There are places in this world, which are out of the ordinary. Places where hundreds, and thousands, of people communicate. Places where day-to-day rules do not seem to apply. Where our experiences will not always be of use. Places which impose their own social rules. Places where "the norm" is at times very hard to identify, let alone understand.
Places bursting with creativity. Places overflowing with collective knowledge, wisdom even. Places where one can stand in awe of what others do as individuals, but also where "awe" fails to convey the magnitude of what can be done collectively.
Places where -alas- also the most primitive, vulgar, provocative, and insulting verbal behaviors can be observed - a kindergarten with adult expletives.
Yes, such places can be found. On this planet.
These places are virtual. They do exist, but not in a real material sense. Even though its participants are absolutely genuine and real, the places which act as meeting points are 100% artificial. No sugar.
These places are called wiki's, see http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?WikiHasManyMeanings
I'm not going to describe wiki's here - there is plenty of material about them, including a book.
What I'd like to do is write down some observations about what it means to participate in a virtual world such as a wiki. There are many aspects which I think people outside this world have never even heard of, and which people inside are so used to that they take it completely for granted.
It may seem odd to describe the virtuality of things on a web page like this, which is itself also virtual. My hope is that this page is far more accessible though - this is not a technical story.
The first point to note, is that the "internet" is a commodity for a tiny group of people, that it is no doubt available to a somewhat larger group, but that it is in fact unknown and completely irrelevant for most people on this planet. With war, famine, or illness on your doorstep (assuming you have a doorstep...), the virtual world of internet is a luxury which truly has no relevance whatsoever.
Electronic mail, email, has been around for several decades - access to it was common in universities around the world in the 70's. So was Usenet, a large collection of one-to-many discussion forums with very email-like properties. Both still exist, and both still thrive. Email is a commodity for a very large number of people (within the Western world and beyond - but still only a fraction of "everyone").
The internet exploded when the "web" came along, and web browsers, and low-cost websites, to the point where having your own web server is not that much more involved than having access to internet.
For a certain number of people, at work as well as at home - being on internet is no longer a clearly defined state: broadband is "always on". The act of surfing the web is no longer tied to "connecting". It's either totally automatic (and quick), or entirely superfluous because there is always a connection.
I've been working like this for over two decades by now, and I'm certainly no exception. I am so used to internet access that I take it for granted any time of the day (yes, and also at night). Being used to a notebook with wireless access for about half a decade by now has extended that habit to having internet everywhere in the house, not just always.
For me, notebooks and wireless connections are not gadgets, they are as much a commodity as hot water from the tap. It's impossible to get excited about running hot and cold water. This is not an attempt to impress but to show just how different the mindset of a certain group of people is. There are no doubt many places where saying "as much a commodity as hot water from the tap" will be responded to with "what's a tap?".
If you want to understand what happens these days on a wiki, and you happen to not come from that little group of "techies" I mingle with, then consider yourselves third world in terms of the mismatch of conceptual framework. I apologize for this analogy, and deeply regret the situation, but that's what it takes to bring across the culture gap involved here.
Let me rub it in just a little more: it is quite common for neighbours, friends, and family to come over, and be completely astonished by the implications of all this internet focus. The "let's look it up on the web" ("let's google for it") regularly leads to people nodding in total amazement, and thinking: of course, why didn't I think of doing it that way. Travel, repairs, shopping, news, replays, opinions, historical data, translations - the list is endless and just keeps getting longer. The people I am referring to all live in a rich western economy, with excellent education, perhaps over a decade of exposure to computers, and a level of wealth which does not prevent them from obtaining anything they would want. Yet to this very day, the breadth of options available to all of us is virtually unknown to most people around me.
Still, all that is basic stuff. Be prepared to fall off your chair when you read on about virtual worlds and wiki's. Not because of technological advances, but because of an extreme level of change our current technology seems to be leading us to.
I'd like to point out here that I'm not saying that it's good. The current and upcoming trends are deeply disturbing, disruptive, and even threatening. The human component in this world appears to be both amplified and reduced at the same time. I'm an optimist, but also very scared by some trends. I'm in fact inclined to conclude that so far, the way we have tied all this information technology into our lives has been a massive and shameful failure.
So what's a virtual world?
Well, I can only describe my personal experience with it. My days consist of writing software. And learning, and researching, and getting distracted. I am not a typical software developer, yet I know quite a few people who appear to be operating in a very similar mode.
I work from home. Yet I do not work in isolation. I've done projects ranging from a week to over a year, working with people before ever having met them. Some people I have never met, despite having "worked with them" for many years. In one case, I managed a team of over a dozen people, without ever having met any of them in person beforehand. I'm in almost daily contact with a few people, and have been so for several years.
