On this episode of Undesign, we discuss free knowledge and open-source culture with Zack McCune — diving deep in everything that entails, from edit wars to the legacy of former President Trump. Zack is the Director of Brand for Wikipedia and various projects of the Wikimedia Foundation, arguably the most well-known, global mobilization of the free knowledge movement.
- Wikimedia Foundation projects: Find out about the nonprofit behind Wikipedia and all the other free knowledge projects.
- Join or start an Edit-a-thon: Get inspired to join or start your own edit-at-thon by checking out examples from all over the globe.
- Zack’s petroglyphs projects!: Not sure what a petroglyph is? Check out Zack’s Instagram!
Hello, everyone, and welcome to Undesign. I’m your host Kosta.
Thank you so much for joining me on this mammoth task to untangle the world’s wicked problems and redesign new futures.
I know firsthand that we all have so much we can bring to these big challenges, so listen in and see where you fit as we undesign the concept of free knowledge and open source culture.
You may ask yourself, what is free knowledge? Have you ever been in a conversation with a friend and they’re like, “Hey, what’s the name of that movement that seeks to make sure that all knowledge is free to use, reuse, and redistribute without legal, social, or technological restriction?” And you think, “Wow, I’m not actually sure. I better check Wikipedia.”
That is free knowledge. It is our ability to access all that we know, or think we do, and to participate in the creation of what we know, at a moment’s notice. The aspiration is to create a mirror to society that we can turn to at any time.
With technology, we no longer have to rely on static, printed materials from specific publishing houses to learn about events after they’ve happened. We can now do this in real time. But there’s another saying that comes to mind for this one — knowledge is power.
With these technological advancements, the complexities also intensify. Who gets to participate? How do we manage differing worldviews? Why is participation in this free knowledge so, so important, perhaps more than we currently realize?
Helping us untangle this wicked problem is our latest special guest, Zack McCune. Zack is the current Director of Brand for Wikipedia and various projects under its parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation. Zack is also an American filmmaker and graphic designer whose work has been featured in AeroMexico, the US National Park Service, and the BBC.
Just like the most surreal journey down a rabbit hole on some random Wikipedia page, we go from talking about edit wars on the status of cats, to how editors seek to bring neutrality when covering divisive figures like one Donald J. Trump.
As you’ll see from our chat, free knowledge goes so much further than just updating a page on Wikipedia. Free knowledge is so much older than the internet or even the printing press. Free knowledge is a basic human right. So what does it really mean for knowledge to be free, and how can we make sure people can participate in this important and collective human endeavor?
KOSTA: Zack, thank you so much for joining us today. How are you going?
ZACK: Great to be here.
KOSTA: Where are you calling in from?
ZACK: I’m calling in from San Francisco, California, in the United States.
KOSTA: Fantastic. And how’s the vibe over there at the moment?
ZACK: The fog is cleared, pretty sunny. People are getting hopeful that the rest of the year might have more movement, more chances to see friends and family. And I’m incredibly spoiled, because I actually just got to see my mother for the first time in a year.
KOSTA: Wow. That’s such a long time. Where is she based?
ZACK: She is based in Boston, Massachusetts, which is where I grew up. And she flew out, she got to see me and my brother and her grandson. It was a big moment.
KOSTA: Fantastic. That’s really beautiful, man. I’m happy to hear that.
I’m really, really thankful you’re here with us today to talk about what feels like a massive topic. Probably, I feel like it’s one of those topics that’s unfamiliar to people in the abstract. But then once you realize, oh, this is something we encounter day by day, that it affects every single person that uses technology. We’re here to talk about and untangle this idea of free knowledge — I guess that’s the best catch-all we could come up with.
Can I throw the floor to you to tell us a bit more about what free knowledge is, and why we’re even talking about it?
ZACK: Yeah, I’m overjoyed to talk about free knowledge. So I’m joining you from my role at the Wikimedia Foundation. And we’re a nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, as well as almost a dozen other free knowledge projects.
Free knowledge is this idea, this commitment, this endeavor, to make it possible for anyone, anywhere to access knowledge materials for free; and to modify them, to change them, to improve them, to participate in further creating them.
