What did we do before Wikipedia?
You might ask this (facetious) question all the time, but wikis, or user-edited websites, are older than you might think—in fact, they’re practically the elders of the online world. Long before Twitter, Facebook, or even Google, a computer programmer created software to help colleagues share information about their work. Since then, we’ve used wikis to compile knowledge on Wikipedia, track election patterns, catalog fandoms, preserve cultures, and laugh at ourselves. And unlike Netscape Navigator, Geocities, or Friendster, wikis have yet to become obsolete.
“It’s basically a way of writing where you’re reading,” Cunningham told New Relic. “On the Web before that, you would read something in one place but if you wanted to write more, you would have to go through a completely different mechanism. You couldn’t author through the Web before that.”
Ward’s program meant that with no knowledge of HTML necessary, just a markup language that did formatting and linking for you, anyone could theoretically contribute to a body of knowledge for everyone else to learn from. Today, every popular social media platform owes something to the easy “what you see is what you get” interface that wikis popularized.
The focus of WikiWikiWeb was, and is, what Cunningham called “people, projects, and patterns”—patterns being replicable ideas about software design. “Friends,” Cunningham wrote in a May 1, 1995, email, “I’ve always been interested in the way programming ideas are carried by people as they move between projects … I’ve put together a new database to give the project [of documenting ideas about making programs work] another try. You can help.”
As soon as Cunningham released WikiBase, the software underlying WikiWikiWeb, into the wild, wikis began to evolve, branching out to cover any number of topics and communities. We have wikis to thank for sites as varied as TV Tropes, SourceWatch, and the comedy site Uncyclopedia. Formatting has changed,…