William Beutler on Wikipedia

WikiLeaks: No Wiki, Just Leaks

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on July 31, 2010 at 8:55 pm by William Beutler

The website called WikiLeaks makes waves every few months, but never more than now that it has released 90,000+ classified U.S. military documents from the war in Afghanistan, which the site has called the Afghan War Diary. It’s become one of the biggest news stories of the summer, or at least one of the biggest legitimate news stories (cough, ahem). Aside from what the documents reveal (or maybe don’t) and their implications for U.S. policy, the release itself is an interesting subject, especially as compared to its nearest historical precedent.

When the classified documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers were first revealed in June 1971, the first stories about it ran in the New York Times, and only following an internal debate about the legal propriety of doing so. When the U.S. government predictably sued, the Washington Post started its own series based on the documents, and quickly faced the same injunction. By the end of the month — and we think things happen quickly these days — the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the injunctions were unconstitutional, and the rest is history.

What the Afghan War Diary lacks in public drama it more than makes up for in zeitgeist, with its decentralized, asymmetric, non-state method of publication. Rather than going to the press, the leaker gave them to WikiLeaks, a website based in Sweden, supported by anonymous donors and run (or at least repped) by a somewhat unusual fellow named Julian Assange.

But I’m compelled to point out, as the title of my post indicates, that despite running on the same software as Wikipedia and using the word “wiki” in its name, WikiLeaks is not a wiki. This screen cap below, featuring just a portion of the website’s front page, illustrates my point:

wikileaks-website-small
Click on image to view full-size

If you’re familiar with Wikipedia (and I suspect you are) then you’ll notice the website is based on the same MediaWiki software as Wikipedia. Unlike Wikipedia, it does not acknowledge the fact. Although it’s free software, the terms of its Creative Commons license are such that one needs to give credit where due. At least WikiLeaks is consistently mysterious, not to mention contraband.

More to the point, look at the tabbed links to pages above the site banner. On Wikipedia, this is where you would see the following links: Page (article content), Discussion (where to talk about the article), Edit (what it sounds like) and History (a list of all edits to the article) and a few others, including a link to log in or create an account. WikiLeaks is a bit different: there are only three such links. Most strikingly, there are no options to contribute or create an account. The discussion page is there, but you aren’t invited to participate. (Note that on Wikipedia, in most cases, one need not even register to contribute.) And for what it’s worth, there isn’t even a history page available, so there is no way to see what changes may have been made to the page since it was first posted. That’s a wiki? Yes, there is a link to submit documents for review, but that’s the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) model. I suppose ILDb just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Just in case you’re rusty on the concept, or are the sort of person who wouldn’t know Ward Cunningham from Larry Sanger, here are a few handy definitions:

  • Dictionary.com: A collaborative Web site set up to allow user editing and adding of content
  • Simple English Wikipedia: A wiki is a type of website that lets anyone create and edit its pages.
  • Wiktionary: A collaborative website which can be directly edited using only a web browser, often by anyone with access to it.

The WikiLeaks FAQ makes it very clear that no open editing is to be found on this site:

Who writes WikiLeaks leaked document summaries?
WikiLeaks staff, sometimes in collaboration with the submitter. Historically, most summaries were written by Julian Assange.

And another:

Can random people edit WikiLeaks documents?
No. Source documents are kept pristine.

Of course this makes perfect sense, given the website’s stated mission. But it also makes it, you know, not a wiki.

Not only is the name misleading, but it’s my (purely speculative) opinion that the site was so named to borrow from the credibility enjoyed (and earned) by Wikipedia. Being a website created with the purpose of disclosing material previously regarded as secret, frequently concerning the security interests of nation states, WikiLeaks self-consciously associated itself with the only non-profit to be found among the top 10 global websites. The name recalls Wikinews, Wikibooks, Wikisource and other projects of the Wikimedia Foundation. Let’s be clear: it is most certainly not. I’d think Wikipedia might even have a legal case to make against WikiLeaks, although it would surely be the least of the website’s legal problems.

If there is a silver lining in all this, perhaps it lies in the implication that the word “wiki” has come to denote something like “openness” and “fairness” and “democracy” to a worldwide audience of Internet users. ILDb really wouldn’t be the same. To have your name become shorthand for such an inchoate but positive concept is obviously a good thing in itself, and quite an accomplishment. But it also means, as WikiLeaks shows, that someone out there is going to bite your style.

Update: In the comments below, a reader suggests that WikiLeaks did, for a time, allow outside contributors as a traditional wiki would. That seems to indicate my speculation above is off-base, although it’s probably still true that WikiLeaks took inspiration from Wikipedia.

  1. The main problem with the argument that WikiLeaks chose the “wiki” term to capitalise on the association with Wikipedia, rather than reflecting its being a wiki itself, is that it *was* one; it operated as a wiki when first set up, and remained quasi-publicly-editable until ~2008 (when they apparently decided the model didn’t work out well for them), with the last vestiges (commenting) surviving until last year.

    We can perhaps argue it should have changed its name at some point along that line – on the other hand, they were pretty much stuck with it – but I don’t think it’s fair to imply deliberate misrepresentation or passing-off when they originally chose the name.

    (I agree with you, though, that “wiki” seems to be being impressively reinterpreted by people over time. I wonder what it will be commonly used to mean by 2020… it’s already apparent that of the projects called WikiXYZ, a sizable fraction are “XYZ to do with Wikipedia” rather than “wikis about XYZ” – WikiReader, eg.)

  2. Wiki doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone can edit, it’s just that that’s very commonly associated with wikis. You can even see on Wikipedia’s article on wikis a is just “a website that allows the easy creation and editing of any number of interlinked web pages via a web browser using a simplified markup language or a WYSIWYG text editor.” So, although it’s different than the wikis we’re usually used to, it’s most certainly still a wiki.

  3. @Andrew That’s interesting, I didn’t know that. I’m having trouble getting the Wayback Machine to show me anything but the very first version of the site — when it wasn’t a wiki either — but I take your word for it until then. I’ll add an update momentarily.

    @Casey I follow you, but I still think the name is misleading. Sort of an ex-parrot problem. Is a car with no wheels still an automobile? Given a strict definition, yes. But not in any way that will get you across town.

  4. William: to be honest, I was working from memory, which as we all know is fallible. :-)

    It looks like the wiki itself went public in mid-July judging by the Archive. Up to that point, the FAQ read:

    “To the user, Wikileaks will look very much like Wikipedia. Anybody can post to it, anybody can edit it (…) When will Wikileaks go live? We cannot yet give an exact date, we will release portions of the system and example leaks from time to time.”

    - so it looks like the site was intended to operate as a wiki, but they put up a splash page first & didn’t open up “properly” for a few months. Perhaps their modifications to the software took longer than originally anticipated?

  5. I still haven’t seen an image of WikiLeaks as a true wiki, open to outside editing, and I’d be surprised if they ever did. I suppose it’s most likely that they hadn’t really worked out the details very well at that point, and didn’t know quite how to run it. Given the language above, it sounds like maybe they did intend to do that at some point, but if so, it wasn’t for long.

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