MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, the public commons - building more democratic, more civil public places, whether it's a library, a city council budget meeting or the online platforms we use every day. That online part, as we've heard, is particularly tricky. But there is one place that's an example of a public commons on the web that mostly works with robust rules and norms, run almost entirely by volunteers.
JAKE ORLOWITZ: I saw an article about a young man probably not much younger than when I was at the time. His name was Khalid Saeed, and he had been beaten horrifically to death by Egyptian police.
ZOMORODI: This is Jake Orlowitz.
ORLOWITZ: And it was the photograph of his face, at the time called the face that sparked a revolution. And I put the photograph of his battered face in the article. And I thought, you know, as an information activist, when there's something like this, the world needs to see it.
ZOMORODI: Titled "Death Of Khaled Mohamed Saeed," the article was - is - part of Wikipedia's coverage of the Arab Spring. Jake was one of the page's editors.
ORLOWITZ: So I'm editing this article. And then the crowds start gathering...
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ORLOWITZ: ...In Tahrir Square, which is Cairo's central square. And I am glued. I have Al Jazeera livestreaming into the bathroom. Every 20 seconds, 30 seconds, I'm typing in, you know, Egypt, Cairo, uprising, revolution. I'm gathering sources. And as I'm gathering sources, another editor had started the article, which at the time was called "2011 Protests In Egypt."
ZOMORODI: Jake worked out of his parents' home in Philadelphia as part of a small team of Wikipedia editors. Based around the globe, they updated the page constantly, keeping tabs on the enormous flow of information and rumors coming out of Cairo.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: And people now are pouring into the square.
ORLOWITZ: You have reports coming in from various news agencies.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Taking you live to Cairo.
ORLOWITZ: And someone needs to say, these sources are good sources. These sources are not good sources.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: They're battling for territory and also for political control.
ORLOWITZ: Someone needs to say, this breaking news event has now been reported in enough papers that we can consider it dependable. There are sections that need to be added explaining the background causes. You're starting to get international reactions, and different heads of state are commenting. And all of this is being organized by four or five really core editors. It's me. It's a European who is really interested in politics. It's an Egyptian who's on the ground in Egypt. We're walking this fine line between rooting for the revolution and making sure the Wikipedia article does its job, which is to report neutrally.
ZOMORODI: Maybe you've gotten a breaking news alert on your phone. It could be a massive revolution or a celebrity wardrobe malfunction. And you go to Wikipedia, and you find that it's already been updated with the latest details. It can feel like magic. But the over 6 million English language articles - from the Egyptian revolution to Bennifer - are almost all written, edited and fact-checked by a small army of volunteer editors who call themselves Wikipedians.
ORLOWITZ: Writing a new article - it's a lot of fun because you get to shape what comes next. Wikipedians build in layers. And if you put down that first layer, that scaffolding, someone else will hopefully come by and put up a wall here or a window there.
ZOMORODI: Ideally, copy editors and researchers come in and make that scaffolding stronger, supported by verified information.
ORLOWITZ: Because at the core of Wikipedia's ethos is that you don't write your own knowledge. You're merely summarizing other good sources because if I don't do that, someone is likely to come by and say, I recommend this article be deleted. And then you have to have a debate about it for a whole week about whether or not the article can exist at all.
ZOMORODI: All these layers and debates, the whole open-source ethos - Jake says that's why Wikipedia is different than other places online.
ORLOWITZ: And I think that's what readers love because everywhere else you look when you're trying to get news, there's so much noise that comes with that. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, said that Wikipedia is like a temple for the mind. You go to a Wikipedia page, and you're not going to get bombarded by an ad. You're not going to have to see threads of comments. It's just quiet. And we don't have a lot of quiet digital spaces anymore.
JIMMY WALES: You know, when most people first got on the internet, one of the first thoughts that people would have is, like, wow, this is amazing. Like, everyone in the world can communicate. And so I just thought, OK, why don't we just use the internet for that? We've got this great tool for sharing knowledge, so why don't we just share knowledge?
ZOMORODI: This is Jimmy Wales. You could call him the original Wikipedian. He co-founded the website back in 2001. And even then, he had big ideas for the platform.
WALES: The original vision for Wikipedia is to imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.
ZOMORODI: But to create a digital public space that could even begin to deliver on those ambitions, it required a set of founding values. Here's Jimmy Wales on the TED stage back in 2005.
