But it Wouldn’t Be an Encyclopedia; It Would Be a Wiki: Wikipedia and the Repurposing of WikiWikiWeb


Talk at Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association (ICA), San Juan, Puerto Rico

In this talk, I examine the early history of “anyone can edit” wiki software – originally developed in 1995, six years before Wikipedia’s origin – focusing on the ways in which this technological infrastructure has been repurposed across communities, domains, and scales. While today, the idea of a wiki is associated with large-scale, massively-distributed encyclopedic knowledge production, this was not always the case. As I show, many of the assumptions and practices in pre-Wikipedia wiki communities contradicted the idea of a universal repository to document the sum total of human knowledge. In fact, the title of this presentation comes from a conversation between Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales and Ward Cunningham, the creator of the first wiki, who advised Wales that the goals of creating a general-purpose encyclopedia and a wiki might be inherently contradictory. As Wales, Sanger, and other early Wikipedians used Cunningham’s wiki software to produce a collective encyclopedia, they found themselves constantly modifying the wiki platform, incorporating features and affordances that supported the kind of encyclopedic knowledge production they found themselves engaged in. Many of these novel features – such as a persistent history of edits to articles, separate discussion pages for individual articles, 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 archival and software studies methods, I illustrate several ways in which wiki software was adapted for the specific purposes and practices of Wikipedians, departing substantially from the pre-Wikipedia understandings of what wiki-based collaboration is and ought to be. Beyond Wikipedia, this case shows how technological infrastructures intersect with particular configurations of communities, epistemologies, and ideologies. Focusing on how one particular infrastructure was re-used and repurposed for a rather different set of values gives us a useful case for problematizing technologically determinist narratives around media technology and society.