As I think about it, it’s one of the most generous collaborations in human history. It’s basically saying, we all know more together than we do apart, and we’re going to use technology platforms to bring together all of the knowledge that humans have accumulated over the millennia. So it’s a really optimistic project.
In its most robust format, as Wikipedia, we have a billion and a half devices accessing it every month. We also know that it’s one of the world’s most ubiquitous websites. It’s a thing people use all the time. And that’s made it into a joke at times, like a punch line — like, “I learned it on Wikipedia”, something your teachers might warn you not to use. But then a trusted, older sibling or cousin or uncle might come to be like, “I am dependent, I need this dear friend.”
KOSTA: As a sessional academic, I can confess to building entire classes off of a skeleton of a Wikipedia article. I love Wikipedia, but I can’t tell my students to reference it. But I’m like, use it as your starting point, as long as you go straight to the source; or if you just need a quick download of an issue, go there. It’s so useful. I’m absolutely guilty of it, and I love it.
Honestly, I was thinking about this yesterday in anticipation of our chat. And I don’t think I feel the same sense of wonder on the internet anymore, except when I’m down a Wikipedia rabbit hole of a random topic. You just follow the rabbit hole where it goes. The internet is such a weird place, at the best of times, that the only sense of wonder I can seem to reclaim, and true “finding knowledge in a very joyful, self-paced way” is probably through a Wikipedia page.
ZACK: Love that.
KOSTA: It’s easy to take for granted, right? Because it’s just at our fingertips.
How long has this [free-knowledge] movement been around? Has it been since Wikipedia was incepted, or is it something that pre-existed it?
ZACK: Wikipedia has been around since January 15, 2001. So it is a fundamentally 21st-century idea. But the idea of sharing knowledge for free obviously predates that. A lot of our volunteers who make Wikipedia content feel that they are continuing projects from the Enlightenment, from human history. There have been so many initiatives to try to collect together all the things that humans know.
I think some of the animating factors in Wikipedia, and our movement today, are really open source culture — the idea that software itself can move faster if people can access the code itself, and adjust it, and edit it, and contribute updates to the code collaboratively. A lot of what comes into Wikipedia really comes from Linux and free software movements.
When you look at Wikipedia today, it feels polished. It feels like this endpoint, where you’re like, “Wow, this is like a lot of knowledge”. It still has that delightful, early web aesthetic, but it looks pretty credible at this point, because our editors have made it so refined.
Beneath that is an open source piece of software that we run called MediaWiki. All the content is licensed as Creative Commons, which is a way of sharing material. It’s an update on intellectual property rights. So when you look at Wikipedia, you’re actually seeing a number of free culture movements — ideas that culture should be more open and more participatory — coming into one crystallized format, which is Wikipedia.
KOSTA: Yeah, right. That’s really fascinating as well.
My next question, then, really is around this idea of… When we’re talking about free knowledge, in particular, what’s the difference between, say, information and knowledge? Or this idea of what is worth preserving and what is ephemeral (something that pops and disappears)? Is that completely user-driven at this point?
ZACK: Our volunteers, who are some of the most extraordinary and generous people on Earth, are constantly debating notability, which is the discussion of whether or not something should be on Wikipedia. And that’s just on it. That’s a topic level, like, should this actress or this football club have a Wikipedia article? Is this notable? There’s a whole bunch of guidelines to make that choice, but it is always a human choice. It’s a debate. Then, even within an article, you will see debates about what density of information should be shared, from personal life to schooling.
When I think about the difference between information and knowledge, I see a delineation — information feels very raw, and knowledge feels very crafted, right? Like, humans have put some framing on [knowledge] to help somebody understand it.
So it’s not simply the temperature outside. It’s how the temperature should be understood and contextualized. Is it a normal temperature? Is it a low temperature? What could you expect to happen, right? I like to think about it as, from weather to climate is like the difference between information and knowledge.
KOSTA: Right. Wow. That brings to mind this idea that, you know, history is written by the winners. That old adage. As we’ve graduated from Encyclopaedia Britannica to Encarta to now Wikipedia… and we’ll get into the other things that the Wikimedia Foundation does too, because I know that free knowledge, this movement has a lot of different spokes, right? But traditionally, these things were fixed, or a bit more fixed, because of the technology being available.
The interesting thing here is that, with this user-generated, very real-time updating of information and what’s notable and what’s not, the opportunity to be current is pretty unprecedented, right? But the opportunity for conflicting ideas of what should be on there, how things should be interpreted, this idea of the human interpretation of information feels to me like a very contentious point, right?
Are there any examples of Wikipedia pages on very notable events that have had a surprising amount of contention about how a particular event should be represented? Obviously there would be stuff like… the conflicts all over the world, were they identity-based or around nationality? I think that’s kind of a given. Are there any other surprising things that you’ve seen people flame each other over on Wikipedia, where you’re like, “Wow, I can’t believe this is an issue”?
ZACK: We definitely appreciate that knowledge is active. It is about engaging with different viewpoints and different information sources. Just as some say that democracy is a contact sport, knowledge-making in a participatory open platform is also high contact. We want to make the interactions civil, and constructive, rather than uncomfortable, personal, or worse. But, as you’re asking, are there notable… we call them “edit wars”.
KOSTA: Yes, that’s the word I was looking for.
ZACK: There’s been edit wars on all sorts of things, like cats. There’s a very infamous edit war on the Cats article on English Wikipedia, which is, is a cat fundamentally a domestic pet, or is it a feline who can sometimes be kept as a pet? What is a more important core dimension of cats?
KOSTA: Oh my God. So it’s domesticity versus its inherent nature —
ZACK: That’s right, you nailed it.
KOSTA: — or like, as opposed to its physical characteristics or its biology? Far out?
ZACK: That’s right. You’re like, “Okay, a cat is a feline, right?” That’s what it is. But contextually it’s almost exclusively known as a pet. So should you lead with that — “a feline commonly kept as a pet”?
KOSTA: Oh my God.
ZACK: Do we need “pet” in the first sentence or not? I think that was a very long edit war.
ZACK: Of course, conflicts on delineations between nations, on religious topics… You can expect edit conflicts [and] debate where debate exists in society, because Wikipedia is a mirror to society.
During a political season, you will see candidate articles updated all the time. But then you will also see topics you wouldn’t think are controversial, like “cat”, be edited to a great degree.
KOSTA: Actually, can I throw in an example that is close to my heart?
ZACK: Of course, yes, throw it in. What do you got?
KOSTA: This is embarrassing, but I’ve admitted this a few times by now. I’m a massive professional wrestling fan. I don’t really participate as much. I’m a lurker. I love reading the dirt sheets about what is supposedly happening behind the scenes and all the big federations. I love the drama, whatever. I’ve been a lifelong fan.
However, I notice some of the discourse around Wikipedia…. Wrestlers have a repertoire of moves that they use in their matches. I know that there’s been some discussion amongst the really devoted fanbase — they’re known as the IWC, the Internet Wrestling Community — about the inclusion of finishing moves and signature moves in the profiles of wrestlers.
Traditionally, you’d be able to look at a wrestler’s profile and see what moves they’ve used, what their signatures are. However, I believe there’s been some discussion about whether that is worthy of inclusion on that page. And I think what it comes down to is this idea of, what’s the source of truth for that statement? Because some people change their finishing moves from time to time. It’s hard to know when they’ve stopped using them… This is getting very technical. [laughs]
ZACK: I love this. This is a delight.
KOSTA: For me, as a wrestling fan, when I come across a new pro wrestler, I want to know what their finishing moves are, because it just says a lot about their character. To not have access to that on something as… You haven’t made it until you’ve got a Wikipedia page that people have argued over. I’m like, “Man, that’s a really missing piece of the puzzle”. But the idea here is this source of truth — what is the source of truth in reality that that is based on?
Anyway, I just wanted to throw that in there, because that’s how I’ve encountered it in my own bizarre way. And that’s where I get lost down the rabbit hole in Wikipedia too.
But I think what I’m getting at here is this idea between making knowledge free and actually participating in inputting into knowledge. I seize upon that point you made before, about Wikipedia being a mirror to society, right? But is it fair to say that that’s probably more aspirational than the actual reality, given some of the figures around participation in knowledge generation and all that?
