Wales interview done by Marla Crockett; here's the raw Q and A

Jay Rosen's picture
Jay Rosen

Interview completed May 4, 2007. Conducted by phone, taped and transcribed from the tape. Interviewer is Marla Crockett.

Jimmy, where do you think we are in the evolution of the Web, in our understanding of what it can do, and how do you think Wikipedia fits into all of that?

Well, I think we’re still at the very beginning of understanding the social rules and mores and the software needed to support the social rules and mores to help a community of people come together and build beneficial things. In the past, we had the idea of the Internet as being a very hostile environ with lots of flame wars, and it was accepted that it was necessary. But now people are beginning to learn that the software didn’t give the community the tools they needed to self-moderate and help encourage people, to bring out the best in people. Wikipedia has gone a long way towards that in terms of generating a set of community norms and rules that does allow people to come together and produce good quality work, but I think we’re really just at the beginning of figuring all that out.

Are you saying that, somewhat like a traffic engineer who could fix the timing on the lights or design roads differently and help control road rage, what you’re trying to do is develop software that will help people maybe not become better people, but at least act differently and have a different kind of conversation?

Yes, although I think the software is secondary. It’s really more about thinking about social structures. I approach a lot of these things from a very strongly theoretical gaming point of view, thinking about incentives people have and how to set up social norms and rules and situations so that people’s incentives are well aligned so they can get something useful done together instead of just fighting. Software’s a part of that the framework where people do that, but it’s really secondary to the social aspects.

Do you consider yourself a social architect?

Yes, to some extent, although I like to avoid terms like social engineering and social architecture because it’s a very different kind of thing, engineering and architecture. In fact, I think one of the problems that we’ve had in the past is that those kind of analogies coming from the kind of people who are really programmers and not social people have inhibited our understanding. So, other than that, I definitely say social design is a really important topic for the future.

What’s your sense right now of what works and what doesn’t in bringing people together to work collaboratively?

One of the things that is really important to enable people to collaborate is that they have a shared vision of what it is they’re trying to accomplish. In the early days of Wikipedia I thought that neutrality was an absolutely indispensable principle for getting lots of different people working together. But after seeing many other projects become successful, I realized that it isn’t so much neutrality as having the same idea of what it is that we’re here to do. So I think that’s the core point I would make.

What have you rejected at this point?

What really doesn’t work is the opposite of that, right? If you’re trying to bring a group of people together and maybe they’re eager to help out in some way, but they don’t understand what their specific mission is or what they’re trying to do, things tend to get very scattered, and people break into endless arguments about what it is that’s going on without actually getting very much accomplished. So the successful collaborative projects I’ve seen are those which have a core purpose, and those that I’ve seen fail are a little vague about what it is they’re trying to do.

Anything else about what works?

That’s the core in one sense, but the other thing I would say is kindness and love (are) indispensable if you’re going to have a group of people doing something useful. Communities that are really combative may be entertaining places to go for combat, but in terms of building something, I think kindness and love are indispensable.

So what are you working on right now in terms of social design?

At Wikia I have this new search engine project. Basically I’m spending a lot of time
right now thinking about and designing the social interaction aspects of that, thinking about what the rules should be. It’s an interesting challenge that’s similar in some ways to the Wikipedia challenge, but different in some really important ways. The whole point of a search engine is to link to things and to try to traffic in things. You have a much stronger and much more direct problem of people who may be editing from a particular biased point of view to promote themselves or their standing web sites or whatever, and so that’s a challenge, there’s always going to be a huge direct incentive for people to get involved for those reasons, and that’s a tricky thing to think about—how do you give the community the kind of control they need to make sure that doesn’t become dominant while at the same time being open and flexible. So that’s the sort of thing I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on.

Is this why you’re interested in developing a code of conduct for the blogosphere?

Yeah, that’s a big part of it. That sort of fits into the same kind of paradigm of work, saying, look, the days of thinking of the Internet as being some kind of radical out-of- context free speech zone where if somebody is being rude, the right answer is to flame them back and grow a thicker skin, I think those days are dying out, because we’re no longer an Internet culture of young male Internet geeks who like that combative style. Instead I think it’s time to say, look, some of these behaviors just are not acceptable. They’re not socially acceptable, and the community needs a way to deal with it and basically exclude people who won’t behave themselves so the rest of us can get on with our lives and do interesting, fun things.

There are some indications that women are fleeing the web because of the harassment they’ve received.

