“But it wouldn’t be an encyclopedia; it would be a wiki”: The changing imagined affordances of wikis, 1995-2002

2017 Annual Meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers


October 19, 2017
2:00pm to 3:00pm
Tartu, Estonia

This paper examines the early history of “anyone can edit” wiki software – originally developed in 1995, six years before Wikipedia’s origin. While today, the idea of a wiki is associated with large-scale, massively-distributed encyclopedic knowledge production, this was not always the case. Articles on pre-Wikipedia wikis were often closer to a Joycean stream of consciousness than Wikipedia’s Britannica-inspired texts that speak in single voice, and the underlying wiki platform lacked many of the affordances that are now taken for granted in wiki platforms. In fact, the creator of the first wiki advised Wikipedia’s co-founders that the goals of creating a general-purpose encyclopedia and a wiki were inherently contradictory.

As early Wikipedians used the original wiki software to produce a collective encyclopedia, they constantly modified the platform, incorporating features and affordances that supported the kind of work they imagined needing to do. Many of these features – a persistent history of changes, separate discussion pages, and citations/references – are now taken for granted aspects of what it means for a wiki to be a wiki. Yet at the time, their existence was far more controversial and precarious.

Using historical methods, I illustrate several ways in which wiki software was adapted for the specific purposes and practices of Wikipedians, departing substantially from pre-Wikipedia understandings of what wiki-based sites are and ought to be. Beyond Wikipedia, this case shows how ideas of what a platform is and what particular platforms are imagined to afford are fluid and can dramatically change over time.


R. Stuart Geiger

BIDS Alum – Ethnographer

Former BIDS Ethnographer Stuart Geiger is now a faculty member at the University of California, San Diego, jointly appointed in the Department of Communication and the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute. At BIDS, as an ethnographer of science and technology, he studied the infrastructures and institutions that support the production of knowledge. He launched the Best Practices in Data Science discussion group in 2019, having been one of the original members of the MSDSE Data Science Studies Working Group. Previously, his work on Wikipedia focused on the community of volunteer editors who produce and maintain an open encyclopedia. He also studied distributed scientific research networks and projects, including the Long-Term Ecological Research Network and the Open Science Grid. In Wikipedia and scientific research, he studied topics including newcomer socialization, community governance, specialization and professionalization, quality control and verification, cooperation and conflict, the roles of support staff and technicians, and diversity and inclusion. And, as these communities are made possible through software systems, he studied how the design of software tools and systems intersect with all of these issues.  He received an undergraduate degree at UT Austin, and an MA in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown University, where he began empirically studying communities using qualitative and ethnographic methods.  As part of receiving his PhD from the UC Berkeley School of Information, he worked with anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, organizational and management scholars, designers, and computer scientists.