Sue Gardner discusses how Wikipedia became the world's most vital information center.
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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The debates and ideas shaping our future increasingly reside on the Internet. Thus, those proverbial shots heard ’round the world, are now more than ever both virtual and viral in the form of YouTube uploads, Twitter feeds and, of course, Wikipedia entries…something our guest today knows a thing or two about!
From 2007 until May of this year, Sue Gardner was Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation and currently serves as its Special Advisor. A former Canadian Public media leader, she has been identified among the most powerful women or men in media in public life.
At Wikimedia her central mission has been to build a community of knowledge dedicated to the public good. And judging by Wikipedia’s enormously robust growth over the last decade, there is no question she has done a most stellar job at the helm of the world’s most-used and increasingly most reliable source of information…all while staying true to the organization’s nonprofit roots.
I don’t know whether Sue prefers the Wiki-in-Chief or Wikimaniac moniker, but let me begin by asking this Founding Mother of the digital revolution … what’s next?
GARDNER: (Laugh) You know what’s next … it’s a great question. And the first thing that’s next is I’m going to Iceland for a couple of months and I’m going to just read a lot of books and kind of get caught up on stuff.
But what’s next after that I don’t yet know, but the reason that I left the Wikimedia Foundation was to start digging into what is next for the Internet.
So, I, I loved running the Wikimedia Foundation … it was a fantastic job. It was incredibly … you can imagine, right … it was incredibly rewarding … incredibly fulfilling.
But in my last couple of years there I started finding myself feeling like I was … this sounds ridiculous, but I started feeling like I was sitting out some kind of a war … right. I started feeling like I was on some kind of like tropical island of fabulous thing … it was great … right.
We, we were in such a privileged …the Wikimedia Foundation is in such a privileged position … right … because we were doing really important work, it mattered a lot, we were standing up for what was right. We did the anti-SOPA/PIPA thing … it was fantastic.
But meanwhile I felt like the overall shape that the Internet was taking was increasingly disturbing for me and I felt like I was sitting out what was important …right.
I, I had had this privileged seat where I was shaping what happened on the Internet, you know, through the lens of Wikipedia, but observing from a super privileged position …right … how the ecosystem was taking shape. What was happening, what kinds of developments, etc. and I worried that, that we were losing sight of the potential that the Internet had originally had for us.
And sometimes I think about age of people. And I think about, you know, like kids who never knew the world before it … you know and you get older … right … and so you think … you become cranky and “get off my lawn” … right … but, but kids who didn’t know the world before the Internet … I don’t think really … it’s not possible for them to know what’s at stake. Right. It’s not possible for them to remember, you know, what it was like pre-Internet and therefore to understand how precious it is.
You know it’s funny … I was reading Alexis Ohanian has a relatively new book out … the Reddit founder … and he, he closes it by saying … he, he has a little conceit which is he’s giving a commencement address to the class of 2025, right. And he says in this Commencement Address … he says, “You know, I’m so sorry that we let it fall apart. Like, “I’m just so sorry, that we were distracted and we had jobs, and you know, I was in a relationship and it was really important to me and you know, we all were kind of busy and we weren’t really paying attention and the thing kind of crumbled and now it’s this awful commercialized wasteland and that’s probably our fault ’cause we didn’t stop it and I feel terrible.” Right.
And on the face of that, that’s like … it’s, it’s a pretty, it’s slightly cheesy … (laugh) … right … like the notion of the commencement address is slightly cheesy.
But when I read it … I actually found it also enormously moving. Because I thought, you know, the folks who remember what it was like before know how awesome what we have today is in comparison to what we had before.
We have a responsibility, I think, to ensure that it continues to be fantastic …right …and I worry that we get caught up in or day jobs, we get caught up in, you know, whatever’s on our mind … at any particular moment and we forget that we are … we are living through history. Like this is a really important historical moment. And we can’t, we need to be aware … right … we need to be conscious of our actions and how they are shaping things.
And if we don’t like the way things are going, it’s incumbent upon us to try to change it. Right? And so that was why I left … was I felt like that was really important work and it felt like … people like me, you know, who have a history of public service and who believe in public service values and who are, you know, involved in today … in the history making and what is happening now. I think we, I think we have an obligation, I think we have an obligation to not just let things happen, but to try to shape how they evolve.
