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Ward Cunningham
Ward Cunningham
Interview : Ward Cunningham

The Quarto caught up with the father of the wiki movement before breakfast on an early Oregon morning, while he was recovering from the recent Pattern Languages of Programs (PLoP) conference held in Illinois. In between cans of Moxie, we picked his brain about the evolution of wiki, copyright, and the Wikipedia community. Afterward, he came onto IRC to hang out in #wikipedia for a while, where he was duly lauded.

On the Wiki Way

Wikis are all about making editing easy. What barriers to editing still exist? How would you like to see wikis develop?

WC: If we talk about what still makes authoring difficult on a wiki, it's the lack of WYSIWYG style editing. Someone suggested that one reason wikis work is that you have to overcome this strange way of editing. But if you think about it, to have all those pages typed in through a little textbox, talk about brutal. By the way, I wouldn't be satisfied if [the editor] didn't work for everybody.

In "The Wiki Way", you advocated the importance of absolute flexibility in editing and refactoring content. Is there also room for preserving old contributions, and just adding better and better summaries?

WC: In my own wiki, I took issues to the extreme. I made as much as possible editable, and didn't keep a record -- so that 'Delete' really worked, so that you thought about it when you used it. I'm pleased that people have accepted that challenge, and figured out what they can do that way. Having been there, they can say 'here's what's good and bad about that extreme'. I think tampering with the extremes of wiki positions is fine. But every new rule makes it harder for new volunteers to contribute.
    I admire Wikipedia for staying pretty true to my ease of writing, but still achieving very readable pages. I think Wikipedia is the shining example of what is possible in a large project with a high quality of writing, and still with the essential wiki character -- that if I see a mistake, I can correct it. I don't have to create a signin, or go through a training course, or...

"I don't think Wikipedia would be possible without [separate talk pages]. Now the question is, was mine a wiki without it?"

What do you think about having separate talk and content pages?

WC: I love it. It's just brilliant. I think Wikipedia is valuable to people who don't see themselves an Author and aren't interested in the meta-conversation. I don't think Wikipedia would be possible without it.
    Now the question is, was my site a wiki without it?

How about incorporating many languages within a single wiki?

WC: Oh, I think that is a totally awesome idea. The ability to read a page, and notice a subtle problem with it... that ability to go straight at important subtleties is something wiki is good at. When you have people with one foot in one linguistic culture and the other foot in another, you can communicate very subtle ideas across cultures, about how the world as a whole works.
    My dream of 'what wiki could be' is something where, through the efforts of people who read and understand multiple languages, we create a shared body of work that holds a community of people together despite their not speaking the same language. I think this happens slowly on the surface of the earth with traditional media - a body of translators trying to explain culture to each other.
    But it would have to be done in such a way that languages which look like gibberish to you are invisible, and you can see those you know. I'm imagining that wiki pages in several languages would be presented together. You would get into the habit of reading in all languages, and when there was a dissonance, you would say "there's another error that needs to be corrected", and you'd have this great global process.

So... is Wikipedia a wiki?

WC: Absolutely. A certain amount of credit drifts my way from Wikipedia. I'm always quick to remind people that my wiki is not Wikipedia, and that there's a lot of innovation there. I'm proud of what the Wikipedia community has done, I think it's totally awesome.
    Here's what I think a wiki is: content before community. Low latency to correction. The workflow of submission starts with publication - publish and then edit. Trivial creation of new pages, to let them grow to the right size. And a community provided by RecentChanges -- the ability to see what other editors are doing, encouraging visitors to go from readers to authors to editors.
    One thing I read when I was doing wiki was a book by Edwin Schlossberg, a participatory museum exhibit designer - a thin little book that talked about how the audience defines 'Quality' for a performance (something is "good" if the people paying attention agree it is). He said that as soon as you have a medium where audience members can watch each other work, you develop a sense of community good. That's clearly happening here.

On Microsoft

Some people want to know what it's like for you now, working at Microsoft.