Strongly, yes. We truly do endeavor to have almost ubiquitous participation. I think that would be the real goal. As you’re saying, that’s the aspiration, right? Because when we think about it, there’s almost a philosophical premise behind Wikipedia and, more broadly, free knowledge — which is, it would be truly inclusive and powerful, it would be closest to truth if it had many participants, like almost all participants. That would include being like, “I don’t actually know anything about tuna or yellowtail, so I’m gonna actually abstain from participating in this.” Knowing that you had the opportunity to participate, and you chose not to, would be an incredible bit of progress.
ZACK: But, as you’re saying, we still have a massive way to go in terms of equitable participation. We have a gender gap. A great deal of our content is basically focused on men. In the English Wikipedia, about 18% of the articles that are about people are about women.
KOSTA: Oh, wow, only 18%?
ZACK: 18% of the biographies, yeah. Part of what’s going on there, it’s really multi-factor. It’s participation, who’s feeling empowered to come on the platform and author content. It’s also history and references, which is basically, if you have centuries of patriarchy, that shows up in the printed record — the printed record itself mostly is stories of men.
You can take any major city in the world and just do a study of the street names that are named after people. And you could say, how many of these are men? It’s going to be most of the street names. That’s a way of establishing notability and then having references to draw on in creating articles.
KOSTA: Wow, so it’s almost a bit self-perpetuating in some ways. The longer these things go unaddressed, the more of a self-fulfilling dynamic you get into, where you’ve only got male sources of truth to draw upon. Hence, unless there’s a massive disruption, it can be easy to perpetuate as well.
ZACK: Yeah. And that’s why we want to help that happen. That’s where Wikipedia is actually part of a network of knowledge-making, right?
You said, we are a central reference point, even like a source of truth. But down at the bottom of every one of our pages is references, which you also mentioned directing your students to.
We want people to go read those as well, and even contest those, because the concept is, no statement can be made without a reference to back it up. Like, this wrestler was born here. Okay, according to who? You should be able to track that.
That’s where we depend in this free knowledge ecosystem on journalists, on scholars, on activists pushing to open up archives and help the world have more visibility into people who have not been present. As you said, knowledge has been written by the winners, so there’s a lot of material about the winners, right?
ZACK: In order to have a more inclusive, true global free knowledge corpus, you would want to have information coming in to inform the knowledge from all over the world and from all perspectives. This is what gets me very excited and makes me really honored to work and to think with the people I do. It’s just truly radical to imagine and to try to work towards more perspectives on something like knowledge. That’s why even the word “free” doesn’t just mean like “it’s free, you can take it and use it”, but also free like “liberated”, you know?
KOSTA: Can you speak on that more? Just on this idea of what free really means in this context?
ZACK: All right. So I should say that the usual nerdy statement, that is a delightful statement, is there’s free as in speech and free as in beer. Free as in speech: you can say something, you can contest a point of view, you can articulate your truth. Free as in beer: this beer I’m drinking does not cost me any money. Wikipedia is interested in both.
KOSTA: Right, free speech and beer, got it.
ZACK: Yeah, free speech and free beer. We want both things in the world. We want to see people be able to use our platform and our content, so that they can access it for free, they can reuse it for free, they can visit it. There’s no paywalls on entry. We’re entirely supported by donations to keep things going. And then it’s also free as in speech — you can put your point of view in, you can bring your vision here; you can participate in in crafting, shaping, ideally perfecting and improving the knowledge in the world, whichever topics you care about.
KOSTA: It assumes a level of equity, right? Or at least tries to create the conditions of… I guess this is all aspirational, and probably something that you guys deal with on a day to day basis, right? I might have to make this point in a slightly long-winded way, so just bear with me for a sec.
ZACK: I am ready.
KOSTA: I’ll try to get to this point. So my background is in extremism research and polarization. That’s my primary starting point for a lot of things — looking at the reasons why people choose radical violence, or why societies and communities split apart. I look at that very much in the modern context, particularly how social media, and just the online world, fits into that.