I feel like I'm a member of a virtual community. Every once in a while, that community becomes real, in the form of a conference somewhere in the world, so over the years a lot of reality has been added - after the fact, usually. Strong personal ties are clearly present, and having received a couple of awards tell me that I have earned a certain amount of recognition. That too is mutual - there are very strong signs of mutual respect between many people. It's almost an academic setting at times (then again sometimes it's completely unlike that).
Yet this community is mostly a virtual one. Many of the participants have not met each other, and may never do so. The community hangs together based completely on electrons: messages and electronic exchanges of various forms.
Email is the best know form. Instant messaging is what every kid in the western world seems to be exposed to. Personal websites and home pages seem to be another way, though it takes more work as is more a publishing activity. Blogging is another very fast growing activity - a personal journal on the web, readable by anyone. There are discussion forums, web based and traditional usenet - both are predominantly one-to-many discussions.
And then there is the wiki. An area where anyone can browse with a browser, and anyone can edit pages and add pages, also with their browsers.
Wiki's are "the paper of the web". Blank sheets, an unlimited number of them, pens for anyone, and erasers.
As I said, I'll defer to others to describe the many aspects of wiki's - which is a generic term, even though different sites often have widely differing capabilities.
The fascinating issue, for me, is that wiki's exhibit a form of culture. Every wiki usually has a topic for which it is intended, but the way audiences react and work together varies tremendously. Wiki's reflect deeply how the participants in this virtual community operate as a group. To me, the wiki "is" the community, and judging from how people tend to describe it, it is clear that others also feel a very strong sense of collective ownership.
Wiki's are not linear. They do not grow from one side to the other, because all pages are interlinked via links which themselves get added, removed, and reorganized over time. By anyone. Or more accurately: by all active participants. This is probably a fraction of the total number of people reading the information and coming back later to see changes. Wiki's grow like sponges. And like sponges, their shape and structure is not planned - it evolves and reacts to external effects. Wiki's are in a way very organic.
Wait. If you've read this far, you may want to stop and look back a bit. Virtual communities. Wiki's as organisms. I've not described feelings, but let me just say that heated debates (very heated) are also part of what happens on wiki's. How virtual is this?
One way to summarize this strange world, is to repeat that it is indeed 100% artificial, but that its participants are very real, people.
There are some unusual aspects to this world: for one, it is impossible to ascertain the identity, age, gender, background, and such of the participants. Most people come forward with such information, but even then one does not know what level of accuracy there is.
This is a huge difference with real-world situations and virtual worlds. I have no access to clues which I can try and learn to interpret, beyond what the other party wishes to disclose. Parents can learn to "read" their 5-year old like an open book - but what can you do with a list of words, other than examine vocabulary and spelling? How do you know it's even a single person. Is it a he, a she, a 15-year old, 40, 65? Where in the world is he/she from?
It has benefits. I have the habit of mis-judging younger people as not possibly knowing what I know. In a virtual world, they can be their real intellectual age, regardless what it is. A socially shy person (aren't so many of us, techies?) can evade the complexity of social interaction, or at least the immediacy of face-to-face interaction.
And it has its drawbacks. From dishonesty to being allowed to get away from important aspects of the real world life, with all its skillsets and frustrations.
A virtual world is just that: virtual. Words cannot kill (though they can still cause harm). That means there is no physical implication - neither of being rude nor of receiving verbal abuse. There is also no deterrent - so verbal abuse is much much easier to get into, and it can indeed get quite vitriolic.
A virtual world is also usually global. Time zones become really important. Language skills become important, English is just about a requirement. But what if you're trying to argue, and the language is in the way? Language can be a hurdle for some.
Are virtual worlds such as a wiki worth it? I think so. I have the ability to talk to people in my field in any part of the world, and the level of collaboration can be astonishing. I feel like I have access to the best minds in the industry (and must remain very respectful of their time). There must be incredible numbers of small-scale collaborations across the globe taking place now. We no longer see the internet as a system - we communicate across it. Just as watching TV is "being there", and reading a book is "absorbing a story or knowledge", not scanning letters and translating them.
Wiki's are paper. The pages are filled by very real people. They "know" each other to a varying extent. They make fun together, brainstorm, join forces, clash occasionally, get mad, even "walk out the door" at times. It's all virtual. Nothing but electrons (a lot of electrons, copper, fiberglass). Sometimes, it gets completely out of hand.
But one thing just never ceases to amaze me. The more years I work sitting behind a "screen", the more it's about people, ideas, thoughts.
Machines are fading out of view, not dominating more and more - the most unreal aspect being that several real-world rules do not apply, so this virtual world is very different from the real-world, and will probably become more and more remote from the needs of "normal" people in the "normal" world.
This is not a digital divide, but a virtual divide, and I sure hope it'll turn out to be a harmless one.
© June 2004