internet Encyclopedias Go Head to Head,” Nature, March 28, 2006, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html.return to text

    6. Most of the introductory articles were published in 2004, although the Time article came much later; Chris Taylor and Coco Masters, “It’s a Wiki, Wiki World,” Time, June 6, 2005, 40; Robert D. Hof, “Something Wiki This Way Comes,” Business Week, June 7, 2004, 128; Brad Stone, “It’s Like a Blog, But It’s a Wiki,” Newsweek, November 1, 2004, 34; Sebastian Rupley, “What’s a Wiki? Even as Blogs—Web Logs Posted by Individuals—Page  16Proliferate, a Complementary Form of Online Collaborative Communication Is Taking Off: Wikis,” PC Magazine, June 20, 2003, 23.return to text

    7. Hillside.net, “Hillside History,” 2003, http://hillside.net/history.html (accessed October 24, 2004). See also “A History of Patterns,” http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?HistoryOfPatterns (accessed December 15, 2006).return to text

    8. Ward Cunningham, “Wiki History,” Cunningham & Cunningham, Inc., http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?InvitationToThePatternsList (accessed October 24, 2004). Another useful source on Cunningham’s thoughts about the creation of the first wiki can be found at Bill Venners, “Exploring with Wiki: A Conversation with Ward Cunningham, Part I,” Artima Developer, http://www.artima.com/intv/wiki.html (accessed December 15, 2006).return to text

    9. Wikipedia contributors, “Nupedia,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nupedia (accessed December 15, 2006).return to text

    10. Wikipedia contributors, “History of Wikipedia,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Wikipedia (accessed December 15, 2006).return to text

    11. Ibid. This essay has been in process for some time; when I started writing it in 2004, Wikipedia had roughly three hundred thousand English articles. On November 24, 2006, it listed 1.5 million English language articles.return to text

    12. Robert McHenry, “The Faith-Based Encyclopedia,” Tech Central Station, http://www.techcentralstation.com/111504A.html (accessed November 17, 2004).return to text

    13. Ibid.return to text

    14. Though Nature now has placed prohibitive charges on online access to portions of this study, there are five relevant components: the initial article; supplemental information by Nature published on December 22, 2005, about how the study was conducted; a rebuttal by Encyclopedia Britannica; Nature’s responses to the rebuttal, published on March 28, 2006; and a full list of the peer reviewed articles. Online access begins at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html.return to text

    15. “Wikipedia Founder Discourages Academic Use of His Creation,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 2006, http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/article/1328/wikipedia-founder-discourages-academic-use-of-his-creation (accessed December 15, 2006).return to text

    16. John Seigenthaler, “A False Wikipedia ‘Biography,’” USA Today, November 30, 2005, final edition.return to text

    17. Susan Page, “Author of False Wikipedia Biography Apologizes,” USA Today, December 12, 2005, final edition.return to text

    18. Seigenthaler, “A False Wikipedia ‘Biography.’”return to text

    19. Wikipedia contributors, “Wikipedia Signpost 2006–06–05 Oversight,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_Signpost/2006-06-05/Oversight (accessed December 15, 2006).return to text

    20. Seigenthaler, “A False Wikipedia ‘Biography.’”return to text

    21. Ibid.return to text

    22. The Colbert Report, Comedy Central, production no. 101 (originally aired October 17, 2005).return to text

    23. The Colbert Report, Comedy Central, production no. 2096 (originally aired July 31, 2006).return to text

    24. Adam Lashinsky, “Cashing in on Wiki-ness,” Entrepreneurs 154, no. 5 (September 4, 2006): 34.return to text