While I was in Adelaide for the Festival of Ideas, the Advertiser ran a piece I wrote on blogs and wikis, aimed at a general audience (it’s over the fold). I was going out for breakfast the next day, and the guy behind the counter said “Don’t you write for the Advertiser?”. It turned out he’d read my piece which ran with a small picture of me from the News Limited archives, used as a dinkus.
What was particularly nice about this was that they used quite an old (that is, young) photo, so it seems age is not wearying me too much.
When the World Wide Web first came into broad public view, about ten years ago, there were enthusiastic predictions that it would make everyone their own publisher, with the capacity to broadcast their thoughts on any topic, share their creative contributions, and talk about whatever was important in their daily lives. Lots of interesting things happened, but this vision was never properly realised. Running a website and keeping it up to date is hard work, and professional site designers and IT managers soon displaced the enthusiastic amateurs who had built the early stages of the Web.
In the last few years, however, the original vision has re-emerged, thanks to oddly named creatures called blogs and wikis. A blog (this unfortunate term arose as a contraction of â€˜weblogâ€™ and has resisted periodic attempts to find a more appealing alternative) is simply a personal webpage in a journal format, with software that automatically puts new entries (â€˜postsâ€™) at the top of the page, and shifts old entries to archives after a specified time, or when the number of posts becomes too large for convenient scrolling.
This is a minor change to the basic format of a website, but it turns out to make all the difference. With freely available blog software and hosting services, it takes almost no technical skill to set up a blog and keep it running. All that is required is the enthusiasm to post regularly, something interesting to say, and a willingness to respond to the readers who will, eventually, come to visit your blog.
Political bloggers (I am one) have attracted most attention from the media, since they compete directly with, and often criticise, the feature writers and opinion columnists published in newspapers like The Advertiser. But there are blogs on almost any topic you can imagine, from art to zoology, not to mention more down-to-earth subjects like babies, cats and clothes. A good place to look for blogs of interest on particular topics is Technorati
Wikis are harder to describe, but perhaps even more significant. A wiki is a site that can be edited by anyone, with the property that anyone else can easily reverse changes that are considered undesirable. Amazingly enough, this works. In four years, wiki users have built an online encyclopedia, called Wikipedia, from scratch. It is already a serious competitor for the 250-year old Brittanica, and itâ€™s completely free. Related projects include Wiktionary, a multilingual dictionary; Wikibooks, a collection of free content textbooks; Wikiquote, a repository of famous quotes; Wikinews, a free news source; Wikisource, a repository for primary source material; and Wikimedia Commons, a repository for images and sound data.
These innovations are important in themselves. But the process of creative collaboration they represent is becoming increasingly central to technological progress in general. Spinoffs from blog and wiki development are increasingly being used in business and education, displacing proprietary content management software. Open source software is increasingly relied upon as the most secure foundation for computing projects of all kinds. The Internet itself, and even more the World Wide Web, which have driven much of the economic growth of the last decade, were produced in this way.
As we look forward to the Festival of Ideas, itâ€™s good to know that there has never been a better time to have your own ideas heard, on whatever interest you, and to exchange ideas with others around the world.