HEFFNER: So how do you prevent that doomsday scenario? It seems to me that the net neutrality debate is at the forefront …
GARDNER: Yeah, right now.
HEFFNER: … of whether or not we secure the Internet … for the future …
HEFFNER: … in, in the public interest. Expound on that.
GARDNER: Yeah, I mean it is right now. And, and, you know, there are lots of threats, there are lots of challenges. Right. The big one before net neutrality was SOPA/PIPA, which was the privileging of the copyright owners over everybody else. And also bad legislation. And so, you know, there, there are lots of threats. There is censorship in multiple countries, there’s the surveillance state, there are lots of challenges. Right.
Fundamentally, what net neutrality is about, from my perspective … is … it is about whether the Internet will be allowed to shape itself through a lens of what is good for large, dominant corporate players. Right. Like Comcast.
And I, I refer a lot often to Tim Wu’s book, The Master Switch because I think it is the single best work of scholarship.
HEFFNER: Who, by the way, is entering into the political fray.
GARDNER: I know, which is so surprising. Right. I’m very surprised at that. I think it’s super interesting because what I’ve been seeing a lot of is people saying that politics is not the solution, there are no answers there … decreasing power there, etc. (clears throat) …
HEFFNER: But it, it seems like you may be moving in that direction, too.
GARDNER: I don’t’ know. I don’t think so. No. You know … and I’m struggling with what my role is going to be in, in this because, because I’m, I’m not an advocate, right, I’m, I’m a practitioner. Like I’m not a, not an advocate, I’m not that kind of person and I’m not actually …
HEFFNER: But you believe very strongly that multi-billion dollar companies should not have a fast lane to the Internet.
GARDNER: Oh, sure, yeah, of course …
HEFFNER: But that’s …
GARDNER: … and I think everybody believes ….
HEFFNER: But that’s taking a position … but not everybody believes …
GARDNER: Well, I think everybody … I think …
HEFFNER: Not in the US Congress though
GARDNER: Okay, Yes. I think what we’re seeing happen … so I think, I think what net neutrality is actually about is I think what we’re seeing happen is … we’re seeing what Tim in his book, called the Kronos Effect … right … which is this notion that first you have disruption and new players emerge and it’s all a free-for-all. Right. And there’s lots of ability to move and to grow very quickly and that is when you see Facebook created … you see Google created, you see Wikipedia created. Right.
And then, as, as ecosystems evolve, as industries evolve and mature, you see the emergence of dominant players. And then you see the emergence of dominant players Kronos Effect protecting themselves against threats. Right.
And so, what, what my concern is around the net neutrality issue is that what we see is an increasing dominant player and their “com” score, they’re not even new dominant players. Right. But we see dominant players protecting their advantage, protecting their position. Right.
Totally natural for them to do, completely in their self-interest, obviously in their interest, obviously what they should be doing etc. But what it does is it chokes off innovation, it chokes off more disruption. People take a preservation approach rather than things changing.
And the reason I worry about stuff like that is because I found myself thinking recently “Could Wikipedia happen today?” Right. If Jimmy were in his little apartment in Florida in 2014 … right … with a little bit of money and, you know, a lot of interest and the interesting guy with good ideas, wants to make the world better. Could he do that today?
And I am not sure … they’re unanswerable, it’s an unanswerable question. Right. But I am, I am not sure that he could and I worry that increasingly we’re moving towards a world where that cannot happen. Right. We see that in Silicon Valley, where increasingly folks will create something new and it’s interesting … right … and it might be the case … of course you can never know for sure, but it might be the case that five years ago or 10 years ago that thing would have disrupted every body else and would have become hugely important and hugely powerful.
Increasingly what we’re seeing is incumbent organizations buying those things … right …and then shelving them. So they are choking off innovation.
In the same way that … I think … it was FM radio … the evolution of FM radio was stymied for 40 years by the people who had pioneered an AM radio.
Yesterday’s revolutionaries become tomorrow’s conservatives. Right. We’ve seen that all throughout history. And so I worried that the potential for disruptive innovation is not going to be fulfilled, right … because the ecosystem is becoming mature and therefore protective and closed … super quickly. And one of the things that I think is interesting is that it looks like its happening faster and faster and faster. Right. It took decades for that to happen to radio. It took decades for it to happen in television. I think it’s, I think it’s … I think the cycle is speeding up. Right. The incumbents are getting more powerful, more quickly and smart.