One of the things that I feel that I’ve noticed with a lot of social media and the challenges that we have — we went from sources of knowledge that were very top-down, where the sources of information and truth were very few and very infrequent; in comparison to now where we’ve got 24-hour news cycles, we’ve got information we can access at all times, we’ve got so many different sources of information to draw upon.
KOSTA: Social media, in my view, at least at the beginning, really flattened this playing field quite a bit. The issue we have now is, by flattening the playing field, there’s a tendency to attribute false equivalencies between different sources of truth, just because they look the same in the way they are presented to the user, right?
Unless you’ve got specialist knowledge to understand where certain things come from, or if you’ve got a certain level of digital literacy, it can be really hard to decipher these hierarchies of what’s credible information and what’s not. The discussion I have with students is, just because two things are ideological opposites, it doesn’t mean they’re actually opposites in terms of their veracity of being true or being legitimate.
Does Wikipedia encounter those issues where you’ve got ideological opposites on a particular issue? Where the weight of history and what we know is really high on one sense, but because of this idea of all information being free to be contested and challenged and offered, that [the other sense] increases in prominence?
I’ll give you an example that I think about, which is Holocaust denial, which is something that comes up a lot in my work. There’s always been a certain segment of a population that has spouted Holocaust denial conspiracies. It’s largely been just brushed off until maybe the last 20 or so years, with the advent of the internet and Web 2.0.
With those really contentious issues, where those problems have massive ramifications for how communities get along, or the discrimination faced particularly by members of Jewish communities — how does Wikipedia deal with those sorts of contestations of knowledge and that “freeness” of speech?
ZACK: On Wikipedia, you have truly millions of articles. English Wikipedia, 5 million articles. And we have German, French, Spanish, also with millions of articles. So when you think about how many topics are being covered, it’s a vast, wide range.
I say this to foreground that, first, there are different editions of Wikipedia. It’s so human-driven that it actually is culturally specific to language communities; and with that, it takes on perspectives of those language communities.
That’s really interesting. I’ve always wanted to just compare something like, let’s say, the article on New York City across 10 languages. I’ve even looked at things like dance, defined across 10-20 languages, to see the beauty in the different emphasis on the photography and all that.
But what you’re asking about is so important. How do you acknowledge, one, when there’s not an agreement; and two, when there may be a great deal of evidence for one direction and maybe no evidence for another direction?
Two things happen in our editing community, the volunteers who are making those choices. The first is that they aspire to something called “neutral point of view”, which is that they’re trying to write things in a kind of language that acknowledges what’s happening, while maybe saying that there’s disagreement.
If you look at an article that would definitely be controversial, like Donald J. Trump, you’re going to find that the discussion about his policies, and them being unpopular, is presented in language that’s trying to be as descriptive to the facts as possible.
Instead of saying “These were stupid policies”, you say “He had policies on immigration, which proved unpopular”, or better “which a Pew study found to be unpopular to X percent of Americans”. That is the aspiration — going from sentiment to knowledge, trying to describe what can be measured.
KOSTA: That’s a really interesting way of doing it, because it gives you something to challenge. It frees up the information to be challenged or to be understood deeper. Because you can measure whether people felt a certain way about it, but you can’t necessarily measure whether something was stupid or not, just to use that analogy.
ZACK: Yeah. There’s even this set of terms that are banned on Wikipedia articles called “weasel words”, which are basically phrases people use to win debates in bars.
KOSTA: Oh, yes. Absolutely.
ZACK: Like “many say”, “as we all know”. They’re these phrases that define a consensus or a body of agreement that you can’t substantiate.
KOSTA: It’s the ever-elusive “they”, like the specter of “they”. That’s really, really interesting.
I kind of want to look towards the future, but I’ve got a question that’s burning me at the moment that I might throw out there, see if you —
ZACK: Let’s get into it.
KOSTA: I’m a bit of a conflict person, I know. But I’m just thinking — in terms of sensitive information that may be on Wikipedia, that people have shared regarding things that could potentially be libelous or unflattering on particular figures of prominence — if someone’s had allegations made against them, particularly if they’re in a position of influence, I imagine there’d be a scramble or an edit war to take that down.
