By Daniel Terdiman
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
November 15, 2005 4:00 AM PT
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.
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.