You Can Look It Up: The Wikipedia Story

The Daily Beast tells the story of Walter Isaacson’s newest book on he founders of Wikipedia.

In an excerpt from his new book, The Innovators, Walter Isaacson recounts the improbable story of the online encyclopedia that has proven its detractors wrong time and again.

Ward Cunningham, Jimmy Wales, and the Wonder of Wikis

When he launched the Web in 1991, Tim Berners-Lee intended it to be used as a collaboration tool, which is why he was dismayed that the Mosaic browser did not give users the ability to edit the Web pages they were viewing. It turned Web surfers into passive consumers of published content. That lapse was partly mitigated by the rise of blog­ging, which encouraged user-generated content. In 1995 another me­dium was invented that went further toward facilitating collaboration on the Web. It was called a wiki, and it worked by allowing users to modify Web pages—not by having an editing tool in their browser but by clicking and typing directly onto Web pages that ran wiki software.

The application was developed by Ward Cunningham, another of those congenial Midwest natives (Indiana, in his case) who grew up making ham radios and getting turned on by the global communities they fostered. After graduating from Purdue, he got a job at an elec­tronic equipment company, Tektronix, where he was assigned to keep track of projects, a task similar to what Berners-Lee faced when he went to CERN.

To do this he modified a superb software product developed by one of Apple’s most enchanting innovators, Bill Atkinson. It was called HyperCard, and it allowed users to make their own hyper-linked cards and documents on their computers. Apple had little idea what to do with the software, so at Atkinson’s insistence Apple gave it away free with its computers. It was easy to use, and even kids—especially kids—found ways to make HyperCard stacks of linked pictures and games.

Cunningham was blown away by HyperCard when he first saw it, but he found it cumbersome. So he created a super simple way of creating new cards and links: a blank box on each card in which you could type a title or word or phrase. If you wanted to make a link to Jane Doe or Harry’s Video Project or anything else, you simply typed those words in the box. “It was fun to do,” he said.

Then he created an Internet version of his HyperText program, writing it in just a few hundred lines of Perl code. The result was a new content management application that allowed users to edit and contribute to a Web page. Cunningham used the application to build a service, called the Portland Pattern Repository, that allowed soft­ware developers to exchange programming ideas and improve on the patterns that others had posted. “The plan is to have interested parties write web pages about the People, Projects and Patterns that have changed the way they program,” he wrote in an announcement posted in May 1995. “The writing style is casual, like email  . . .  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.”

Now he needed a name. What he had created was a quick Web tool, but QuickWeb sounded lame, as if conjured up by a com­mittee at Microsoft. Fortunately, there was another word for quick that popped from the recesses of his memory. When he was on his honeymoon in Hawaii thirteen years earlier, he remembered, “the airport counter agent directed me to take the wiki wiki bus between terminals.” When he asked what it meant, he was told that wiki was the Hawaiian word forquick, and wiki wiki meant superquick. So he named his Web pages and the software that ran them WikiWikiWeb, wiki for short.

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