Referents On Wiki

The referent of a word or an expression in an utterance is the thing in the world which is intentionally signified by that word or expression. The thing in question may be an object, an event or a process.

LinguisticsAndBiblicalInterpretation?, p84. See also IntroductionToTheoreticalLinguistics? by J Lyons

For what it's worth, I think the linguists missed a level of indirection in that definition, because they perhaps think that an intentional significand might actually be "in the world." Drop that requirement and you get something much more like what happens on wiki: "A Referent in a speech act is what you think you're thinking of." (From WhatIsaReferent). I think that some of the discussion below gets cleaner with this added level of indirection. --AlistairCockburn

I agree that referent is most usefully defined to be "within the current UniverseOfDiscourse" and to be fair within 3-4 pages so do the writers of the first text, as I think does J Lyons in his textbook "Semantics". There are obviously good examples from LordOfTheRings and other works which create a rich and pretty self-consistent imaginary world. Wiki is a little betwixt and between. Are we joint writers of a new genre of fantasy (a not entirely believable or self-consistent one!) or are we partly commenting on things out there in the "real world". The JohnVonNeumann example surely proves at least partly the latter. -- RichardDrake


It could be helpful to talk about this, if we can do that slowly and calmly. To do the job properly Wiki will probably need help from some serious linguists who specialize in pragmatics and semantics (all part of semiotics or so they tell me). Even the sociolinguists may eventually be needed before we're done.

NickSimons, being a classicist by training, understood the issues. He took a look round Wiki, enjoyed some of the stuff on XP, but decided not to join in as discussed in WikiSuccessCanInhibitNewWriters. I created a page for Nick, with various anecdotes about him, trying to goad him into taking part. After he read it he said he felt like adding at the bottom:

I may or may not be the NickSimons referred to on this page.

It's a great joke but the key thing is it doesn't just apply to people. Wiki has changed the linguistics of referents something rotten. A lot of our recent debates on the ethics of editing Wiki needed a deeper understanding of this issue, I believe.

-- RichardDrake

Perhaps, but then in the following years, Richard proudly inserted links to this page in places where it doesn't belong like ChiefSoftwareArchitect. Why spread the flame war further? I'm orphaning it. Someone can then delete it. -- SunirShah


I'm concerned here about issues like person B changing the meaning for every future reader of person A's signed utterance (often rendering it stupid in fact) by changing pages linked to by A, maybe weeks or years after A first made their point. This has not often been used maliciously, I'm prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to Wiki on that, but I'm sure from my travels here that it's often been done foolishly or unthinkingly. Not to talk about the issue is not to understand the very essence of the medium we're using. To put it simply, if we don't face the facts, the freedom of expression many of us value here very much will end in tears. If we do take time to understand more deeply the risks as well as the benefits of the medium we've chosen to use, it will change our attitude and our behavior as a community pretty deeply. I do not subscribe to the "inevitable disaster" theory for all Internet communities, or that they must all follow the same pattern. Wiki is a medium with a difference, I'm sure of that. How strong the medium is to correct itself depends on us, the people here at the moment. I guess you could say that both we and the medium are not fully proven as yet. But there are some promising signs. -- RichardDrake

Are you referring to http://usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?ContentSwizzling?

Not knowingly. It's good to see it though. I'm really trying to provoke some competent linguists to take a look at this issue. I accept that this may take a year or two.


Given the obvious and intentional limitations of this site, authors wishing to contribute to the community would be wise to write in a style that does not depend on familiarity with individuals for correct interpretation. Those wishing to confuse or otherwise demonstrate weaknesses of this site will likely do otherwise. Do not trust anything you read on wiki (or elsewhere) except to the degree that you find it useful.


The intentional limitations are absolutely essential to face up to, that's for sure. But so is the fact that the community has overruled many of the original intentions or at least assumptions of the designer and made ThreadMode the default for most pages (WikiHistory). So we find many many pages where the combination of cotext (text around an utterance), context (industry wide or just Wiki wide) and the original content of referents (pages referred to) is in practice essential for understanding. Often we no doubt misunderstand and the problem will presumably get worse unless the community understands more deeply and acts more wisely.

