The disruptive power of Wiki

The Wiki concept – now celebrating its 17th birthday – laid the groundwork for dissent via social media.

Julian Assange once stated that WikiLeaks had, in some cases, a 'rightfully destabilising effect' [GALLO/GETTY]

San Francisco, CA – In the past year, the word “wiki” has become synonymous, in a way, with the growing online free expression movement. From whistleblower WikiLeaks to the January 18 Wikipedia blackout in opposition to censorship bills in the US Congress, the term “wiki” has inadvertently – at least to the uninitiated – come to be associated with defiance.

And yet, the Wiki concept – a collaborative website whose users can add, modify or delete content with only basic knowledge of a simplified markup language – has always, in a sense, inhabited that role. Long before “Web 2.0”, a programme called WikiWikiWeb allowed programmers to exchange ideas easily, much as social media sites now. 

In 2001, Wikipedia emerged a disruptive force, eventually becoming the world’s best known wiki. Today, wikis take on myriad forms, from comical iterations (such as Encyclopedia Dramatica or MuppetWiki) to sites with the potential to disrupt traditional power structures. No fewer than 4,000 books contain “wiki” in their title; in other words, the wiki has become a truly global phenomenon.

Wikis: A brief history

Created on March 25, 1995, by US coder Ward Cunningham, WikiWikiWeb derived its name from the Hawaiian word wiki, meaning “quick” or “fast”. Cunningham statedearly on: “I chose wiki-wiki as an alliterative substitute for ‘quick’ and thereby avoided naming this stuff quick-web.”

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WikiWikiWeb was, thankfully, later shortened to “wiki” and over the course of the next few years, went through several iterations within its user community. Meanwhile, wikis increasingly adopted within companies and organisations as a collaborative means of tracking projects and other work.

By 2001, wikis had been widely adopted by certain segments of the tech community, but “wiki” wasn’t exactly a household word – that is, until Wikipedia came along. The collaborative encyclopedia, founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, quickly went global, eventually spawning iterations in more than 280 languages – and perhaps contributing to the demise of the print encyclopedia

But Wikipedia did not merely emerge as research device; its interactive format quickly earned it attention for its disruptive properties, while several censorious governments – quick to catch on – moved to block the site for its ability to rapidly spread otherwise inaccessible information. As Harvard professors John Palfrey and Jonathan Zittrain wrote in 2008’s Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering, “Wikipedia is the poster-story of a new iteration on the internet … This phenomenon – in which consumers of information can also easily be creators – threatens to open and to destabilise political environments that were previously controlled tightly by those in power.”

Indeed, it has not been only tightly controlled environments – such as in China – that have blocked Wikipedia, but democratic countries, including the UK. In 2008, the country’s Internet Watch Foundation blocked pages of the site containing images of a 1976 album cover that depicted a naked child. Syria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Thailand and Pakistan have all, at times, blocked the site or local versions of it.

TIME magazine has also recognised the disruptive power of collaborative sites like Wikipedia, citing it in a 2006 cover story which named “you”, the content creator, as “person of the year”.

The disruptive power of wiki

But if Wikipedia was seen as having the ability to disrupt traditional power structures, then WikiLeaks – which launched as a wiki in 2006 – was viewed as truly destabilising, a threat to even the most stable and democratic of governments. Even Julian Assange himself once stated that WikiLeaks had, in some cases, a “rightfully destabilising effect”. 

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Early on, WikiLeaks was lauded by the transparency and human rights communities for, among others, its leaks related to corruption in Kenya. In 2008 and 2009, its publishing of the secret internet blacklists of several countries sparked ire from governments, but praise from free expression advocates. It wasn’t until its 2010 releases – at which point the site was no longer based on a collaborative wiki format – that WikiLeaks had begun to be vilified by the mainstream press and members of governments.

In his 2011-book Wiki at War: Conflict in a Socially Networked World, Dr James Jay Carafano makes a compelling argument for how social networking may “affect the course of human conflict in the twenty-first century”. Using “wiki” as a stand-in for social media, Carafano describes the capability of collaborative online networks to connect disparate but like-minded forces toward accomplishing seemingly impossible goals.

He also noted, as Palfrey and Zittrain had, the transmutable nature of social media and the ability of citizens to bypass censorship using the tools. Says Carafano: “… invariably it seems in the world of wiki war, that when actors want to act – online, via a cell phone or otherwise – they act, regardless of obstacles thrown up in their path.”

Indeed, we have seen over the past few years just how valuable social media is to dissenters, from the coded language used on China’s pervasively censored native networks to the organising conducted in Tunisia and Egypt on sites such as Facebook. Just remember: it all started with the wiki.

Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork