The wiki faithful look beyond encyclopedias to activism

Next up: education, politics, Third World

Michael Dale, a digital arts student at the University of California, Santa Cruz , was on a mission: Provide opportunities to lampoon politicians with their own words.

So for his master's thesis this year, he began taking feeds from the cable channel C-Span and posting them on a searchable website, Readers, for example, can search for all the times a member of Congress has said ``peanut butter" this year.

``This information deserves to be public," Dale said.

C-Span ordered him to take down their copyright content. He complied, but he's still posting other clips that are in the public domain.

With such thinking, Dale was in the company of many like-minded socially activist geeks who last weekend flocked to Harvard University for Wikimania. At the event, about 400 Wikipedians debated how to move wiki technology and values into education, politics, and the developing world.

From as far as Finland and Japan, they came wearing wizard hats, hacker tees, and Converse sneakers. The after-party sternly warned ``No Laptops Allowed," and as a parlor game, they pitched fake dot-coms to a fictitious venture capital firm. At one reception, one wiki enthusiast performed on piano a J.S. Bach prelude -- backward.

A wiki is a technology that lets users rewrite a Web page. Wikis were developed in the mid-1990s, and wiki means ``quick" in Hawaiian. Unlike in traditional publishing, where the creator sends content to a ``passive" reader, wikis let consumers change content as they see fit.

The most famous example is, an online encyclopedia with more than 1.3 million articles that anyone can edit, and which has been criticized for inaccuracies.

But wikis have branched out well beyond the encyclopedia. The Wikimedia Foundation , which runs Wikipedia, also runs Wikibooks , wiki travel guides, and Wikinews , all rewriteable by anyone.

Enthusiasts also brainstormed and discussed even more variations at Wikimania: wiki political parties, wiki maps, wiki colleges and even WikiAfterDark , an adults-only wiki that gives bedroom advice.

For some Wikipedians, the wiki's grassroots culture of collaboration has become a way of life.

``Wiki culture is about the spirit of sharing. It's like buying someone a beer or putting them on your couch," said Jonah Bossewitch , who helps run a social-justice wiki at Columbia University's Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning .

Naturally, the conference was run wiki-style, meaning no top-down agenda.

Teams from different cities submitted proposals to host Wikimania, and then Wikipedians from around the world gathered in a chat room to vote. Last year, they held Wikimania in a German youth hostel.

Every name tag carried a wiki user name, too. Bossewitch's was ``mrenoch" or Mr. Enoch, his cat's name.

Laptops vastly outnumbered women. In many sessions, Wikipedians frenetically blogged, Googled, and edited wikis on their laptops while others hoisted camcorders to ensure video of every session was on the web.

Kasper Souren , or ``Guaka," flew in from Ecuador to attend Wikimania. He ran two workshops on a political system run via wiki and about the Bambara-language Wikipedia in West Africa.

``We're in the first phase of global consciousness about this network," he said. ``It will be exciting to see what will come."

Brewster Kahle, a keynote speaker who cofounded the Internet Archive , a nonprofit that preserves records and ``snapshots" of websites at different points in time, mapped out a way to provide all of the world's content currently in books, CDs, and film, for free.

He said the cost of scanning and digitally distributing the entire contents of the Library of Congress, about $750 million, would be less than the cost of maintaining all the libraries in the country.

Compiling and digitizing all existing films and music would cost even less, resulting in a total of under $1 billion, including books, he said. ``All music, all video, and all books are within our grasp."

But there was also reflection on accuracy and vandalism. Several sessions were devoted to stopping those who knowingly post false information. That came about a week after Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert urged cable TV viewers to change the Wikipedia entry on elephants to say the number of elephants in Africa had tripled, to annoy environmentalists. The clip spread across the Internet almost immediately.

There were also those who questioned how the wiki system could sustain itself.

``We're just kind of assuming that people are going to volunteer their labor," said Jason Pramas, of the University of Massachusetts at Boston Tactical Media Group, which focuses on understanding technology and media policy. ``It's great for increasing the bank of human knowledge. But it's lousy in that a lot of us are not going to make enough money to afford the laptops that we write wikis on."

Danny Horn , who helps run a Muppets wiki that is 10,000 articles strong, disagreed.

``We do kind of get paid," he said. ``We get paid with love, friendship, collaboration, and all this emotional stuff."

Kim-Mai Cutler can be reached at  

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company