HEFFNER: So, short of becoming an advocate …
HEFFNER: … as you contemplate beyond Wikipedia and your role at the Foundation, how will you and your colleagues really fight for the soul of the Internet to be a public institution?
GARDNER: Yeah. And this was the thing. So after SOPA, we had a conversation at the Wikimedia Foundation about to what extent we wanted to play a role in the advocacy space. Right? And there were really good arguments for Wikimedia Foundation getting involved in advocacy. And they essentially were that we were practitioners, we were players in the space, and so we could see the issues, we could see the things that were impeding us and therefore, potentially, what wanted to be different. Right.
And also importantly we were an organization that was not … is not beholden to anybody. Right. We are public service oriented; we want to help ordinary people. We don’t have any other goals apart from that. That was important. And then importantly, too, Wikipedia has a lot of love and affection from the world … right … people trust it.
Which is so great, right, because even five, ten years ago, the big story about Wikipedia was you could not trust it. People trust it today … right … because they understand it.
HEFFNER: And now you say it’s really the jewel of like a national park system.
GARDNER: And, and it is. And it is. And that’s a beautiful thing … right … because that’s real people helping real people. Like that’s some kid in Berlin … you know … like, like helping, you know, some kid on the mirror machine in Canada. Like it’s just us getting out of the way … us … authorities … I don’t know … getting out of the way … creating a platform and then real people helping each other in ways that are like profoundly awesome and new and have never happened before. Right.
So people love it, they trust it … it is honest, it is sincere … it is, you know, it has some experience, etc. So there were good arguments for us being involved in the advocacy space.
Ultimately, though, at the Wikimedia Foundation, we decided that that was not our core work, right. It’s a website, like its purpose is to provide free knowledge for everyone around the world in their own language. That’s what the job is.
And so we decided that although it was possible that Wikipedia would participate in future in things like the anti-SOPA protest … and we have done since … right … and it is community driven … it is Wikipedian driven … right … and so the Italians have stood up for themselves, the Russians have stood up for themselves. You know, the American Wikipedians, etc.
But we decided that it wasn’t going to be a core piece of work for the Foundation. And then that raises the question of for whom therefore is it the core work?
And there are some great organizations … the EFF is fantastic … the Free … Freedom of the Press Foundation is fantastic …free press. There’s a bunch of organizations that are doing really, really terrific work. Right.
But I still feel like there’s a gap there. And I think that the challenge and you’re taking me like right up to the edge of like … “this is what I’m thinking about today … right … so I do not have answers”. I don’t think there are actually perfect answers.
But I think that where the answers reside is … and I hate to say this, because it sounds tremendously boring … but it’s somewhere around funding … it really is. Right. To, to create something innovative is cheap-ish, although I think it is getting more expensive. But it is cheap-ish, but I think to scale, to create things that have real serious impact requires cash.
You can see it in how the ecosystem is taking shape today. And there is so much money sloshing around in Silicon Valley and the large incumbent companies have like terrifying amounts of money … like, like huge … ridiculous amounts of money. Right.
And so, I think that there needs to be some leveling of the playing fields somehow such that innovative public service ideas get funded and are therefore able to scale and able to grow and have a real impact. I don’t know how that happens, but I think that that’s the trick to getting this figured out.
HEFFNER: It sounds to me like you’re conceiving a national endowment for the Internet …
HEFFNER: You’re going to be the Chair.
GARDNER: Yeah, well that’s interesting, right. I have given some thought recently to the idea that … like if I were Google or if I were Twitter or whatever … right … I mean they have an interest … it’s a common interest … right … we all have an interest in this world being lively and inventive and fulfilling and awesome. Right.
Like nobody … should I say “nobody”, I’m not sure … nobody I know … got involved in the Internet space out of a desire to make money. Right?
HEFFNER: You mean recently.
GARDNER: Nobody I know. (Laugh) And it’s interesting … right … you can hear it in the rhetoric, in Silicon Valley, folks talk a lot about wanting to change the world.
