“But it wouldn’t be an encyclopedia; it would be a wiki”: The changing imagined affordances of wikis, 1995-2002

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This paper examines the early history of “anyone can edit” wiki software – originally developed in 1995, six years before Wikipedia’s origin. While today, the idea of a wiki is associated with large-scale, massively-distributed encyclopedic knowledge production, this was not always the case. Articles on pre-Wikipedia wikis were often closer to a Joycean stream of consciousness than Wikipedia’s Britannica-inspired texts that speak in single voice, and the underlying wiki platform lacked many of the affordances that are now taken for granted in wiki platforms. In fact, the creator of the first wiki advised Wikipedia’s co-founders that the goals of creating a general-purpose encyclopedia and a wiki were inherently contradictory.

As early Wikipedians used the original wiki software to produce a collective encyclopedia, they constantly modified the platform, incorporating features and affordances that supported the kind of work they imagined needing to do. Many of these features – a persistent history of changes, separate discussion pages, and citations/references – are now taken for granted aspects of what it means for a wiki to be a wiki. Yet at the time, their existence was far more controversial and precarious.

Using historical methods, I illustrate several ways in which wiki software was adapted for the specific purposes and practices of Wikipedians, departing substantially from pre-Wikipedia understandings of what wiki-based sites are and ought to be. Beyond Wikipedia, this case shows how ideas of what a platform is and what particular platforms are imagined to afford are fluid and can dramatically change over time.