It's certainly possible that the kind of thorough linguistic analysis of what's going on that I'm pointing to might lead us back to DocumentMode, to admitting that Ward got that right too. If so, we should be man enough to admit it. But I'm not convinced that it will be that simple. I think we should be thorough in trying to understand the linguistics and see where that leads. -- RichardDrake


Given the obvious and intentional limitations of this site, authors wishing to contribute to the community would be wise to write in a style that does not depend on familiarity with individuals for correct interpretation. -- anon1

I'm not always the brightest bulb in the batch, but is this a fancy way of saying that one shouldn't sign work or encourage ThreadMode content (which I must admit I do a lot) or is something else being said in this quote? I figured, rather than let it go over my head, I should ask. -- RobertDiFalco

Don't get paranoid about it. Just don't trust that content is written by the person attached to the signature. Far more often than not, though, it works out in the end. Also, don't refer to events in local time. Remember the WikiNow. Future readers won't have the same context frame as you. -- anon2

Ok, I'll run with it. Just for now. -- anon3


Todo item: Provide several possible interpretations of the word "Referent" in the context of Wiki, and real or imaginary examples of how someone's different interpretations of this word would impact their understanding of a page's meaning.

Examples are key, agreed. I was hoping to stay as close as possible to the common meaning of referent in linguistics (though of course linguists differ to some degree), in order to discuss how links change the referent issue. We need some natural language examples perhaps first. The initial sporadic Wiki examples I've been pointing to will certainly need work to be at all sensible for future readers. Thanks for adding to the burden anyhow!


If "The referent of a word or an expression in an utterance is the thing in the world which is intentionally signified by that word or expression," then I think Richard's concern is misplaced.

Consider this sentence:
With all due respect to JohnVonNeumann, game theory as social policy driver is a crock.

Here, the referent -- "the thing in the world" -- is clearly the mathematician John von Neumann. It's written "JohnVonNeumann" not because the thing in the world it refers to is the contents of the page http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?JohnVonNeumann, but because that's how things are written on Wiki. And anybody who's spent any time on Wiki knows that that's how things are written on Wiki. When the page is the referent, you'll generally see something like "See JohnVonNeumann."

I agree that the JohnVonNeumann referent isn't a problem. The fact it's also a link is just a great feature of Wiki.

For a bit of irony: As I write this, the "JohnVonNeumann" page is itself mostly a referent to the "VonNeumann" page. Some day, someone may move the content of "VonNeumann" to "JohnVonNeumann," and then this paragraph will suffer from the ReferentsOnWiki problem. [It happened on 2002-04-26.] But as has been suggested above, that's just the way Wiki works. I'd even say that knowing that that's just the way Wiki works is the solution to the problem of the way Wiki works. (Well, a GoodWikiCitizen could always clean up afterwards, too. [Note: I wrote that sentence without checking to see what's on the "GoodWikiCitizen" page; is that a problem?]) -- TomKreitzberg

I think the GoodWikiCitizen referent is a bit more of a problem, in the WikiLinguistic? sense. But the other problem throughout all this is the ImplicatureProblem?.


Two issues seem to be conflated here. One is about authenticity - something signed by DaveHarris may not actually be by me. The other is about change - comments that refer to other parts of Wiki may become invalid as Wiki evolves.

Both of these can be helped with better technology and infrastructure. I think future pages will need more depth - they will to track history and authorship behind the scenes, so that we can drill down if we have questions about original context. For example a WayBackMode could effectively present the Wiki as it was when the original comment was made, so that we can see it was not dumb in that context. It could also be possible to link to a specific version of a page, instead of the most recent. Maybe that should even be the default. [ -- DaveHarris ?!]

FWIW, TwikiClone has a changes view. For those that use a cookie, there should already be enough information to do this technologically. The question is would we want to. There is something important about the ability to be anonymous and that may outweigh its associated risks. I don't know. -- RobertDiFalco


See also TwoOldHandsInThreadMode

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