1995: The year the future began
The unassuming wiki, server-based software that allows users to create, revise, edit, update, and delete Web content, last week marked the 20th anniversary of its launch online, in what was a quiet, early demonstration that the Web could be a home to collaboration and collective knowledge-sharing.
That is, a quiet, early demonstration that the Web had potential to be more than a shopping mall.
As the wiki’s genial inventor, Ward Cunningham, has pointed out, the Web “actually makes a pretty good shopping mall. But I wanted to … make it a creative space, not just a shopping space: a place where you could do work as well as spend money.”
On March 25, 1995, Cunningham placed the wiki online, to enable fellow computer programmers associated with the Portland Pattern Repository to write about and refine their techniques. Cunningham called it WikiWikiWeb.
The wiki’s launch was one of several innovations and developments that signaled the importance of 1995 in shaping the character, content, and vitality of the World Wide Web.
As I write in my new book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, the year “saw the emergence of powerful if conflicting sentiments [that are] still associated with the Internet: a cocksure swagger encouraged by novelty; a promise of vast treasure to be found in the digital marketplace; and a spirit of collaboration and community that an online environment could uniquely promote.
“Those cross-cutting sentiments,” I further write, “found expression in 1995 in the pretensions of Netscape, the California startup that made a breakthrough Web browser and, with its remarkable initial public offering of stock, catalyzed the dot.com boom of the second half of the 1990s. They found further expression in the quiet emergence of Amazon.com, which has become the Web’s greatest commercial success story. And they found expression in the development of the unassuming wiki, the open-editing software that enables Web users to collaborate across distances.
“Netscape, Amazon, and the wiki, each in its way, testified to the Web’s emergent dynamism in 1995 ….”
Cunningham, in an interview with me as I researched the 1995 book, said he decided to call his invention “WikiWikiWeb” after contemplating, but rejecting, “QuickWeb.”
He said he recalled from his honeymoon in Hawaii that “wiki” meant “quick” in Hawaiian, and that sometimes Hawaiian words were doubled for emphasis. The shuttles running between terminals at the Honolulu International Airport were called “Wiki Wiki” buses.
Cunningham said he figured “WikiWikiWeb” was more fun to say than “Quick Web.” The alliteration of “WikiWikiWeb” was appealing, too, he said. And “WikiWikiWeb” also evoked “World Wide Web.”
In time, “WikiWikiWeb” was shortened to “wiki” or “Ward’s wiki.”
Cunningham, as I note in 1995, has only conceptual ties to best-known and most popular wiki — the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which was launched in 2001.
Cunningham recalled that he received a query one day from Jimmy Wales, who became Wikipedia’s co-founder. Wales, according to Cunningham, said the wiki seemed “pretty interesting for you guys. Do you think it would work to write an encyclopedia?”
Yes, Cunningham replied, “it would work. But when you were done, you would have to call it a wiki.”
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