When I first got out there, people would talk a lot to me about, you know, engineering … it’s disruptive, it’s magic … we can build awesome things … we are changing everything … you know the level of … the playing field will be leveled around the world … revolutions will happen, etc. … right.
And I found that honestly enormously dissident with my actual experiences which were like standing in line at the sandwich shop and hearing folks talk about their IPO. Or lining up for a coffee and hearing the guy behind me proselytizing some kid about what his options would look like once he had signed up. Right.
And certainly in Silicon Valley people talk a lot today about how it’s the New Wall Street, right. And so if you’re an ambitious kid who wants to make a ton of money, you used to come to New York. And now you go to the Bay Area. And I think that there’s definitely a truth to that. Right?
The kinds of people who are involved and the reasons for which they are involved, I think has changed over time. Right. And I think it’s been a trajectory. And I think it’s kind of … I can see the early threads … with people like Stuart Brand … right … like people who, you know … back in the early days … were wild and inventive and ground breaking … crazy ideas. Right.
It is different today. Right. And there’s a degree to which, you know that saying that if you don’t know who the patsy is at the table, then you’re the patsy.
And I sometimes look around in Silicon Valley and I think, who is the patsy? And increasingly I’m feeling like, you know, the patsy is the engineer …right. Which is interesting.
Engineers are the scarcest resource in Silicon Valley. They are valuable, they are magic. Everybody wants them. There’s a huge talent war. We all want them. Right.
They are taught to think … the mythology of Silicon Valley is that they are taught to think that they are brilliant, disruptive, groundbreaking, precious resources to be protected. They are bussed to work. There are napping rooms at their offices. Their dry cleaning is picked up … their food is provided. There are haircut buses. In Silicon Valley a bus will come and you can go and get your hair cut and then go back to the office.
Obviously all of that is about preserving … as much of their time as you possibly can preserve for actual coding … right … because that is their value.
People don’t work hard unless they feel like a sense of purpose to what their doing. Right.
That doesn’t necessarily mean like an … you know, making the world better. For some people it just mean “I have a hard knotty problem to solve that’s interesting”. Right. An interesting technical problem.
Or it can mean, you know, I feel a great sense of team with my colleagues. Like it doesn’t have to be high minded necessarily. But they have to feel a sense of purpose.
And I feel like in Silicon Valley there is a lot of rhetoric and there’s a lot of mythology around … if you talk to people, they will all tell you … like “my work is changing the world.”
And I think to myself … and we all do … right … like we make fun of ourselves and everybody makes fun of us. Like “Yo, how is ‘yo’ changing the world?” … good question. Right.
I think of things like Uber. Like I love Uber. I am … I know that it is controversial in lots of ways and so I don’t necessarily love it unreservedly. But I would say that like, as a person who couldn’t get a taxi in San Francisco … Uber is awesome for me, I use it all the time.
But I don’t delude myself that Uber is, you know, solving all the worlds’ problems or is going to end poverty or is going to provide education to the masses. Right. It’s not.
Increasingly what we see in the Bay area is folks working on projects that are interesting and useful for people like us … right … so people who are privileged and who have lots of money and who work really hard and have busy lives, so it’s all … you know like “apps” to get us our dinner faster, or whatever. Right.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But the ecosystem has changed … right … and I think that the, the rhetoric and the mythology is deliberately deployed … right … so that you have a system where you have a lot of engineers who work very hard for you on something that will end up making a ton of money. I don’t necessarily think that that’s sustainable. Right. I don’t think mythology will necessarily sustain.
But I do clearly see in whose interests it is for that mythology to be perpetuated. Right. So there, there is a desire to continue perpetuating that myth because it has obvious good effects for lots of companies.
HEFFNER: How do you advance the social capital …
HEFFNER: ,,, as you advance the technology?
GARDNER: Mmmmm. I don’t know. I mean I don’t know. Right. I think that …
HEFFNER: In a, in a more expansive social capital …
HEFFNER: … that really bridges the digital divide.
GARDNER: Yeah, I mean that’s the thing. That’s …
HEFFNER: That’s what you’re identifying.
GARDNER: Yeah … and, and when you’re talking like narrowly about the digital divide … like that is a fight that we are losing. Right. Like … it’s astonishing to me that there are still parts of the United States where you can’t get the Internet.