WC: As I posted on my own wiki, "I'm joining Microsoft, but I'm still the same Ward". And I think Microsoft is still the same Microsoft.

One would hope that you have some effect on them.

WC: Well, I think they have every intention for me to have some effect on them.  


When you aren't using wikis for collaboration, what else do you use?

WC: I use about a dozen wikis. The only other thing I use daily is email... it demands attention Right Now. If I have something event-oriented, short-lived, I send somebody an email. And if I want to talk about something timeless, I write it on a wiki and send them a pointer.
    You know, the whole email system is breaking down. Who would have thought that email, with all of its permissions and security, would fall apart faster than wiki? Our inboxes are much more vulnerable than our wikis, where everyone can write.
    Every day, going through my email is a burden, whereas browsing Wikipedia is a joy. I save that for when I want to reward myself, and I'll do a romp through Wikipedia. Wikipedia is my favorite content site.

(We understand. It's ours, too.)

WC: One thing that I'm really interested in, and was pleased to see, is that the Wikipedia content is published under a public license. Who knows, a hundred years from now, what's going to be the 'right' online encyclopedia; if there are fifty to choose from, that might be okay. I think enabling this is great. We're still beginners on this journey; imagine what it's going to be like when we've had a few generations of experience with this [global collaboration].  

On Wikipedia

Have you edited Wikipedia recently? What do you think of it?

WC: I read Wikipedia, just out of a need to know something, probably every week. But I haven't edited a lot. If someone were to ask me to point to a modern encyclopedia, I would choose Wikipedia. Wikipedia defines encyclopedia now....
    Wikipedia is close to becoming an original source, I suppose.

Actually, we are totally against that; one of our basic rules is "no original research".

WC: That's because this is the grounding that keeps it from spiraling off into argument? I always wanted people to talk about things that actually happened to them; their own experience was that grounding. A community has to be grounded in something, or else you end up in a spiral of mutual delusion.

In the early days of wiki, did you think that one might some day be used to build an encyclopedia?

WC: I actually thought of it as a glossary for new words that a community would use. The thought that a community needs a dictionary, helped inspire the first wiki. But Wikipedia's scope is so much larger than the scope of my wiki. At the time, I was aware that there were 'divisive' topics. I discouraged people from writing about them, because I thought the forum was vulnerable in that if people didn't seek consensus, they wouldn't find it.
    Now when I'm boasting of the qualities of wikis, I speak of the ability of a community to establish and enforce norms in a way a computer program can't. You couldn't write down NPOV in a rule and run it as a test on submissions. The only way to make [such] a social distinction is to have a lot of people discussing examples.

"Who would have thought that email, with all of its permissions and security, would fall apart faster than wiki?"

Did you expect wikis would grow as large as they have today?

WC: I thought there would be failure modes, but I wasn't surprised that communities found ways around them. I thought it was important that when the organization proved to be wrong, people could reorganize on their own, that organization could emerge.

Why aren't there other huge wiki projects, like a book-review or journal project?

WC: Maybe this can only happen once every few years. Maybe the body of people who realize how the social process works, and the value in it, can only grow so fast; then somebody has to have the energy to form the community that will sustain it. And maybe people do create these communities, and say "well, this is gonna be so good, let me pull a little profit out of it," and are a little disingenuous.
    I suspect there will be wikis on all kinds of subjects. But right now, for people who just want to feel what it's like, why start a new one when you can go to well-formed communities and just participate?

Do you think that's why we have so many Wikipedia-related communities?

WC: The fact that Wikimedia encourages that kind of splintering and that you've done some yourself, is in a sense an even grander goal than finishing the encyclopedia. To turn the process over to more communities.

Thank you for talking with us. Do you have any parting thoughts?

WC: I hope you will write about, not just the page count of Wikipedia, but how the ideas [of Wikipedia] are progressing in the world. And I hope you will use the newsletter and the Foundation to monitor and promote these ideas, and to promote culturally idealistic endeavours.


From Wikimedia Quarto Vol.1, 2004.