It turns out that yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the launch of Wikipedia, otherwise known as Wikipedia Day. So it’s probably as good a time as any to acknowledge the huge impact Wikipedia has had on my own career. It’s rare to say that a website has single-handedly brought into being an entire field of technology, but one could make a case that Wikipedia has done that for my field, semantic wikis - which is, of course, ironic, since Wikipedia itself does not use semantic technology. The site, though, has enabled what I do to come about in several different ways - enough that it’s hard to dispute the direct link. Here are the ways in which Wikipedia has made semantic wikis possible:
- It taught the world about wikis. Most people, when they first heard about Wikipedia, a site where anyone can edit anything, probably had the same reaction: sounds like a recipe for disaster. To be sure, some critics of Wikipedia still say that’s the case; but for most of the hundreds of millions of people who read the site, seeing it work has been an eye-opening experience: the realization that a site where users can edit the content of any page can work. And for some users (including me), the realization that not only is it a workable solution, and not even just the best solution, but in some cases it’s the only solution for aggregating information in one place. And so Wikipedia’s proof-of-concept inspired many people to create their own wikis for their businesses, organizations or personal interests. I dare say that 99% of the people who have been involved with semantic wikis got their first experience with wikis by reading Wikipedia; I’m part of that group.
- It has inspired researchers. Beyond just Wikipedia as a proof-of-concept, the idea of turning Wikipedia into more a database-like information store has captured the imaginations of a lot of people. That’s how Semantic MediaWiki got its start: the first paper published about the project was titled “Semantic Wikipedia”, and the concept remains the holy grail for many of those involed with the project (not for me personally, though I can understand the excitement). And Freebase, the other major semantic wiki technology (in my opinion), which uses its own proprietary application, has billed itself as a “Wikipedia for data”; I wouldn’t be surprised if it was conceived that way too. (It’s an open question what will happen to Freebase if Wikipedia goes semantic, and thus itself becomes the Wikipedia for data.)
- It has enabled the technology. MediaWiki, the wiki engine developed specifically for Wikipedia, is also, in my opinion, the best wiki engine, of the dozens that exist. It’s robust, scalable, and full of useful features. Two of those features have, I think, made it ideally suited for use in semantic wikis: templates and hooks. Templates enable the separation of data from data structure and presentation, which lets a semantic wiki approximate much more closely a regular database-driven website; while hooks, of which MediaWiki has hundreds, allow extensions like Semantic MediaWiki to integrate nicely into the rest of the package with little or no coordination between the extension developers and the main MediaWiki developers: that, in turn, allows for much faster development time. Neither one is a coincidence: the nature of Wikipedia and its massive size make conveniences like these into something more like necessities.
So, a big thank you to Wikipedia, and of course to its two co-founders: Larry Sanger, who had the idea to use a wiki to power the world’s first free online encyclopedia; and Jimmy Wales, who has guided the project successfully through ever since.