Dubious and far-fetched ideas.
Jan. 24 2007 4:49 PM


How babies invented community-based collaborative authorship.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

With all due respect to Ward Cunningham, I'd like to take issue, for a moment, with the claim that he is the originator of the wiki. Because anyone who's had a child can assure you that collective public authorship, collaborative editing, and anonymous generative correction—those wiki hallmarks—have been around since Mrs. Cain first brought Baby Cain over to Uncle Abel's house dressed only in a too-thin fig-leaf onesie.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

I took my small sons to visit family over the holidays. As invariably happens when one wants to show off one's young, the smaller one's face exploded into great green ropes of snot only seconds after deplaning. The consumptive Victorian wheeze followed mere hours later. And suddenly, he was no longer my baby. He was a server-side wiki.

Now, my husband and I had more or less finalized our wiki entry on caring for babies with colds. We had agreed, for instance, about the germ theory over the outside-with-wet-heads theory. We were, in the main, for hot liquids, baby Tylenol, hand-washing, and humidifiers. But as our boys are increasingly exposed to a growing number of end users, the markups of their illness wiki began to proliferate.

One of the great-aunts quickly submitted the milk markup. "No milk, no cheese, no yogurt," she wrote definitively. I went back that afternoon and edited this out. "The pediatrician has assured us that there is absolutely no connection between dairy and mucous," I wrote. My mom was spurred on to correct my error. "Absolutely no milk," she marked up my markup. "Also, no baths!"

When the baby started to smell funny that night, I checked his wiki for any Recent Changes. I noted the no-baths entry with some surprise and responded with a hasty edit: "Baths are okay," I wrote. "He finds them very soothing, and they are better than a sandblaster for the welded-on green mucous."

By the morning, "definitely no baths" had been reinstated, and "warmer slippers and indoor hats" had been added in by the lady at the supermarket who heard him coughing in the checkout line. Beginning to doubt myself and the gurus from What to Expect the First Year,I found myself mulling over these modifications. "Should we really be overheating him if it isn't cold out?" I typed into the comments section.

"He needs to sweat it out," responded a former law school classmate, who had also gone in and deleted the "baby Tylenol" entry, noting that suppressing a fever is a mistake, as is preventing the mucous from circulating freely. A visit to the local pediatrician that day prompted a similar entry, even as my big brother was editing the "slippers and hats" instructions and replacing it with "plenty of crisp fresh air." Then suddenly, my house was divided against itself, as my husband abruptly changed course, finding himself in agreement with the sweatiness/free-range-mucous camp.

I surreptitiously deleted these entries following the baby's 3 a.m. coughing fit/antihistamine fix. When I awoke that morning, the patient was bundled in 13 alpaca throw rugs and the wiki entry had been marked up to reflect that "Both Tylenol and decongestants should be discouraged. The child must rid himself of his bodily flooids naturally." I could tell from the spelling that my older son was the poster.

"No wheat or refined sugars" had been added next to the "no dairy" section. "Only fresh fruit and vegetables and warmed broth." But by that afternoon, "broth" had been deleted and "Glenfiddich" had been added. My brother again. Next to that was the "vitamin C and Echinacea" entry, and beneath it was something from a cousin's homeopath about fashioning a tiny anklet out of chicken bones. The chicken bones were out by midafternoon, but the chicken soup was in. Handy hypertext recipe. Great-aunt again.

In between checking the shifting wiki entries, I would poke my head in on the baby, who was now soaking outside in a tub of lukewarm Glenfiddich in a bonnet made of celery, with vitamin C tablets in his ear.

Miraculously, the next morning he was cured.

That morning, there was also a new entry in the wiki, and the telltale green snot on my keyboard suggested that the 20-month-old had proven the adage that one is never too young to wiki. "It may take a wiki to raise a child," I read. "But could somebody please get in here and change my diaper?"



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