I think it’s a bit of a mistake to imagine them fleeing…

The blogging atmosphere, I think…

But they’re not coming in as fast as we might like. I don’t think there’s any overall trend which says, gee, back in the old days women were really into blogging and now they’re all being chased away. It’s really more the opposite, that a lot of these social conflict problems are becoming more noticeable because more and more women are coming in and basically finding this hostile culture, and it’s making the problem more readily apparent. My view of the bigger picture trend is, as more and more people enter the participatory culture of the Internet, a lot of social problems that we took for granted in the past become no longer acceptable.

How do you think this participatory online culture is changing American culture?

Ooh, that’s a really big picture guru question—always a little nervous about those. I’m just this guy typing on the Internet like anybody else. I think there are a lot of interesting things going on. This may not be what you’re driving at exactly, but one of the intersections between the Internet and technology and pop culture is the advent of the new genre of television which I call the really complicated TV series. Things like “Lost” and “24” are, in part, successful genres because the fan culture around them has an expression on the Internet. If you sit down and start watching “Lost,” you’re liable to get lost yourself, but you can go on a wiki like at lost.wikia.com and really figure out what’s going on and really have a full documentation of all the complex relationships of the characters. I think that’s an interesting symbiotic relationship between technology and culture, and it isn’t just the Internet technology. It’s even the existence of TiVo and the ability to pause the show and discuss what happened. Because it’s like, who is that guy again? Oh yeah, we saw him six episodes ago lurking around the corner, and now we know who he is. That kind of stuff is hard to do on live television when it’s just going by and you can’t stop it while you’re watching it. It makes it really hard to be very intellectual with the complexities of plot. Now the way we watch television is changing, in part, because of technology, so for me that’s one of the interesting things that’s happening.

You were talking about the need to change and corral this Internet culture. Do you think that wiki users and followers and in general people online are ready for that development?

Definitely. I see a pretty strong personality difference between bloggers and wiki people, in the sense that blogging is all about stating your own unique perspective on the world. It’s very much a discussion or debate culture, whereas wiki is a lot more about collaborating and working together with people who maybe you disagree with, but you’re trying to build something together. So the incentives are all different and the kind of personalities end up being different as well. If you’re somebody who has a really strong political axe to grind and your purpose is to basically convert people to seeing things the way you see them, you don’t find a wiki a very comfortable place to work. And I’m not being negative about that kind of person at all. I think we need people who are passionate advocates for the truth as they see it, and that’s an important role in society. But there’s also a role for a different kind of person who says, yeah, I don’t have a strong opinion on that subject, but I’m willing to pitch in and flesh out all sides of the debate in a useful way. I’m here as a person who likes to mediate conflict, not to engage in conflict, and those personality types tend to be drawn into wiki more. So I think certainly within the wiki community this idea of an increasingly friendly place and also a place where the tools are given to the community to help deal with the bad characters, is very popular.

Where are you right now in developing this code of conduct?

So right now it’s basically at blogging.wikia.com. There’s a discussion going on there. I feel it’s not up to me to determine the code of conduct, because for a code of conduct that really works it has to be hammered out by people who disagree strongly about what it should be about. For that to happen they need to come into the wiki. They need to figure out what is their common ground, how can we state the shared social mores in a way that’s clear and very, very broadly acceptable. And that has to come from the people that are very actively involved with that. Right now the wiki discussion is underway. I actually haven’t I’ve barely online in the past week…I haven’t looked at it to see the active status of it.

I understand you also want to develop wiki journalism.

Well sure, right. At Wikia we have a whole new category of sites we call magazine style sites. It’s a complete revamp of the look and feel of the wiki software but it’s still wiki underneath. That’s an idea thing. Let’s figure out the tools people would need that are different to create. The tools you need to create a web site that’s an encyclopedia are different than the tools you’d need to create a magazine. So, how do we do that? That’s something I’m very invested in exploring.

So (in this case) it’s all about the software? Because take Wikipedia. Everybody had a frame of reference before you started this venture. They knew what an encyclopedia is and does. So does everybody really understand what it takes to make a good news story, and does that frame of reference have to be there, or is it all about the software?

It’s almost nothing about the software. The software can be an impediment. The software changes you need have to do with the social matters. Yes, absolutely, one of the reasons wiki style journalism can work is that people have a very clear and strong understanding of what a good news story is, and that is not something that is reserved for the high priests of journalism. Lots and lots of people read the newspaper and know the difference between a good news story and a poor news story and what it takes to make that. Now how they can do that collaboratively and socially and what is the incentive structure, I don’t think we’ve worked out. I don’t mean we as in me, but as a whole citizen journalism movement. I don’t think we’ve worked that out in a positive way, although there are many interesting experiments going on, Assignment Zero being one of them where people are coming together and saying let’s try to do journalism in some different ways and let’s see what works or not. It’ll be interesting to look back at some of these things like Oh My News, or Assignment Zero or Wiki News or the Wikia magazine site, and come back in two or three years and see which ones have been successful and which ones haven’t and to learn from that and say ah, nobody realized it, but one of the big obstacles to doing a good news story is X, and funny we didn’t notice that because now it seems obvious. But that’s the way these things go usually.