Does Wikipedia as an organization come up against challenges where they’re being sent… Does Wikipedia bear the brunt of censorship efforts, or is that something that tends to happen to the sources that people rely on to upload to Wikipedia?
ZACK: Wow. Big question. Big area. The first thing I’ll say is, vandalism is something we’re really mindful of. It’s when an edit or a change is made to Wikipedia content that is misleading or harmful. We’re pretty fast in reversing vandalism.
One of the reasons you were saying earlier that if you added a finishing move to an article, it would be deleted is because there’s a real tendency to see new changes first as inaccurate or misleading. And second as, okay, that’s right. Sometimes people will even restore the page before the edit while they check it out, to just be like “Alright, let’s see what this is”.
Of course, vandalism happens a lot in sports articles or in pop culture. During a football match, somebody who does something amazing might be edited to be the King of Spain because of an amazing strike; versus if they do something terrible, they could be also be blasphemed on Wikipedia. Broadly, these are edits that are vandalism.
When it comes to more sensitive things, like edits are made or information is shared and then a government reacts… That can happen. That does happen. And our community is the ultimate deciders on content. So they’re the ones who are really steadfast in patrolling this and working on it.
When we look at moments when the Wikipedia site has been blocked… It has happened. We’re currently blocked in China, in both Chinese and English. And we were blocked in Turkey for almost two and a half years, where there was some concerns about things that were on Wikipedia that the government did not find to their alignment. Now we come back to this idea of NPOV. We really want people to participate in knowledge-making, and so to do that, they need to have access.
KOSTA: Sorry. NPOV — neutral point of view?
ZACK: Neutral point of view, sorry.
KOSTA: Got it, just elaborating. Cool, got it.
ZACK: When we think of NPOV, NPOV depends on lots of participation. It depends on lots of people helping to make the point of view neutral, because it’s actually hard for a single individual to be neutral. It actually comes across through lots of people touching something, and sanding at it, and trying to make it into a statement that is true and descriptive — that has a reference, but that no longer has that strong sentiment in it. That could be a personal point of view. It’s like, you can almost see it as the move from personal point of view to collective point of view, which Wikipedia works on.
So when we get blocked in a country, one of the great losses is the opportunity for people in that country to author the content. That’s one of the biggest losses. That’s what we really focused on when we told the story of the Turkish block. We ran a campaign called “We Miss Turkey”, because the real loss was that we were missing the Turkish perspective, the Turkish knowledge community, all of the Turkish journalists, historians, photographers, people who are specialists in myth and archaeology… It’s like they all became unable to author content, not just in Turkish, but in English and German and any other language. It wasn’t just that Wikipedia was no longer a resource to the Turkish people. It was that the world was losing Turkish knowledge.
KOSTA: Wow, that’s a really powerful reframing of that. To me, it brings up, again, this idea of participating in knowledge, as opposed to just making it free, right?
Just to circle back to the disparities you were talking about in who’s contributing to this free knowledge. Are those disparities you see across Wikipedia’s many languages that exist… How many languages does Wikipedia exist in again? Is it 200?
ZACK: Almost 300.
KOSTA: 300, okay. Do you see those disparities in contributions across the board, or are they different depending on which language context?
ZACK: Different depending on the language context, for sure. But what you would definitely see is, it’s so community driven that it’s basically about the strength of the community, the size, the level of activity, and the priorities of that community. What are they working on? What do they want to build, you know?
Basically, when you start to think about the project’s goals — like, “Alright, we’re going to go ahead and we’re going to…” In writing, right? So that’s another limiting factor, the media format of writing, which assumes, as you said, digital literacy to craft it, but then literacy literacy to read and engage it and edit it. So you have writing.
And you’re like, “Alright, we’re going to go ahead and do all the world’s knowledge. Where should we start? What should we do first? What should we do second?” Some communities are like, “Do what you feel motivated about. Let’s start.” A small article on any wiki is called a stub. It’s just a little thing. It’s like a placeholder, like “A poodle is a dog, period. Save.”
KOSTA: But a cat is domestic? [laughs]
ZACK: A cat’s a pet.
