TITLE: Ward on the Wiki of the Future
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: September 15, 2004 11:33 AM
DESC: ward discusses the evolution of wiki into a network
I wrote about Norm Kerth's Saturday session at the recently-ended
Norm's topic was myth, especially the Hero's Journey myth.
Ward Cunningham led the second session of the day, beginning with
some of his own history. As many of you know, Ward is best known
for taking ideas and turning them into programs, or ways of making
programs better. He spoke about "wielding the power of programming",
to be able to make a computer do what is important to you. If you
can think of an idea, you can write a program to bring it about.
But programmers can also empower other people to do the same.
Alan Kay's great vision going back to his grad school days is to
empower people with a medium for creating and expressing thoughts.
Ward pointed out that the first program to empower a large group
of non-programmers was the spreadsheet. The web has opened many
new doors. He called it "a faulty system that delivers so much
value that we ignore its fault".
Ward's wiki also empowers people. It is an example of social software,
software that doesn't make sense to be used by one person. The value
is in the people that use it together. These days, social software
dominates our landscape: Amazon, ebay, and a multitude of web-based
on-line communities are just a few examples. Wiki works best when
people seek common ground; it is perhaps best thought of as a medium
for making and refining arguments, carrying on a conversation that
progresses toward a shared understanding.
This dynamic is interesting, because wiki was predicated in part on
the notion of taking a hard problem and acting as if it weren't a
problem at all. For wiki, that problem is malevolent editing, users
who come to a site for the purpose of deleting pages or defacing ideas.
Wiki doesn't guard against this problem, yet, surprisingly, for the
most part this just isn't a problem. The social processes of a
community discourage malevolent behavior, and when someone violates
the community's trust we find that the system heals itself through
users themselves repairing the damage. A more subtle form of this
is in the flip side of wiki as medium for seeking common ground:
so-called "edit wars", in which posters take rigid positions and
then snipe at one another on wiki pages that grow increasingly long
and tedious. Yet community pressure usually stems the war, and
volunteers clean up the mess.
Ward's latest thoughts on wiki focus on two questions, one technical
and one social, but both aimed at a common end.
First, how can we link wikis together in a way benefits them all?
When there was just
every reference matched a page on the same server, or a new page
was created. But now there are dozens (hundreds?) of public wikis
on the web, and this leads to a artificial disjunction in the
sharing of information. For example, if I make a link to
AgileSoftwareDevelopment in a post to one wiki, the only page
to which I can refer is one on the same server -- even if someone
has posted a valuable page of that name on another wiki. How
could we manage automatic links across multiple wikis, multiple
Second, how can wiki help information to grow around the world?
Ward spoke of wiki's role as a storytelling device, with stories
spreading, being retold and changes and improved, across geographic
and linguistic boundaries, and maybe coming back around to the
originators with a trail of where the story has been and how it's
change. Think of the children's game "telephone", but without
the accumulation of accidental changes, only intentional ones.
Could my server connect to other servers that have been the source
of stories that interested me before, to find out what's new there?
Can my wiki gain information while forgetting or ignoring the stuff
that isn't so good?
Some of these ideas exist today at different levels of human and
program control. Some wikis have
implemented now with crosslinking via naming convention. But could
such crosslinking be done automatically by the wikis themselves?
For instance, I could tell my wiki to check Ward's nightly, looking
for crossreferenced names and linking, perhaps even linking to
several wikis for the same name.
In the world of blogging, we have the blogroll. Many bloggers put
links to their favorite bloggers on their own blog, which serves
as a way to say "I find these sites useful; perhaps you will, too."
I've found many of the blogs I like to read by beginning at blogs by
and following the blogroll trail.
This is an effective human implementation of the spreading of useful
servers, and much of the blogging culture itself is predicated on
the notion of sharing stories -- linking to an interesting story
and then expanding on it.
Ward's discussion of automating this process brought to mind the
idea of "recommender systems", which examine a user's preferences,
finds a subset of the community whose collective preferences
correlate well with the user's, and then uses that correlation to
recommends content that the user hasn't seen yet. (One of my
does research in this area.) Maybe a collection of wikis could
do something similar? The algorithms are simple enough; the real
issue seems to be tracking and recording user preferences in a
meaningful way. Existing recommender systems generally require
the user to do a lot of the work in setting up preferences. But
I have heard
tell about an undergraduate project he directed in which preferences
were extracted from Mac users' iTunes playlists.
I must admit that I was a bit worried when I first heard Ward talk
about having a wiki sift through its content and activity to determine
who the most valuable contributors are. Who needs even narrower
bandwidth for many potential posters to add useful content? But
then I thought about all the studies of how power laws accurately
model idea exchange in the blogosphere, and I realized that programmed
heuristics might actually increase the level of democratization
rather than diminish it. Even old AI guys like me sometimes react
with a kneejerk when a new application of technology enters our
frame of reference.
The Saturday sessions at PLoP created an avalanche of thoughts in
my mind. I don't have enough time to think them now or act on them,
but I'll keep at it. Did I say before how much I like PLoP?