Are all of these ventures based on your evolving knowledge of how the intelligent crowd works?

Yeah, definitely. I reject a lot of the rhetoric and a lot of the ideas around swarm intelligence or the wisdom of crowds. I think some of that stuff is pretty sketchy. I think it comes down to a really passionate person with a good mind who is committed to doing good work and doing that in collaboration with other people of similar minds. It remains an individual activity even when we do it in a group. And I think there’s a lot of mystical talk about how there’s some high mind or cloud of intelligence out there. I think that’s confusing and sketchy rhetoric.

Well, you’re an entrepreneur, and it’s all about individual effort…

Exactly.

I understand you take issue with the word, crowdsourcing. But can you elaborate on what’s the difference? Are we really just talking about the same thing, about individuals coming together pooling their talents and their resources? Are we getting hung up on terms?

The term crowdsourcing is a direct take off on the word outsourcing. The whole idea of outsourcing is, you look around, there’s a company and you say, gee, we could actually go outside of our organization and are looking for a cheaper way of producing the same thing. Perfectly ethical activity for a company. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think there’s something deeply flawed in it if you’re a company who’s thinking about building a web site, and you think of what you’re doing as crowdsourcing. You’re fundamentally misunderstanding what it’s all about. So, one of the analogies I’ll use is, suppose you are a bowling alley owner and you thought your business is the production of bowling and you think what you’re trying to do is produce high quality bowling and you’re going to crowdsource it by somehow getting the public to produce more bowling. That’s a really weird way to think about what it is you’re doing as a company, and you’re going to make a lot of weird decisions based on that, as opposed to thinking of your job as a company running a bowling alley. We’re not here to make bowling, we are here to provide a place for people who want to come in and bowl, and we want them to come in and enjoy whatever it is they’re doing. It’s not about trying to trick them into producing bowling cheaply, it’s about figuring out what they’re having fun doing and helping to facilitate that. It’s a very different attitude toward community. Instead of viewing your customers as customers the crowdsourcing view views your customers as really badly paid employees, and I think that’s a huge mistake.

What role do experts have in this concept, in your philosophy? It seems as though the conversation in the past year or so has moved more toward the hybrid, the collaboration between amateurs and professionals. I’m wondering how you feel about that approach?

Well that’s my approach. My approach is really hard core on that point, that experts are absolutely indispensable. People who know what they’re talking about are at the core of moving society forward. And that passionate individual mind who has figured something out at great length is completely crucial. So the great irony of this is that I’m typically poised as being the anti-elitist, when I’m probably the most elitist person, as most people know, in terms of being a complete snob about people knowing what they’re talking about.

One of your principles says that, “Newcomers are always to be welcomed. There must be no cabal, there must be no elites, there must be no hierarchy or structure which gets in the way of this openness to newcomers.” Experts for decades have sort of said to the public, “Let us take care of it, don’t worry your pretty little heads about it.”

Well, I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s really a myth. The best experts have always been the ones who view their role in society as being about participating in a broad open public dialogue. Certainly the worst of the experts, the kind of person who would say I refuse to engage in a discussion with you because I have a Ph.D and you don’t, those people tend to be idiots, and they’re not really that valuable. The kind of expert I’m interested in is the person who always has an active lively mind and is willing to engage in open broad discussion in a democratic society. So for me there is this sort of mistake when we imagine academics are really not interested in dealing with the general public and not interested in defending their ideas in the open marketplace of ideas, I think that’s just wrong. The best academics have always been very enthusiastic about this enlightenment view which says it’s not about having a guild of protected people, it’s about being right, knowing what you’re talking about. And defending your ideas not based on a fallacious appeal to authority but defending your ideas based on sound reasoning….

You’re a public figure now who gets a lot of publicity and praise or criticism. How have you been challenged by that? What tensions do you feel surrounding that celebrity?

When I think about my work, which includes Wikipedia, Wikia, and Wikimedia, I recognize I am most useful in the furtherance of my goals by being a public spokesperson, but it’s very time demanding. So that it becomes difficult for me to do other work that I enjoy and think is important. So that’s a challenge, how can I be an effective evangelist for these ideas and effectively get a lot of what I want to accomplish in front of people so they can accept it or reject it, but hopefully understand it, while at the same time actually get my work done.

What don’t you get asked in interviews that you’d like to be asked about…

Gee, there’s not a lot, I pretty much get asked everything…


5/6/07