Sue Gardner discusses how Wikipedia became the world's most vital information center.
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HOST: Alexander Heffner
GUEST: Sue Gardner
AIR DATE: 10/04/14
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 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 was 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 if Sue prefers the Wiki-in-Chief or Wikimaniac moniker, but let me begin by asking this Founding Mother of the digital revolution, whether she is as bullish about the Web’s potential for social advancement in the public interest as she was when she became Executive Director of Wikipedia. Sue? It’s such a delight to have you here.
GARDNER: Thank you, it’s so nice to be here.
GARDNER: Shall I answer the question? It’s, it’s a great question. I think I’m still optimistic about the potential, the potential is clearly there, what the Internet could be is clearly there. And I want to remind myself every day of like how awesome it is and how much better it is from the standpoint of people’s access to information then it was 10, 20 years ago.
But I think I would also say that I’m increasingly disconcerted by how it’s actually playing out in practice. Right? I’m really worried about the future of the Internet because I think that we risk losing the awesome potential that we have and we risk turning it into something that is just kind of a cross between a shopping mall and a surveillance state, you know.
GARDNER: So I’m worried.
HEFFNER: That sounds displeasing. So what are those caveats?
GARDNER: So (clears throat) it’s, it’s hard to summarize but in my time running the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia is the number 5 most popular website in the world and we found ourselves, you know, in, in … in sort of all of our interactions with other sites, with governments, with ISPs, with mobile phone companies, etc. … we found ourselves functioning the way that you would want to function on the Internet …right … like we just did our work and we pervade information and we made it available and so forth.
But there here a lot of impediments along the road to doing that. And we had to be brave and strong a lot of times during my tenure as ED. And when I look around at how the Internet is taking shape, I don’t see a lot of organizations coming at it from a public service perspective.
Mostly what we see is it’s kind of a land grab and a lot of people extracting value, extracting money out of the Internet ecosystem. And I don’t think that public service values are sufficiently considered in how its evolution is taking place.
HEFFNER: So, sort of coercing them …
HEFFNER: … websites that are in the profit making business …
HEFFNER: … how do you do it? How do you emulate Wikimedia and Wikipedia?
GARDNER: Well, it’s interesting … right … I mean what I found … so, so I know a guy named Doron Weber who works at the Sloan Foundation and about two years ago Doron said something that was really meaningful to me.
And what he said was, he said something like “You know, I love Wikipedia and I think it’s so awesome and I’m so happy that the Sloan Foundation is funding it.” And I, of course, said, “Thank you. I think it’s awesome too, that’s fantastic”. And he said something like, “You’re not really hearing me.”
What he said was Wikipedia is awesome, but Wikipedia is kind of the exception that proves the rule. Right. It’s the only big, important, popular site that I see that is really … I’m misquoting him now, but something to the effect of … that’s really embodying the public service values that, that, that Sloan is in favor of and that, you know, we all want to see sort of play out.
And I think that the, the, the sort of question is, how do you get the Internet that you want? Or, as someone said the other day, “How do we build an Internet that we’re not ashamed of … right … and I think we’re all interestingly, I think when I talk to people who work in the Internet space, I think we’re all feeling a little bit grim about how it’s playing out. A lot of people are doing work that they find personally fulfilling and their own project is interesting and so forth, but when we kind of look at the ecosystem as a whole, I think we are increasingly a little bit ashamed of it. Right?
It does some awesome things. It does some fun things, it does some things that are really helpful. But it also, on the whole, doesn’t sort of fulfill the original promise that it had, which was to provide a real public space and a real place for democratization of access to information and for people to share and for people to learn and for people to play. Right.
And so the billion dollar question is “How do you get that?”. I don’t have an answer to that question (laugh) I don’t think anybody has an answer to that question, we’re all kind of groping towards what we think … where we think answers might live.
I do know as a Canadian person (laugh) distinct from American people … I tend to start from the premise that public things want to be supported by the public, which often means government. That has not happened with the Internet in the way that it happened with radio, in an earlier era … with television in an earlier era.
We’re not seeing public media funding and some depreciation of mission and the building of institutions in a publicly funded way that we used to see. Right?
I think there are a whole lot of reasons for that. I think that ship has probably sailed, right, like the window for that was probably the late nineties. And so I think the result of that …
HEFFNER: The window for persuading the American people?
GARDNER: I think, I think, you know, if you look back at the history … farsighted people called upon government and worked with government to carve out space for public spaces in media. Right? That’s how we got …I don’t know as much about the American side … I know the Canadian side a lot better, but that’s how we got things like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation … you know, ABC, NPR, PBS.
When you look back at the founding documents of those organizations, they were very clear-eyed and very far sighted about what they wanted the world to look like and what they wanted to provide for the public. Right?
We didn’t see that happen, that could have happened in the nineties … for the Internet. We didn’t see it happen. I think that now, you know, government is playing a somewhat smaller role in people’s lives … I have a friend who sometimes says we’ve decided to pretend we’re poor. Right? We’ve decided to pretend that we can’t afford to fund things.
And, so I don’t think that that will happen now. But, but the result of that … and I’m not saying that that was necessarily the right answer … it may or may not have been the right answer. Right? Clearly it wasn’t, it didn’t happen.
But the result of that is that what we see on the Internet is that we see spaces that seem as though they would be public spaces, they seem like public good … right? … spaces where people are connecting with each other; spaces where people are accessing information and most of them are not purpose-built, they’re not civic minded institutions … they’re “for profit” institutions.
I am sometimes accused maybe because Canadian … I am sometimes accused of being sort of anti-profit, anti-the private sector.
Of course, I’m not. There’s a space for, you know, a wide array of types of organizations and institutions. But I think that what’s happening is we have spaces that seem to us to be public because they probably should be in some way public and they’re not. Right.
HEFFNER: How do you re-build them?
GARDNER: The million dollar question. Who knows? Right. Who knows? I mean we’re down a road, we pretty far down a road.
If you go back … I mean what I think about all the time, is I think about … have you read Tim Wu’s Master Switch? So it’s a, it’s a terrific book … it’s like a, a awesome brilliant work of scholarship.
In 2010 I read it. And what he does in the book is he talks about the history of other disruptive communications technologies … right … and how they played out over time.
When I read it he wrote about the early days of radio and he wrote about the early days of television … and, and other mediums. When I read that book, I knew that what Tim was saying was correct. Because I had worked for a long time at the CBC and I had worked in radio and I had worked in television and I had been a good, diligent student of CBC history and lore … right … like I loved the public broadcaster, I cared about it a lot.
And so I had, you know, trolled around the museum and looked at all our old stuff and I had read the early founding documents and I had read the early schedules and all of that.
And what Tim said was true. And what he said was that in the early days of those disruptive communications technologies we believed that they were going to be spaces that would enable a democratization of access to information and a democratization of the ability to share.
And so the early radio and TV schedules were things like local community college instructor teaching Latin to the public … right? Or, you know, chess club or math classes or whatever. Right. Like lectures and debate clubs and all sorts of high minded civic awesome stuff.
And clearly what happens over time is commercial interests if they are, if they are sort of unchecked, if they’re the only thing … right … what ends up happening is they end up shaping the evolution of the medium and we end up with … I don’t know … Clear Channel or you know fifty cable TV channels that nobody really wants to watch (laugh) … reality television, whatever … right?
You end up with a thing that is designed to extract profit from the, the sort of communications technology …right …and you don’t end up with something that is good for ordinary people that is what they want …right.
I read that book in 2010, you know, by 2012, it was becoming obvious that that is how things are playing out, it’s how things are playing out today. And again, I think that’s why Wikipedia is so compelling to people and that’s why people love it so much and feel so much affection for it, which they really do.
And it was awesome being the ED of the Wikimedia Foundation because I got to bask in that a lot. Right? They feel affection for it and they love it because they trust it and because they know it’s for them. And I think that what is sad about that is that it is the exception … again that proves the rule. Right? People trust it in contrast to how they feel about other properties.
HEFFNER: Well, this program is called “Reflections of a Wikimanica” …
HEFFNER: … so let me ask you in that spirit how did you do it? Because there still was an economic imperative in driving the site to function, to thrive, to grow …
HEFFNER: … so what in your model can newer sites, that have gained so much recognition as spheres of social influence …
HEFFNER: … what can they emulate from your experience?
GARDNER: Sure. And I mean the, the, the massive popularity of Wikipedia is key to our mode. Right? And it’s massive popularity derives out of its usefulness. Right.
So Wikipedia was founded by Jimmy out of his spare bedroom of his apartment in Florida, right … and when he first started it … nobody could have predicted what it would turn into, right?
But what happened was, he started it and his founding premise was essentially people want to help each other, they want to share, they want to learn.
And that happened, right …so very early in the development of Wikipedia, people from all around the world decided to jump in and start writing articles and start, you know, like generating this vast body of knowledge.
So by the time I came in, it was already extremely popular, I think it was the number 9 most popular site in the world when I joined. So the, the usefulness was there … right.
And Clay Shirky from NYU has said, you know, if you make something that is valuable to people, they will find a way to help you pay to have it continue. Right?
And that’s true. So what happened was, I came in and at the time the staff of the Foundation was very small, it was eight or nine people in Florida … the revenue was something like a million dollars a year, but even that gives it a sort of seriousness that it didn’t really have. Right. Like we ran little fund raising campaigns, but we didn’t have a methodology, we didn’t have a plan, right, we just sort of put up a banner and said “Please give us some money”. So we made about a million dollars a year.
What I did when I came in … I had to figure out how much money we needed, we needed to move to the Bay area, we needed to hire a bunch of engineers, we needed to hire a bunch of UX people, etc. So we needed to move to the Bay area. And, and grow.
And so, what I did was … we experimented for two years … and this is an untold part of the story, nobody knows this part of the story, we don’t … we haven’t talked about it a lot.
But we experimented for two years with different revenue sources. What we tried was … we tried getting grants from grant making institutions from foundations. We talked with rich people and tried to persuade them to support us with cash. We continued with what we called the “many small donor’s model”, also called “crowd funding”.
So we continued with that, with the banners on the site, usually in the late winter …and we also experimented with what in non-profit land is called “earned income” … right … so, so “biz” revenue … business development revenue.
And we did that for two years. All of those paths were super great …. Right … we could have made the money that we needed to make following any one of those paths. Mostly again because Wikipedia was super popular, is super popular and so there was lots of receptivity, lots of people wanted to give us money, lots of people wanted to do business with us.
What we decided to do was to forego the other avenues and go with the crowd sourcing avenue, the crowd funding avenue. And we did that because taking money from ordinary people … dentists and students and teachers and whatever … giving us an average of $30 each … so $5, a hundred dollars, whatever they felt like giving us …what that did was it provided independence for the organization … so we were beholden to nobody … right … we weren’t pulled off track by a funder’s desire for “x” …right …and importantly … like organizations focus on where their money comes from. Right?
And the problem with a lot of non-profits and, and it’s, it’s a structural problem is that they are in the business of provision of services … right … we have a job to do, we’re trying to do this important piece of public work.
And then the funding is separate and disconnected. Right? So if you, you know, if you run a ballet, or something you are in the … your purpose is to create awesome ballets and how you do that is by having fancy parties for wealthy people and persuading them to support this for both themselves and for, you know, kids and whatever … right.
And so you’re in two businesses and that’s inherently hard to manage … right … an organization will tend to get pulled towards the funding because it’s the sort of foundation of all the work that they do.
At the Wikimedia Foundation what we found was that when we were funded by readers we would orient toward readers. Right. And that alignment is really healthy for an organization because what it means is that when someone would write me as ED and say … you know … I’m concerned that I feel like something … this being is kind of wrong with Wikipedia or whatever … I could trust that their concern came from a citizen place, a user place, a reader place, I could therefore take it seriously. We wanted to orient towards, it was healthy for the encyclopedia, it made a better encyclopedia. And it meant that we weren’t pulled off mission … our focus wasn’t pulled. Right?
So that was, I think … the single … I mean there are, there are a number of important moments in the history of the Wikimedia Foundation … the first was Jimmy deciding to make it a non-profit. Which he didn’t have to do … right …and was brave and was awesome of him to do that.
And then another important moment was when we decided to fund ourselves based on contributions from ordinary people, it just made the rest of the work so much easier, so much more straightforward, so much more aligned … you know.
And so, I think … I, I, I am a little bit surprised that other, other Internet organizations and, and even non-profits in general, I’m a little bit surprised that they haven’t oriented more towards that model.
I mean it wasn’t possible to do it that way … or it was possible, but it was extremely difficult to do things that way … you know 30, 40 … whatever years ago. I meant like, I don’t know, mailing people paper saying “Please send us a check” … (laughter) … it was hard. And it’s so much easier now … you know, everybody has pay pal, everybody has Amazon payments. Everybody has ways … it’s not quite as easy as we wish it was.
But, everybody has ways of funding things and I think what we learned at the Wikimedia Foundation was that people want to express their love for things, as Clay said, right, they want to express their love and their affection and their appreciation. And they’re willing to pay more than their fair share. It’s not transactional, they’re not thinking to themselves, “Did I get $25 of value out of Wikipedia? Or did I get $200 of value?”.
They just want to express their love, they want to express their affection. And I know on the Internet myself, I do a lot of that. Like I fund lots of things … like not megabucks, right, but I fund lots of things.
And I enjoy doing it. I feel good after I do it. Right? And I think that now with the technology that enables that and makes that super easy to do, I think that’s a viable business model for organizations. And I think it’s a super healthy model that is sustainable and keeps you aimed in the right direction and I would love to see more organizations experiment with it.
HEFFNER: But that’s not the blueprint that Facebook and Twitter, in particular …
HEFFNER: … have followed. Is it a function of complacency that the … there was no outcry in that “this is a public service and should be a public service” and therefore a demand on the part of the American public and the international community that these sites also be non-profit in spirit, as well as in practice.
GARDNER: Yeah, I don’t think that was ever going to happen. Right? Like I don’t think … because …
HEFFNER: Wishful thinking?
GARDNER: … yeah … I don’t know … you know, I mean, I mean the story is playing out …
HEFFNER: But that would have re-shaped our future.
GARDNER: Absolutely, Yeah.
HEFFNER: So we wouldn’t have to rebuild.
GARDNER: Yeah, but I think that there are problems with that model, too, right … because I mean governments are not great at technology … right … like we know that. And they are big and ponderous and slow … and we know that … right … they’re good at building institutions, but they’re not good at building … you know, inventive, tiny, flexible, fast moving things. I mean this … you know the innovator’s dilemma … blah, blah, blah … right.
And so, I think, I think it is not surprising at all to me that invention and disruption is coming from the corners from which it’s coming. Right? Like that makes perfect sense.
And, you know, the Bay area is the hot bed for all that stuff and the barriers to entry have been very low and smart young people have been able to quickly build exciting things. I think we should be grateful to those people, that is awesome … right … and if you read like the early history of stuff getting developed … it was, you know, guys in their apartment with their roommates … you know, staying up three nights in a row hacking away …
HEFFNER: In their underwear …
GARDNER: Yeah, exactly … Max Levchin with a box of t-shirts just changing his t-shirt when it smelled too much ….
GARDNER: … building PayPal, you know. Like that’s how things get started. And, and, and I think we know why. Right like you have to be, to some degree … you have to be young and reckless … right … and sort of insufficiently, you know, careful and concerned about what might happen. And so forth … like you have to break …
HEFFNER: You and Jimmy Wales would fit that criteria …
GARDNER: (Laugh) I am … we are, we are older now (laugh) and, and I spent my young years working in public broadcasting, right, like, like it makes me laugh sometimes because like radio was invented in, what, 1936 … I was in radio in, you know, 2000. I graduated and went into radio.
But, but I think, I think … so I think disruption and, and disruptive things and the building and, and the overreaching, right, the thinking “I will make this crazy thing and it will be awesome” … right? That is the province I think of the young and the reckless … right. And they can build stuff and it’s great to write. So I don’t know that like a central planning kind of approach to things, like now we will define and have a master plan for building, you know, the social network of the people … or whatever. That wouldn’t have worked … right … if it, if it …
HEFFNER: But would, would not a non profit model have worked for either of those site?
GARDNER: I don’t know. Probably … right? I mean, I, I think lots of people would be willing to pay for functionality equivalent to Facebook, equivalent to Twitter … right?
HEFFNER: Because I wasn’t imagining a government takeover …
HEFFNER: … I was imagining that a group of folks like yourself, Jimmy, others … might have inspired Mark Zuckerberg and others to take on that challenge.
GARDNER: Yeah. Certainly there are organizations that are structuring themselves as non-profits … right. But there are really challenges in structuring yourself as a non profit. The Wikimedia Foundation we were lucky because we had the popularity before we needed the money … right. That’s important and that’s the important thing in, in the crowd funding model.
But I think that the, the non-profit model has lots of problems as well … right. And, you know, there’s been the evolution of like the B Corp and stuff like that … to try to find some kind of more supportive ground for, for building things.
But I mean the fundamental problems with the non-profit model are … number 1 is there is high requirement through the whole sector and, and I didn’t have nonprofit experience before I joined Wikimedia … right.
I had Crown Corporation in Canada experience which is significantly different and your stakeholder there is the government and that is your source of good and evil. (Laugh) Like it’s, it’s that’s your orientation point.
In nonprofitland you are heavily constrained … right … by regulation and by requirements to do certain kinds of reporting and certain kinds of transparency, but it’s not … it’s not really … I don’t know if this will make sense … but it’s not really like a clean transparency … right … the Wikimedia Foundation is enormously transparent.
For nonprofit-land you are filling out a lot of forms …right …and you are adhering to a lot of regulations and there are a lot of best practices that you’re expected to comply with and so forth. Not all of them are useful, right. Like they’re, they’re hueritics, they’re hacks, they’re attempts to sort of see if you’re doing a good job and being a good citizen. You know.
HEFFNER: Sue Gardner, I want to thank you so much for joining The Open Mind today. Will you sit right here and continue broadcasting with me for a second program?
GARDNER: I’d be happy to.
HEFFNER: That’s wonderful, thank you.
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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