Wiki: The etymology

Q&A with Wiki pioneer Ward Cunnigham

Ward Cunningham

In 1995, software developer Ward Cunningham came up with an easy way for software developers to discuss software patterns on the then-nascent World Wide Web. Contributors could edit the Web pages right in front of them, with very little training. This first Perl-based Wiki, called Wiki Wiki Web, is still active, and the Wiki concept has caught on across the Web as a low-cost, easy way to collaborate.

GCN caught up with Cunningham, who now works for the Eclipse Foundation, to find out how he feels his invention will change the nature of collaboration.

GCN: First of all, where did the name Wiki come from?

Cunningham: My first trip to Hawaii was actually my honeymoon. I stepped off the airplane and I was told to go take the Wiki Wiki bus to Terminal C, and I said 'What?' I just couldn't understand what the guy was saying and he finally realized that I was expecting a Hawaiian term and 'wiki wiki' is a Hawaiian term for 'very quickly.'

GCN: What do you think about Wikipedia, the most successful Wiki-based site?

Cunningham: I see Wikipedia as a model. It's great as an encyclopedia, but what is really important is the model that it offers on how work will be done going forward. I don't mean that we're going to turn all of our work over to volunteers on the Internet, but that when we look at the way those volunteers interact, the fact that we're surprised that Wikipedia works at all shows that we have some deep misunderstandings about how knowledge-work is done.

Part of the answer is that there is plenty of expertise out there spread thin. If we look at the contents of some of the best articles I think we'll find they have been written by people who really are closet experts. To call them amateurs is to misunderstand them.

I figure that happens all the time in the workplace, too. You have what your job description says, but then you have what you can really do. And when you can play to your strengths and your colleague's strengths, it may not look much at all like your job description.

Wiki allows people to fundamentally change the way they collaborate. Not that Wiki actually assumes much at all about how people work, but all the software that we've written before, we've made assumptions about how people work that have actually inhibited the really creative work.

A forum, email list or a newsgroup always assumes that if I'm going to contribute to the discussion that my contribution goes at the end. And that makes all the conversation chronological. Why would we assume that chronological is the right way to talk about some complicated concept? What that does is make everything difficult to read. What I did with Wiki is not assume that. You can [write something] right where it needs to be read.

Of course when I do that, I have to let go of my train of thought if I'm going to allow you to modify it. There is a certain trust there, so I'm sure this is what prevented people from doing that years ago. Because if I can trust you enough to modify my thoughts'that you do it in the collective best interes'then when everybody reads that work, they read a simpler document.

GCN: One of the most interesting things about the popularity of Wiki is that it eclipsed a lot of elaborate commercial collaboration tools.

Cunningham: I ran into Ray Ozzie [co-creator of Lotus Notes and the Groove collaboration software and now chief software architect at Microsoft Corp.] at a social software conference and he said that he really admired Wiki because so little did so much. And I thought to myself that the amazing thing is [Groove] could do so much and people could still work with it.

The thing is the more we try to codify the way we work into computer programs, the more likely we are to close off the discovery of the way we truly need to work going forward.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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