Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2003-2004

Final Answer?

by Brett Humphreys

The mystery of the FAQless FAQ is at least partly solved. A couple of years ago (Web Watch, Autumn 2001) I reported that the top-ranking “Humanist FAQ” according to Google was an empty page belonging to the Humanism World Site set up by the Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS) in Albany, New York. Some months later, IHS Associate Director Mary Ellen Sikes told me in an e-mail that the site was still under development and was not meant to have been made public. How it achieved the top ranking remains a mystery.

Two years later, I had hoped to be able to report that the Humanism World Site – billed as “the first of its kind, comprehensive resource for humanist information anywhere” – was now launched and living up to its ambitious title, but regrettably it remains a single placeholder page inviting visitors to “please check back”. The parent IHS site, however, is growing well. One regular feature is the weekly e-zine Humanist Network News launched in May 2003. This is somewhat similar in size and scope to the National Secular Society’s Newsline but with a focus on the United States, and New York in particular. One item I can commend to everyone is the regular “Humanist Humor” slot. Why, for example, was an orang-utan seen reading both the Bible and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species? The answer is in the first issue.

If humanists had a bible, Wikipedia, the world’s largest wiki, would be a leading contender for the job. The concept of the wiki (or wiki-wiki) was invented by Ward Cunningham, who created the first public wiki in 1995. The essence of a wiki is that it is written by its readers. This is the very antithesis of traditional holy writ, metaphorically carved in tablets of stone by long-dead gurus, which adherents constantly mull over and painfully struggle to reinterpret but never to rewrite. In a wiki, anyone can modify almost anything at any time, and that includes you.

The Wikipedia project was launched by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales in January 2001. Its modest ambition is to become a complete and accurate free encyclopaedia of human knowledge – the FAQ to end all FAQs, so to speak. The original English-language Wikipedia, now with over 170,000 articles and new ones being added every few minutes, has since been joined by Wikipedias in many other languages, not to mention new sister projects Wiktionary, Wikiquote and, most recently, Wikibooks.

Anyone with a web browser can add to or update the pages of Wikipedia. You can even do this anonymously with no need to register. It sounds like a recipe for anarchy and chaos, and yet it seems to work well. On checking a selection of articles on topics I happen to know something about, I found them surprisingly well written and accurate. Wikipedia’s well-developed immune system quickly repairs the inevitable vandalism, carelessness, mistakes, and opinion posing as fact. Importantly, all changes are logged, and one can easily view any past version of a page with the differences from the predecessor or current version highlighted, to see who changed what, and when.

The late great humanist humorist Douglas Adams famously satirised the idea of ultimate questions and answers – and indeed virtually invented the digital encyclopaedia – in the classic radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (BBC Radio 4, 1978), in which the amazingly intelligent computer Deep Thought majestically reveals the answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, but can’t identify the question. In April 1999, the vision of a collaborative guide started to take on reality with the public launch of the h2g2 website created by The Digital Village, a company originally set up by Adams and colleagues in 1994. The company itself evaporated during the bursting of the dot-com bubble, but h2g2 was rescued and relaunched early in 2001 by the BBC, which continues to maintain and develop it as part of what is now a growing system of community websites collectively named DNA – not after the stuff of life, but in honour of Douglas Noel Adams.

Wikipedia and h2g2 are similar in some ways: both are largely written by their readers; both have discussion forums potentially hanging off any article; both provide a personal page for each of their registered users. But in other ways they are quite different. h2g2 is not a wiki – users can change only what they have written themselves. Whereas Wikipedia is self-policed by the community, h2g2 is reactively moderated by the BBC, who may remove anything they deem to break the “house rules”. As a reminder that wartime censorship is alive and well, they even banned any mention of the Iraq War on DNA sites for a period of several weeks during the height of the conflict.

The centrepiece of h2g2 is its slowly-growing Edited Guide, which is currently approaching 6,000 articles. They are created by teams of volunteer scouts and subeditors trawling for and knocking into shape what they consider to be the best of the contributions. Like its original fictional counterpart, the Edited Guide is unevenly edited – for example, the entry entitled “Belief” is pretty vacuous – but generally the quality is reasonable. Some interesting subcommunities are to be found nestling in the deceptively spacious nooks and crannies of h2g2 – for freethinkers, the Freedom From Faith Foundation is a good starting point.

This is my 28th and last Web Watch column – a perfect number at which to stop. Researching and writing these articles over the last seven years has been an enjoyable but time-consuming task and it’s time to take a break. Rather than merely cataloguing websites, I have tried throughout to weave a narrative that would be worth reading even by the ever-diminishing band of readers without Internet access, although some of the nuances are best understood by following the links in the online version. Sad to say, the “most-mentioned site” award must go to the uniquely grotesque God Hates Fags, which has featured in no less than five (now six!) editions.

The column has more than doubled in average length since it started, but increasingly it merely skims the surface as the Web itself has grown much faster and continues to mature and evolve apace. I haven’t even touched on the personal publishing phenomenon of blogging, which has taken off dramatically over recent years. According to the Blog Census, the estimated number of active weblogs has now reached one million. For a pertinent example of the subspecies watchblog, try Michael Airhart’s excellent Ex-Gay Watch.

There is a theory which states that history is decided by winners and those who produce the written record. Will weblogs, wikis and the like change the nature of history? Only time will tell.

And finally – with apologies to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire – a little puzzle. After Web Watch, where’s the best place to find all those wonderful home pages? Is it: A. Google (cough); B. Megadodo; C. Gigablog; D. Hotblack Desiato?

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Created : Sunday, 2003-12-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :