We continue to respect our heritage/amorous affair with our mother-magazine, The Blue & White by posting each issue of the magazine online. The April issue, available this week around campus, is a cornucopia of delights: an interview with Dean Peter Awn; the quixotic quest for a Quidditch team; and a reflection on Columbia’s recent media malaise. Check out the May issue, also available on campus now and soon to go online. Here staff writer Peter Sterne details the life and times of an ill-fated wiki.
WikiCU pictures itself “an insider’s guide to Columbia University.” The “About” page cites our online counterpart: “As an observant Bwog commenter notes, WikiCU is to an extent Columbia’s ‘institutional memory.’” This became much more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than the creators realized; the site has not been seriously updated since 2007, when the founders graduated. More than just a relic of the humor and industriousness of a handful of alumni, it harbors authoritative, thoughtfully written Columbiana alongside the cheeky commentary we have come to expect from institution-specific reflections. Longtime WikiCU contributor Tao Tan, CC ’07, CBS ’11, says “if anything, that defines the character of WikiCU: long, serious, and formal pieces coexisting with irreverent snark.”
The story of WikiCU and its current stagnation begins with the death of another website: CUCommunity, a Columbia social networking site created in 2004 by Adam Goldberg, SEAS ’07. Like many such sites, it was made obsolete in late 2006 thanks to one Mark Zuckerberg. While Facebook let Columbians poke and post pictures, the loss of CUCommunity left its active members without a Columbia-centric online hangout, so they decided to create their own.
The air beneath the wings of the wiki’s maiden flight was Barnard historian Professor Robert McCaughey. Several of the site’s founders had taken his class “Social History of Columbia University,” which culminated in a research project on some topic of Columbia history. The class awakened a passion for Columbia’s roots within the wiki’s creators, eventually gifting the site with a raison d’etre beyond simply aggregating useful Columbia information. Its deeply historical articles, inspired by these projects, set WikiCU apart from other college wikis. Tan recalls: “We realized that there was a ton of absolutely fascinating Columbia history that was lost to the mists of time and disinterest. I was fascinated by the architectural foibles,” while a fellow early editor “was obsessed with the crown, shield, seal, and other elements of CU symbols.” Accordingly, these were among the first articles to appear on WikiCU.
The site filled a major void. Columbia’s anemic attempt at an online student portal, MyColumbia, allowed students to do only two things: check their Cubmail, and view work-study paychecks. Columbia College Student Council observed the need for a student-run repository of Columbia information, and spent years developing an official Columbia wiki codenamed “Project Athena.” Though Athena never launched publicly, its articles were quickly swallowed by WikiCU when the latter launched in early 2007 independently of the university. Though largely unknown to current students, Athena’s memory has been immortalized in its own WikiCU article. As one editor notes, “preserving little slices of history like this is exactly what WikiCU is good at!”
While the wiki grew in popularity among students for just this reason, it soon faced a crisis. In late 2007, the message “OK, guys, help. I graduate in May. How do we take WikiCU forward?” appeared on the site’s Talk:About page. Various proposals were tossed around, from handing the site over to the Columbia Spectator, Bwog, or Culpa, to simply recruiting current students to join WikiCU. Ultimately, the crisis went unaddressed: some current upperclassmen edit, but the core group of editors is predominantly alumni.
The site has started showing its age. Many of its articles have not been updated since 2008, making it a less reliable source for current housing or dining advice. As a historical resource for Columbia, though, it remains valuable. Irreverent yet well researched, it symbolizes the essential condition of the Columbian, who speaks with a bitter sarcasm even while working his hardest.