The influence of the internet

In the past, educational theorists such as Ivan Illich argued that formal schooling prevents us from thinking for ourselves and sharing what we know.

Illich proposed that, instead of going to school for just a few years while young, we should all take part in ‘educational webs’ for the whole of our lives. Until recently, however, it was not feasible to collaborate in this way on anything but a very small scale. Without advanced technology, it was difficult to find and communicate with many people who wanted to share in the same learning activity or pool their expertise.

The rise of online reference tools and user-generated content

This situation gradually started to change in the 1990s, with the development of the world wide web. Initially, this made it possible to share reference works online. By the end of the decade, there were a few hundred online English dictionaries and the first free dictionary search engines had come into being, such as OneLook, founded in 1996, and the Free Online Lexicon and Encyclopedia (FILE), founded in 1997. Many early online dictionaries were just digitised versions of old, out-of-copyright print dictionaries; they did not offer the dictionary user a radically different experience. However, even in the late 1990s, researchers were noticing what they called ‘bottom-up lexicography’ which saw some online dictionary sites inviting users to participate in the process of making their dictionaries, either as equal contributors or by making suggestions to an editorial board. OneLook and FILE accepted users’ corrections and updated definitions, and the Newbury House Online Dictionary and Cambridge International Dictionaries Online, both launched in 1999, provided contribution forms so that users could type in the meaning of search words that were not already listed. The Collins Word Exchange (2004) went one step further by letting not only the Collins editors but also users decide whether to publish the changes they had suggested.

The first collaborative dictionaries

An even more radical approach, conceived in early collaborative web-based communities, was to allow everyone equal editorial rights. This philosophy was explained on the (now defunct) Wordbot Collaborative Dictionary information page: ‘if everyone contributes just a little, then everyone will gain a lot’. The invention of wiki (originally Quickweb) software made this sort of collaboration much easier to manage. The first ever wiki site was created in 1995 and the software became available in the early 2000s as an open source tool. The first Wiktionary was written in English in 2002 and similar Wiktionaries have now been created in many other languages along the same lines.

Some researchers, especially in the early days, complained that collaborative approaches to dictionary making did not allow for sufficient quality control. They argued that final decisions about the content of dictionary entries should be made by expert lexicographers with special skills in dictionary entry writing. However, although Web 2.0 technology allows people to exchange their ideas about words, regardless of whether they are experts or not, the system can become self-regulating if enough people contribute – mistakes will certainly be made, but they are likely to be noticed and corrected before very long.

Your task

Perhaps your attitude towards this sort of information-sharing depends on whether you have grown up using Web 2.0 resources. What do you think?

Share your thoughts in the comments area.

Further reading

For more information about Ivan Illich’s views on schooling, see Illich, I., (1973). Deschooling Society. Harmondsworth, Middlesex.

For more information about the history of electronic dictionaries, see Nesi, H (2008). Dictionaries in electronic form. In Cowie, A. P. (ed) The Oxford History of English Lexicography. Oxford: Oxford University Press 458-478.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University