KOSTA: Or not, exactly. Not small enough to be a stub. But again, one of those contextual arguments.
ZACK: You have people that are like, “Alright, let’s go ahead and start”, and then you go deep into certain topics. There’s a question a lot of times in the world today, within our communities, around authoring content in indigenous languages versus colonial languages, which are often the languages of instruction, right?
Take our community in Nigeria, who are just extraordinary, amazing, super active. They have a question of, when they want to create knowledge material, should it happen in Yoruba or Ebo? Or should it happen in English, which is the scholastic language; that’s what you would be engaging in in school. When you think about utility, you’re like, “Those communities will examine — if we made content about Nigeria, Nigerian topics, Nigerian history, in English, it would be more accessible to students because they have to write in English.” But then there’s another perspective on this, which is, “But that’s us perpetuating the centrality of English rather than centering Yoruba, centering Ebo, and centering the sources in Yoruba and Ebo that we want to draw more attention to.”
So then what you have happen is, those challenges around language become a big thing for those communities in making a decision about where to put an incredibly precious resource, which is human time and attention, like what our volunteers focus on. It’s their generosity. So it really is like, “What should we do? What’s most urgent?”
Sure. Actually, is that one of the biggest challenges that you generally have at Wikipedia, at the moment, in this movement? Is it around ensuring access? Well, I guess I’ll let you speak to that more rather than put words in your mouth. What would you say are some of the biggest challenges that you face as an organization in terms of trying to forward this free knowledge movement?
I don’t think I could even summarize it. What I’ll say, as context, is that what’s extraordinary is when you really count up how many volunteers are powering free knowledge on Wikipedia and on the Wikimedia projects. It’s about 250,000 people. It’s about a quarter of a million people.
KOSTA: That’s globally?
ZACK: Yeah. And I think that’s a really low number.
KOSTA: I was going to say, that’s very small.
ZACK: There’s a problem. And then you’re like, “Wow, so those 250,000 people are maintaining a website that is incredibly ubiquitous, reused by big technology companies around the world, and therefore also a source of truth and information.” Truth not as the aspiration for us, but truth as in, people may receive it as “This is the defining detail, the defining record for hundreds of millions of people.” The scale of our volunteers and the responsibility that they face in trying to maintain this all is a lot. It’s a great challenge.
So I would say the biggest thing we want to do is add more people and find ways to empower our volunteers with tools, technology, grants… We have a lot of grants that we write for people so that they can scale work. Basically, it’s like when you think about, how does Instagram keep going? Well, everyone takes photos all the time or shares posts, and that means every user of Instagram is also creating the world of Instagram. We have a very different dynamic, where not every reader of Wikipedia is a Wikipedia writer.
ZACK: We’d want that to happen. That would be the long dream. Everyone should find themselves saying, whether it’s a typo or a reference that you know on a topic — if you know a finishing move that’s not in the article, that you should put it in.
KOSTA: I know so many. [laughs] The point is, it would get deleted, no matter who I put it on. But that’s a whole other subject.
This idea of how to actually participate in free knowledge is something that I’ve only learned about through choosing to engage with the research that’s out there, or just the information that’s out there. Is that something you can just elaborate on for us? Is the only way to participate in free knowledge about editing Wikipedia articles? What are the other ways people can get involved in free knowledge, generally this culture?
ZACK: You can definitely edit an article on Wikipedia. But you can also offer photographs, through a project we have called Wikimedia Commons.
We have photo contests around the year, because there’s actually a lot of things that we don’t even… I mean, I’ll just say it in a weird way — we don’t know what they look like. Monuments, historical sites, parks, buildings that are on national records. Some things that we run are contests like “Wiki Loves Monuments” and “Wiki Loves Nature”. What happens is that an editor will create a list of monuments or parks that just don’t have any photographs. You can go onto one of these contests when they run, and just enter where you are in the world, and you will see pop up on a map buildings you walk by every day that just don’t have a photograph on Wikipedia. And you could go take that photograph. That would be participating through photography.
