05
Jun
06

So Long, and Thanks for all the Wiki

Douglas Adams was nothing if not a visionary. Of course, he was much more than that, but the thing about him that impresses me most is his concept of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I can’t say he predicted the Internet — any more than Jules Verne predicted space travel — but I think we can certainly say that he saw the potential of the Web technology we are now settling into.

The fictional Guide was written by intergalactic traveling researchers — hitchhikers — who sent their entries back to editors at the publishing houses of Ursa Minor who red-penned them (One of the major jokes in the Hitchhiker’s books is that the entry for Earth was boiled down to the diminutive and somewhat insulting “Mostly harmless”), compiled them and sent them back through the sub-ether to all the copies of the electronic book, the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Simple collaborative publishing. The convergence of laptops and WiFi made the Web into the embodiment of Adams’ vision.

This was not lost on Adams. For a while there was a site called H2G2. I think he started it, in fact. “Researchers” made entries about whatever they liked, or proposed additions to existing entries. A team of editors would review the work and publish the entries. A whole community of nerds came together over the project, including myself. I had readt the Hitchhiker’s books in elementary school, and have always felt them to be among the major influences of my life — how I talk, how I write, how I think. Adams himself made appearances on the site. I remember in particular his entry on tea, which taught me the invaluable lesson that it is not enough to merely pour hot water on a tea bag. Rather, he opined, the tea must be met with boiling water — not water that had just been boiling, but water that was at that moment boiling. In other words, one must briefly boil the tea leaves.

I wrote an entry on the OED, which to my delight was published. And then the BBC bought and absorbed the site. And after I got into an argument with someone over the shape of Michigan (He adamantly denied that it was the shape of a mitten and a rabbit. Idiot.), I realized I had little to no interest in maintaining a presence in an online community. I wasn’t ready to live online yet. A late adopter, me. So I gave it up. Someone else would have to write about Dolly Parton, I reasoned, and Michigan (uhm, check out the shapes) and Madonna.

And, as if by magic, someone else did.

What has been catching my attention lately is the phenomenon of wiki, from the Hawaiian word meaning “quick.” The collaborative writing of Wikipedia — no official editors; anyone can log in, create a presence in the wiki community and edit — is a step beyond the Guide. But rather than chaos, what seems to happen is that the people with good reputations are trusted, and their work sticks, and Wikipedia seems to take on some coherence.

Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of wiki. Meta-wiki. Yay! Fun with prefixes.

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