It’s like “what?”. Did you see … there was a mockumentary called “The Internet Must Go” about net neutrality. And in it the visit communities in the United States where people say things like … there was a farmer in it who was interviewed and someone asked him what he would do it if he got the Internet. And he sad, “I would really like to see what Facebook looks like.”
GARDNER: He said, “Like I’ve heard a lot about it. I don’t know if I would actually use, but I’d really like to see it.”
And I was like “Jesus Christ … it’s 2014”.
GARDNER: Right. You know there was a scene in that documentary where kids are driven up to the top of a hill because you can get the Internet on the hill and that’s where they do their homework in their parents’ cars. Right.
And we know that you the, the other countries are doing a lot better job from the perspective of infrastructure … right … that, that we have not progressed as quickly as Estonia or whatever in this country. Right.
HEFFNER: In making the Internet the “great equalizer” … …
GARDNER: Well, that’s …
HEFFNER: … that has not been achieved here.
GARDNER: No, not at all.
HEFFNER: Achieved elsewhere.
GARDNER: Yeah, that’s right. And, and, and it’s interesting right. Like where our energy goes, where our attention goes. A lot of money and a lot of attention going on making things better for people who are extremely privileged … right … and again, like I love Uber, I love all that stuff … Amazon … I spend all my money there. Like I understand, you know … I am a beneficiary of all if that. And I love it.
And then you look at the other end of the scale and you think you’ve still got people having to go into their public library and be taught how to fill out a form for the government for something that they need. Right.
Like, it’s out of whack … the balance is wrong.
HEFFNER: The values of the Wikimaniacs I think are so imperative here.
HEFFNER: Because across the globe, sometimes with minimal resources … you have smart people contributing to the livelihood of the entire universe. Describe that for our viewers, how in continents where most countries may not yet have the advances of an social or … and upper middle class …
HEFFNER: … they’re still fighting for the knowledge.
HEFFNER: And have we, have we lost that fight … that fighting spirit. Are we complacent here?
GARDNER: America tells itself a lot of myths. Right. And, and, and I find it really interesting. Like, like … it’s a country where the stories that it tells about itself are, are really in many ways contradicted by reality. Right.
It’s really interesting. America is awesome at myth-making … right … like it believes beautiful, beautiful things. And then it behaves in lots of ways dramatically different, differently from what it purports to believe.
And the myth of meritocracy is part of that. Right. Hmmm … the bootstrap thing is all part of that.
But it’s interesting. Right. Wikipedia … so we did lots of research into why people participate on Wikipedia. And initially … you know, you kind of figure everyone is like you … and so I kind of figured they would all be like me …so I kind of figured they were high minded … oh, yes, you know … helping the world etc. And they’re not. Which is interesting and fine. Right.
What they mostly are … Wikipedians … is they are folks who care a lot about knowledge. Right. So a lot of them are post-grads, you know, post secondary students. They care a lot about knowledge, they’re learning. They’re in school. They’re, you know, writing essays and so forth.
And for them … a lot of them … Wikipedia is … they were always the smartest kid in their class. They were always smarter than the adults around them.
And joining Wikipedia is like a form of home coming. Right. Because they meet all these people who also care deeply about everything from, you know, important things around knowledge to spelling mistakes around knowledge … right … and so they’re persnickety and they’re fussy and they, they, they want to show off how smart they are. And all of that. Right. And it’s interesting to see them find each other around the world. Right.
Wikipedia is largely … disproportionately written by people in rich countries for all the obvious reasons around literacy and device ownership and so forth.
But its funny … I remember seeing woman from Bangladesh, I think … no Indonesia … from Indonesia … editing Wikipedia using an external keyboard and her cell phone, which is incredibly laborious … back … this was years ago.
Incredibly difficult to do, painful … took forever. Everything took forever. And she did it because it was really important to her that Wikipedia be available for the people in her country in their languages. And she just wanted to get information to those folks. Right.
So, I mean, it’s a beautiful … Wikipedia is a beautiful thing.
HEFFNER: Well, I hope you and Wikimanicas across the globe continue to team up in advancing the social good.
And Sue Gardner … I want to thank you for joining us on The Open Mind.
GARDNER: Thank you so much.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.
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