Who Needs Wikis When You Have Github?

A new taco recipe library highlights something interesting about the nature of spontaneous collaboration on the web.
Ron Dollette/Flickr

Updated, 4 p.m.

This weekend, on a blustery evening, his tummy full of steak and apple tacos, journalist and technologist Dan Sinker embarked on a spiritual journey.

Which is to say, he made Tacofancy: an online, collaborative library of taco recipesAnd how he made it reveals something about collaboration on the web works now: it’s increasingly wiki-free.

Debuted at 7 p.m. Central on Saturday, the library took off. Now boasting more than 50 recipes, it includes details on how to make slow-cooked salsa verde chickendrunken green beans, and chipotle sauce. It has directories for all the various taco elements—base layers, mix-ins, condimentsseasonings—and what they come together to make, “full tacos.” It even has recipes for “like_tacos,” or taco-esque foods that resemble, but are not exactly, tacos. This category includes roti, gua bao, and smørbrød, as all satisfy the ingenious definition penned by programmer and Taco Fancy-contributor Max Ogden*:

tacos are a category of food that are relatively small in size and are served on a open platform of thin carbohydrate filled material. things that make you want to sleep after eating or are sealed off when served are not tacos (see instead: burritos, pizza)

So there is now a repository of free, community-created taco recipes on the Internet. It’s text-based, collaborative, and anyone can edit it.

And—unlike how a “text-based, collaborative” project likely would’ve been half a decade ago—it’s not a Wiki.

Rather, it’s hosted on Github, a web service used by developers to organize and maintain large code bases, images, and data. Instead of presenting a singular if collaboratively-written text—as most wikis do—Github allows for a more complex structure. Like a Wiki, it saves the editing history of the files it manages. But a Github creates a kind of family tree of files: A story of how a project started, of different changes made to the project, of entire offshoots of the project. It lets different users propose changes to the project’s main text, and a few centralized leaders integrate those changes.

Wikis, in other words, usually impose a set of precise rules on their users, all toward the creation of one ur-document. Github bakes the rules into the software (and it has a more widely understood set of norms), and the final product is a set of texts with a common lineage. They’re two different ways of structuring knowledge.

And, to boot, many more people have Github accounts—and visit the site everyday, for work or play—which makes creating a taco library there easier than creating a user account for a new, random taco wiki. 

But perhaps this is more tech than you want with your taco. If you’re interested in making any of the tacos in Tacofancy, its authors have created a plain, easy-to-read index of its recipes and taco delights.

* The original version of this article failed to credit Max Ogden with writing the very useful and brilliantly categorical definition of “tacos.”

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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