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The dangers of technology

Blogging is dangerous. In January I was in New York for a two-day conference run by an organization I had just joined, the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA). I blogged about the conference and happened also, about that time, to mention that I was experimenting with wikis.

A topic, I noticed, that that SIIA was planning to cover at a lunch session in March. I thought I would try to attend. But a week or so after the conference, Ed Keating, the Content Division VP, called, said he’d read my blog, and wondered if I would be on the wiki panel.
On the one hand, I knew very little about wikis. On the other hand, it was quite possible that I knew more about them than most other people. I am guided in these situations by some advice I got from a documentary film maker in London, a friend and neighbor whom I turned to when the BBC asked to come to my flat to interview me about my first environmental book. I lived in a tiny basement flat and had a toddler and a three-month old baby. The kitchen was in the entranceway, the furniture was secondhand, and there were endless undone household repairs. “Take every opportunity,” she said.

I agreed to talk about wikis.

In the month since then I have talked to a lot of people about them, in London with Lucy Hooberman who works in New Media at the BBC and with my new friends at the Society for New Communications Research in Palo Alto, CA. I’ve talked with someone involved in founding Wikipedia. What comes in handy in all these conversations is the fact that I grew up in Minnesota and the Silicon Valley with a father (and friends with fathers) in the computer business. I feel no awe: I know they’re just code. But I’m not resistant either. I enjoy diving in, figuring out how to use Flickr or write XHTML or set up a wiki. And that’s what I encouraged everyone at the SIIA brown bag lunch to do (no one in the audience had, or had edited, a wiki).

What, you may ask, is a wiki? Wikis are a kind of software that lets one create editable, linkable webpages. There’s nothing fancy about the pages; this is a designer’s toolset. What they are good for is creating a simple, shared information resource or for collaborative writing by a dispersed group of equals—that is, a group in which everyone has equal responsibility and authority for the work. (Although it is possible to see who made changes, this isn’t convenient for workflow in most situations. My fellow panelist Roddy MacFarquhar from Reuters, is thinking about wikis for editorial workflow, and I can see that it might work in certain situations.)

If you’d like to take a look at the wiki I set up just yesterday, Guanxi Wiki. I got started when my son sent me an article about a gaming community that gathered and wrote as much about an imaginary world as Tolkein had, for Lord of the Rings, in several decades. I saw the link, “Make a free, password-protected wiki as easily as a peanut butter sandwich.” I did, and before I knew it I was on a panel in New York. Beware!

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