Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog: Samuel Klein, "Future of Civic Participation: Lessons from the cult of Wikipedians"

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Feb 29, '12 6:42 PM EST

    Hi Archinect,

    I'm at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government tonight for a talk with Samuel Klein, Trustee at Wikipedia. It's a small crowd, but we'll see how it goes.

    6:43: How ironic, we're starting with some technical difficulties.

    6:44: SK is asking who has started a Wikipedia entry that didn't get deleted (a couple of hands), who has contributed to them (several hands), and who has tried to create an online collaborative space (a few hands). A bit of chat.

    6:47: When Wikipedia started, SK thought it was a "nice idea that wouldn't take off." But a few years later, the platform had become visually "more beautiful." They had also recruited a few hundred of people--philosophers, linguists, technical people--who were committed to it. These were the initial editors. "I can't call it a platform--it was the simplest thing (scratch base) they could think of to support it." It was called "Newpedia." There were seven stages in an editorial process, and it was too unwieldy, so they couldn't support the necessary editorial staff and it shut down.

    They had different kinds of expertise--some technical, some to do with encyclopedias, and some interested in how people find consensus online.

    6:51: The essence is civic participation.

    Wikipedia's goal for the first year was 10 000 articles. He's showing screenshots of the first website; they got to 10 000 articles but the content was very slim. It started as a multilingual project and there are now 284 languages. Many of the contributors care more about knowledge in their language than they do about encyclopedias as such; for about 50 of the languages, Wikipedia is the only major compilation of knowledge in that language.

    6:55: SK is showing us the various tasks that happen in the writing and editorial process. Anyone can join in, and if their work is not up to snuff, after a few tries they're asked to stand back.

    There are currently about 80 000 active contributors--i.e. people who edit over 5 times a month. It's like a small town. "There are people who handle the plumbing and the road building. And it's all volunteers." There are now also some full-time paid developers who are building the system.

    7:00 Not surprisingly, there are more readers in developed countries than in less developed ones. They tend to get the first two or three people in any given language regardless, but that may or may not develop into a larger community in that language.

    About contributors: Cute picture of Sai, 8 years old, who is the youngest contributor in his language (not sure which) in India. There are people of all ages, including professional artists, writers, professors, etc. One person is a "content liberator" who works with large museums and other content owners, to work with them to get their content online. It took a while to learn how to work with these institutions. There are now dozens of people who've gotten their PhDs studying Wikipedia, and they usually come to a few meetings and then get hooked on the community and become contributors themselves.

    An interesting entry: someone from a very small town (in Africa?) created a charming hand-drawn map and some other information because they wanted to "share the best information about their town." [A place that many of us might never have access to otherwise.]

    7:05: Mention of the blackout in protest of SOPA. It was hotly debated among the Wikipedia editors for a month. This wasn't just in the USA: the Italian Wikipedia took down their site for two days, prompting a redraft of an equivalent law in Italy. There was basically a Wikipedia page where the various possibilities and arguments were forged among the community, to discuss this problem.

    Question about how a democratic system works when there are basic processes that are not immediately clear to newcomers. Answer: Wikipedia isn't based on difficult tools, but it aims to be as simple as possible given what they need to do. But as participation becomes more complex, it is harder for people to get involved. There could be a group of people who are just interested in helping newcomers; SK is interested in this but right now, they don't have this as much, but rather, teams of people who are first-responders to deal with spammers and problems.

    7:12: Question about redundancy. Answer: Related articles are all linked together. There is often parallel research in different languages. "The great thing about knowledge about the world, and about being a third-party source for information rather than publishing original research, is that the knowledge is already out there." For cutting-edge science, everyone is often referencing the same source. For more common information, there is often already information in people's language. Most editors are unilingual; some who are multilingual do help with translating text. And there are different views represented in different languages; someday they may unify the points of view by having multilingual people compare two pages.

    Very few countries resist having the page be editable. China is one, and they're also the only country that has strong competitors, in the Chinese-language sites Baidu and Hudong.

    Wikipedia is "alarmingly transparent" because most of the process is visible online. Most sites that are developed by companies (e.g. Baidu and Hudong) have their process not visible.

    7:18: Wikipedia has some of the most educated laypeople on copyright law in the world. It's not Wikipedia's staff who deal with this, it's the volunteer editors.

    When Wikipedia had to make the decision to close the website for SOPA, based on the group discussion, nobody wanted to do it individually. So a few of the most trusted people in the community got together and spend all night going over the conversation and writing an essay explaining the decision. They got lots of feedback for it, mostly positive.

    7:21: Advice for people starting civic participation projects:

    1. Focus on a bold goal. "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

    2. Form a core group. Wikipedia began with outreach to philosophers, technologists, editors and academics in many languages. The Esperanto community (speakers of the constructed language Esperanto) was very active from the beginning because they're particularly interested in issues similar to Wikipedia's.

    3. Be approachable. Wikipedia holds their conversations online. (Sociologists love this.) An edit can take 30 seconds.

    4. Make contribution easy. Encourage small donations and simple connections. 80% of Wikipedia's funding comes from small individual donations.

    "Wikipedia didn't intend to be a civic structure," but these ideas could also be helpful for people building civic organizations.

    Question from the audience about how Wikipedia got to the stage where there was widespread buy-in. The answer is that you have to be not just approachable, but maximally approachable. People could migrate content over from wherever; they could just make sure their license was appropriate and connect it. It didn't require that people change their working methods that much; people could still build texts and have conversations about it in their own space. They could also pull Wikipedia's information back to their own site without asking for permissions.

    7:38: "Everyone has information to share." Everyone knows something that someone else wants to know, so it's about creating a platform where this sharing can happen.

    Comment that some Marvel Comics characters have longer articles than some nations. SK comments that this is for two reasons: first, because it's cool; second, because countries are complex and fuzzy, whereas fictional characters have a perfectly knowable and closed story. So it's easier to do this for comic book characters.

    I ask about how Wikipedia has changed our expectations, whether online or offline, about our ability to collaborate. SK answers that it used to be that people said this kind of thing is impossible; now it clearly is possible. I ask a follow-up question about whether SK thinks there's a limit on size for a community to work, because there has to be a sense of shared values and membership. SK answers that he doesn't think there's a maximum size, and mentions efforts by the UN and Iceland; Iceland is the most successful example of this kind of project to date.

    [On Iceland, you can check out this article, which starts: "The newest government in the world was designed with help from comments on the internet. God help us all."]

    SK says that one should never cite an encyclopedia article, when you have time to follow the citations to their original sources. At the same time, some news agencies now save money on research by relying on Wikipedia.

    Things are wrapping up. I think some people are going to stay and workshop some of their own ideas, but I've gotta head back to studio.

    Thanks for reading!


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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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