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WALES: So the biggest and the most important thing is our neutral point of view policy. This is something that I set down from the very beginning as a core principle of the community that's completely not debatable. It's a social concept of cooperation. So we don't talk a lot about truth and objectivity. Anytime there's a controversial issue, Wikipedia itself should not take a stand on the issue. We should merely report on what reputable parties have said about it. So this neutrality policy is really important for us because it empowers the community to come together and actually get some work done. By having this firm neutrality policy, which is non-negotiable from the beginning, we ensure that people can work together and that the entries don't become simply a war back and forth between the left and the right. If you engage in that type of behavior, you'll be asked to leave the community.
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ZOMORODI: Jimmy, you have always emphasized the importance of neutrality. But, I mean, let's be honest, it's hard to build utopia, right? I mean, Wikipedia has gotten a fair amount of criticism over the years about who gets an entry and who doesn't. Representation continues to be a problem. Like, for example, there are very few entries about notable women, especially women of color, female scientists. And so therefore, what is on Wikipedia is not entirely neutral, no?
WALES: Yeah. I mean, that is definitely exactly the heart of what we have to strive for. So we have groups like Women in Red who say, OK, we're going to look into, you know, where are there problems in the coverage of Wikipedia where we have incomplete coverage of people who should be here who are women. And I can say, having chatted with thousands of Wikipedians (ph) over the years, like, people first and foremost write about what they know about. They write about what they're interested in. And it turns out that a lot of what people are interested in, there is - that gender is reflected in that. So as a community, we need to bring in more people. We need to bring in a more diverse bunch of contributors. And then we can ask ourselves, OK, how can we make that happen? What are the barriers to making that happen? And this is a huge body of thinking and talking and working that we do within the community.
ZOMORODI: You know, we actually talked to Eli Pariser about that earlier, that perhaps we need to design platforms to be welcoming, to be more civil. But also, you know, it makes me wonder, does it come back to the business model? Like, how much did making Wikipedia a nonprofit factor into it being a place where people wanted to share knowledge, not a place to chase clicks and to sell more ads?
WALES: I would say one of the first things I would suggest is to move away from this, in my view, false dichotomy that you can either do something good for the public space or you can make a lot of money. You know, you can do something that's powerfully ethical, very interesting, makes money, but doesn't involve promoting conspiracy theories and nonsense and creating unhealthy spaces. You know, it's like the local pub or coffee shop. And they're there to make money, and they have a business. But it's also - in many cases, it's the heart of a community. And that's great.
ZOMORODI: But that doesn't always happen with these profit-driven platforms. They are not just virtual coffee shops where people gather together benignly. A lot of the time, people end up in much darker, more profane places and getting bad information.
WALES: I mean, it's really interesting because if you think about two places you can go where it's quite easy to get sucked in and spend hours and hours - so one is Wikipedia and then YouTube. But the difference is, at YouTube, the videos that are shown to you next tend to be videos that keep you on the site longer.
WALES: Oftentimes, something outrageous, something, you know, wrong is more likely to keep you on the site than otherwise. And so they promote that. At Wikipedia, there is no algorithm. Humans wrote at all. They link to things they think are interesting. They link to background information. And that just gives you a completely different and opposite result. It doesn't lead you down this unhealthy path to dark places. And I think that's interesting. And, you know, it's hard. It's hard for an advertising-based system to do that. And I think that difference is really what explains a lot that's going on on the internet.
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ZOMORODI: As we wrap up, I just want to read you a quote that I understand a lot of Wikipedians like, or a phrase. Thank God our little enterprise works in practice because it could never work in theory.
ZOMORODI: Do you abide by that?
WALES: I don't.
ZOMORODI: No (laughter)?
WALES: I think it really is a system that's designed. I always compare it to a good municipal government. What do you want from a good municipal government? Well, you want to be able to criticize and complain about the administrators or, you know, the police or whatever without getting thrown in jail. So you don't want to be treated in an arbitrary fashion. But at the same time, you also want your children to be able to play in the park and not get accosted and attacked and so on. And so that balance between having rules, creating a safe environment while at the same time saying let's not be overcontrolling and so on, it's an art, and it's a bit messy, but it does work.
ZOMORODI: Jimmy Wales is the co-founder of Wikipedia and a Wikimedia board member. You can see his talk at ted.com. Also, many thanks to Jake Orlowitz, founder of the Wikipedia Library, a project that helps Wikipedians find reliable sources.
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