Moments after the eye of Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, news agencies everywhere rushed to report the story. But among the quickest to begin offering comprehensive coverage wasn't a formal news organization at all.
By Daniel Terdiman
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Instead, it was a loose collection of self-appointed "citizen journalists" reporting, linking and photographing from Louisiana and around the world. And the organization for which they were working, called Wikinews, wasn't paying them a dime.
"With all of that bad news, it's nice to know that at least one cool thing has emerged from this: The Katrina Information Map, which brings together the power of wikis and Google Maps to create a useful public resource for tracking or reporting flood damage," former Louisianan Matt Barton wrote on the blog Kairosnews. "I see that most people are using the service to inquire about loved ones or report flooding on various streets."
News is one of the most effective uses of an oddly named technology created in 1995 by a Portland, Ore., programmer named Ward Cunningham, which was based on the idea that information should be shared openly and remain accountable to everyone. Known as "wiki," the software allows the creation of Web pages that can be edited indefinitely by anyone with access, regardless of who wrote the original work.
Although initially conceived as a form of communal publishing, the wiki is quickly evolving into a multipurpose interactive phenomenon. As evidenced in the aftermath of Katrina and the London bombings a month earlier, wikis can be a life-saving resource that provides real-time collaboration, instant grassroots news and crucial meeting places where none exist in the physical world.
The popularity and proliferation of wikis are particularly significant in an age of increasing distrust of mainstream media. In many ways, wikis are emblematic of the democratizing principles of the Information Age that seek to give voice to ordinary citizens.
"With the distributed nature of the Internet, you now have the ability for people with common interests to rapidly aggregate themselves and apply their nearly unbounded knowledge of different subjects into cohesive organization in a matter of hours," said Rob Kline a product manager for Marchex who helped create the KatrinaHelp.info wiki. "Because it's distributed, it's global, so when I have to go to sleep, someone else can pick it up and keep working on it."
Wikis began in various forms, but it was the online encyclopedia known as Wikipedia that propelled the concept into the popular consciousness. Wikipedia and Wikinews were created by the same nonprofit organization, Wikimedia Foundation, and are available free of charge.
As an indication of Wikipedia's growth, the open-source encyclopedia tallied more than 814,000 articles as of this writing, in English alone. Although Wikipedia undoubtedly owes at least some of its popularity to the pursuit of trivia that is a hallmark of the Web, it has also fundamentally altered societal attitudes about access to information.
For all its benefits, some worry that those who participate in sites like Wikipedia or Wikinews are more interested in pursuing an agenda or personal opinions than the kind of accurate documentation expected of professionally edited resources like the Encyclopedia Britannica.
But one element that adds to the veracity of wikis is that most large-scale projects, such as Wikipedia, are self-policing. Because anyone can create articles or edit existing ones, communities like Wikipedia's are committed to making articles as accurate as possible. This manifests itself though constant and continuous modifications by community members to existing articles, all in the interest of being up-to-date and accurate.
"I think mostly what it has changed is people's idea of what is possible," said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, "because it seems like such a radical, crazy concept, and yet it seems to work pretty well. As a result, people are starting to think about what are some of the possibilities for information sharing, and what else that's cool and amazing."
Those possibilities include the use of wikis for a kind of large-scale public review that would be inconceivable through other methods. One such project involves the examination of some of the thousands of documents related to detainees held by the U.S. government at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The project, which began in late spring, was formed as a way to provide public review of more than 4,000 pages received by the American Civil Liberties Union after the organization filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2003 looking for evidence of prisoner abuse. The ACLU didn't have the resources to immediately tackle the documents, so a group of dozens of readers of the community blog Daily Kos took over the project.
Once finished with their pages, volunteers would post their impressions to a wiki. "We wanted the (software) to be open-source, available to everyone," said Susan Hudgens, one of the organizers of the document review project.
Of course, not all wikis have to deal with politics or disasters. Some organizations and companies are making wiki software available to the masses for the discussion of just about anything imaginable.
One example is Wikispaces, a free commercial site targeting families, schools, book clubs, wedding planners and everyone in between. The service hosts around 5,000 "spaces" on, among other subjects, family trees, Dungeons & Dragons games and the "cultures of scientific revolutions."
"We're focused on ease of use," Wikispaces co-founder Adam Frey said. "We have a lot of teachers, students, medical groups and families, people who are really nontechnical. We want to make a Web page with an edit button that is as simple to use as possible."
Cory Doctorow, a novelist and journalist who chronicles all matters digital, has found an innovative way to incorporate wikis into the creation of his novels, the text of each of which he has made publicly available under a Creative Commons license. This has allowed Doctorow to make errata pages of his books available on wikis.
"Assembling pages of errata for my editor was a pain in the ass and very hard to use comprehensibly, especially when I got thoughts from readers in no particular order," Doctorow said. "Wikis let my readers self-organize it, and that's pretty cool. My editor will ask, 'We're going back to press tomorrow, are there any changes?' Now what I say is, 'Oh, we're going back to press tomorrow, here's the URL (of the wiki).'"
Lawrence Lessig, the chairman of Creative Commons and a professor at Stanford University Law School, is also using wikis on a book project. Starting last February, he posted a digital copy of his book "Code" online and let his readers weigh in on revisions they felt were necessary for the book's second edition. "Chapter captains" were assigned to supervise updates and corrections in a process that will eventually result in the changes for the book's next edition.
Another place where wikis are taking hold is the corporate setting, where they can be effective alternatives to mass e-mailings to employees that can lead to confusing threaded discussions or clog servers with the same Word documents attached to every message. Wales said electronics retail chain Best Buy has introduced a wiki where all its 90,000 employees can share information.
Concerns of corporate control are inevitable where the exchange of information is involved. But wikis may be more naturally resistant to commercial co-option than other technologies because they empower the individual to have the last word—literally.
"Wikis respect the user and leave a lot open to the user, and to the community to self-organize," Wales said. "The basic thing I think makes it work is turning from a model of permissions to a model of accountability. It isn't that you are allowed or not allowed to edit a certain thing; it's when you do it, that change is recorded, and if it's bad, people can see that."
This transparent history of every change is one of the most important features that distinguish wikis from other forms of instant updates and community, such as blogs, because wikis are seen as much more open-ended and participatory.
For example, it is simple to look at the Wikinews package on the London bombing and see links for every single update made to the original article. Anyone who wants to see how the article evolved—from an original flash about an explosion at the Liverpool Street station to the final comprehensive package—can see each of the hundreds of changes along the way, as well as who made them and when.
The same is true for most everything that is written using any wiki software. Ultimately, wikis offer readers something that no other technology has offered before: a single, infinitely editable source for information.
"It has to be something like this if you're going to allow this kind of collaboration," said Nathan Reed, a 27-year-old Wikinews administrator.
While blogs, newsgroups or e-mail lists also can keep people informed of recent events and available resources, none of these alternatives have the ability to present the very latest information—and nothing but the latest information—in a single place.
"It was helpful for people because it cut across organizational boundaries," said Kline of KatrinaHelp.info. "Wikis allow total flexibility. The Red Cross is very vital, but they're only one organization. We could serve as a clearinghouse or a jumping-off point for thousands of resources."
Even those from the journalism establishment acknowledge such advantages over traditional media outlets. Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, said his organization also assembled a wiki in the hopes of aggregating crucial information after Katrina struck.
"It seemed that a wiki was the right way to do this because so many of our readers are connected to so many different sources," he said. "It made sense to throw (this) open and let them do all that aggregation. It's better than assigning a single reporter or even a team of reporters to do that work."