Lately much of my work and recreation involve documentation. Specifically, I've been editing wikis.
Back in the mid nineties, when I worked at Egghead software, I often had to explain the concept of Internet. In hindsight, the Internet propoganda of that age is laughable hyperbole. The Internet will save the world through sharing information! Anyone can do anything online! Ahh, the vanity of the nerds. Computers didn't save the world from itself, and it took the Internet Boom, followed by the Internet Bust, to get the point across. Now the Internet is in its next age, growing more sensibly.
The HTML Age
Along the Internet timeline, the technology of communication changed several times. What changed very little is the kind of communication being transmitted over those technologies. We started with email, a one-to-one or one-to-few form of communication. Early web sites were the same. There was a single publisher, and the recipients were just a few users that knew the site existed. Typically success was measured by links. If other relatively well-known sites linked to yours, it was an endorsement of your site.
The Boom Age
The advent of very effective search engines allowed one-to-many communication. If you published a web site with compelling information, it was possible for word to get out, and the site would get significant traffic. This enabled advertising, which is the world's oldest form of one-to-many communication. The Internet Bust proved that advertising was one of the very few successful Internet business plans. The household names that emerged are advertising-based: Google, Yahoo! and ebay all made money by connecting sellers to buyers. This was also the beginning of the age of the spammer, with inconceivable amounts of one-to-many communication. In this age, success was measured by "eyeballs", the number of users lured to your site.
The Blog Age
The tools for creating a site were very difficult for non-geeks to use. Successful sites were run either by computer experts or corporations that hired computer experts. One of the next big innovations of communication on the Internet made it vastly simpler for anyone to become a content provider. Blogger, LiveJournal and MySpace brought publishing to the people. (The geekier tools continue to evolve...I'm a geek, so I use MovableType instead of the commodity blogging sites.) In this form of communication, success is measured by subscribers, friends or community links.
The Wiki Age
Despite making online communication childishly simple, blogs are still one-to-few communication, or in the exceptional case of a popular blog, one-to-many. A wiki, on the other hand, is many-to-many communication. It is a site that is organized around articles. Anyone can edit any article using a very simple syntax.
Many people are aware of Wikipedia and use it to get information on a tremendous variety of topics. This is only one example of a wiki, albeit the most popular one: it is a wiki where the topic is an encyclopedia. Today there are wikis on a vast number of topics. I was an administrator at the Dofus Wiki, and about 6 months ago FngKestrel and I co-founded the Supreme Commander Wiki. Both of these wikis are a collection of articles about a video game. At my work we have a wiki that documents internal processes, best practices, and the technical specifications and quirks of the devices we support.
On a wiki, anyone can edit any article. Critics and skeptics of wikis argue that they are easily tampered with and vandalized, and that they sink to the lowest common denominator. The reality is the opposite. Once a wiki has enough contributors, vandalism is quickly detected and repaired, and low-quality contributions are edited and revised into high-quality ones.
What makes wikis work is many-to-many communications. The success of a wiki isn't measured by links, impressions, eyeballs, hits or friends, it's measured by contributors. Although I'm the creator of the majority of the content at the Supreme Commander Wiki, the content there arleady far exceeds the quality of content I could have created on my own. I consider the growing popularity of wikis the start of the next Internet age. It's still early...we're learning how to properly manage communities, separate content from discussion of the content, and deal with some of the drawbacks of wikis. But they're here, and growing. Nearly any Google search result includes a link to Wikipedia in the first page of results. Corporations are replacing cumbersome underused intranets with internal wikis. If you want to help fulfill the promising future of the Internet, pick a topic and start contributing! All are welcome.