The Frequently Asked Questions file (FAQ) is as much an Internet institution as Catechisms are to the Christian churches. They are enough of institutions and similar enough in format to merit comparison.
The Internet is a disorienting place when you come to it the first time, especially if that first time was in 1993. Networked computing was largely foreign to me and anything larger than a local dial-up BBS was a greater scale than I could comprehend. When I first arrived, I sought out Zen and the Art of the Internet, the Jargon File and gopher://wiretap.spies.com with the hope that I could find signposts along the way, pointing out just how a global network of Sun 3s was different from the 286 on my desk.
Usenet was much more of an institution at the time and one of the side-effects of the Usenet medium was the expiration of articles. Today’s web forums tend to archive rather than expire their conversations, so you can later search and mine them for details. If someone had a 2002 conversation about a computer bug that you’re having now, you can find it through search. Not so with Usenet, once that 1992 conversation is gone, it’s not coming back. This leads to lots of repeated conversations.
For regulars, the repeated conversation got tiresome enough that the FAQ file was born. A list of the most repeated questions and the general, common-knowledge answer. Fewer repeated conversations about the basic topics and the conversation could go deeper and into new areas.
This phenomenon is quite similar to the Christian tradition of the catechism. Other religions have catechisms as well, but they are nowhere near as fecund as within Christianity.
The Catechism mostly takes off during the Reformation. They depended on the printing press and the interest in conversation-style learning recovered from an interest in the Classics. They cover the basics of Christian faith, the most frequently asked theological questions. A particularly famous catechism, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, begins like this
- Q. What is the chief end of man?
- A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
The text begins with a basic question, “What is the purpose of life?” It then covers theological principles: the Creation, the Fall, Sin and Redemption, Jesus Christ and his Church. Generally, each question has a succinct, common-knowledge theological maxim that is easily remembered. Most catechisms also cite their sources, most often Bible references but also including other authoritative Christian writers.
In this way, the FAQ and the Catechism offer common purpose: record not just of common knowledge, but record of the settled questions. Once a question is settled, what’s the sense in covering it again? To paraphrase a maxim of mathematics: A trivial proof is one that has already been proven. A proof, once demonstrated and proven, has little worth in being re-proven. For math, for FAQs and for theology, we aways hope to move deeper in intellectual contemplation of our subject.The other similarity lies in the centralization required to produce FAQs and Catechisms. The printing press required that a single publisher produce a catechism, much in the way that FAQs have single editors, maintainers or moderators. In order to have your question included or your answer contributed, one must pass it through some gatekeeper.
The inevitable result is schism. When one publisher doesn’t like the theology of a catechism, they publish their own, with different questions and answers. The result was piles of catechisms across the Reformation landscape: the Roman, Lutheran, Genvean, Westminster, Anglican (and more) catechisms all produced in a few short decades of each other.
This practice, though, is not reserved to Christians. The newsgroup comp.sys.apple2 suffered a FAQ schism in the 1990s, with two independent versions of the FAQ being maintained by different writers. Try searching Google Groups for “Nathan and the FAQ dilemma” and 1997. I suspect that the sometimes parallel Big 7 and alt.* hierarchies also contributed to this, but I don’t have any concrete examples.
Since 2001, Wiki technology has started to make the FAQ obsolete. The problem is no longer resolving old questions made obscure in expired discussions. The problem has become finding the answer amidst the quarter-million Google results when I search for “10.5.1 update problem.” Making a searchable Wiki on a topic can solve this.
One side effect is the de-centralizing effect of the Wiki. Most Internet folk are aware of Wikipedia, which bills itself as the encyclopedia that “anyone can edit.” (Recent scandal notwithstanding.) Unlike having a FAQ editor or a Catechism publisher, the Wiki does not require an authoritative gatekeeper.
Can the Catechism be similarly decentralized? What would we come up with if we had one that was a Wiki that anyone could edit? What would its theology look like? What would the first question and starting point be?
I don’t expect that this Catechism would ever become an official doctrinal statement for a church, but it doesn’t have to. Whether the result is orthodox or heretical, that isn’t the point, the experiment is enough; it’s more proof-of-concept rather than final product.
There are any number of Christian blogs and Christian culture-followers like GodTube. I haven’t yet seen someone turn this kind of Christian institution loose on a de-centralized and democratic medium like the Wiki. Anyone want to register wikicatechism.org?