We also have some projects that people might not know as much about, like a travel guide called Wikivoyage. And if you love to travel, you could write that and help people find great restaurants and great sites to visit. We have a thing called Wikidata, which is increasingly getting used by voice assistants. If you ask Alexa, “How far is the moon from the Earth?” it’ll spit back a number, and that number is coming from Wikidata.
KOSTA: Wow, that’s amazing.
ZACK: You can just enter little figures into structured data that will get used all the time. So there’s a number of projects that have different things.
And then, of course, there’s even Wiktionary. An early debate in the history of Wikipedia was, should Wikipedia define words? The answer became no, and that became Wiktionary. When we say “boat”, we want an encyclopaedia entry about “boat”, not “a vehicle floating on water”. [laughs]
KOSTA: Wow. Just to come back to this idea of participation and access to participate — what about people that don’t necessarily have literacy skills or digital literacy skills or technology to participate? Are they precluded from participating in the free knowledge movement? Is that a gap that needs to be filled, or are there other ways that free knowledge is advocated for, that don’t require people to generate that knowledge themselves?
ZACK: That’s a great question. I think this is an area where we’re trying to improve right now. We’re looking at ways to interface with our movement. To participate is a constant growth area.
One area we’re excited about is mobile devices. As mobile devices become incredibly… I don’t want to say incredibly common, but common, growing in participation, in visibility, in usage, in adoption. In India, for example, there’s the the Jio phone and KaiOS as a platform for giving people access to material over a lighter phone, which is cheaper for data access.
We’re basically looking at ways that people can access knowledge material, and then edit it. And when we say edit, I’m talking here more of the spirit of making a change or an adjustment, rather than a literal text edit. It’s actually a fun but difficult UX challenge, right? If you heard a Wikipedia article read to you, and you realized something was wrong with it, could you speak back to an interface to change it?
I feel your question is really pointing at, what is the future of free knowledge, both the formats and the participation?
And there I just say that we’re not done at all. The world changes, formats change, internet connectivity changes. We have to be innovative in thinking of how people can participate in making knowledge from where they are with the tools and the literacy and the understandings that they have.
KOSTA: Yeah, right. [pauses] It’s just given me a lot of thought for pause at the moment.
ZACK: I should tell you right now a thing about this, because it’s so interesting, Kosta. Oral history is a really interesting topic. Because, again, when I said that we depend on references, those references are published in print or published to the web. Right now, there are a lot of cultures in the world that have oral history about topics. There are some of our most innovative communities (some are in Africa), and they’re looking at how oral knowledge should come in. Is a recording made? Is the recording assigned to the speaker? How do you actually bring in different types of knowledge references? And then, as you’re saying, you’re directing your students and they find themselves possibly listening to a recording, rather than reading something?
KOSTA: Yeah, so it’s really multifaceted. Or the potential to be more multifaceted is still pretty infinite, isn’t it?
ZACK: It really is.
KOSTA: You go on a Wikipedia page about a country and you’ve got a little snippet of their national anthem, for example. I don’t know why, I get a real kick out of that.
ZACK: Oh, yeah, that’s great.
KOSTA: I’m a bit of an etymology nerd. I love just knowing where words come from, and just trying to find the most descriptive way to talk, trying to understand how people would have used the most descriptive language they had possible to describe something. But I love clicking on some concept and seeing, the root of this is Yoruba or Igbo, or something like that. Clicking on that, and then reading about, the Igbo language is the traditional language of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then going down that rabbit hole that way.
That’s the sort of those journeys, those moments of wonder that I have on the Wikipedia page. The ability to understand these things in a multi-sensory way is one step in the way of increasing access, if people learn about things in different ways.
That’s actually a good point to think about reasons for participating in free knowledge and the different ways we can actually get involved. Obviously, part of the Wikimedia Foundation’s work is shepherding these communities around the world to participate.
Have there been any significant learnings about what makes people eager or enthusiastic or build communities around like free knowledge participation? What would you say are some good takeaways — people get excited about participating in free knowledge when these sorts of variables exist? Do you have any thoughts on some of those conditions?
ZACK: I have so many colleagues, who are so much more informed on this than me, because they’re the ones who really make this happen. What I would say, watching the work that they do — these are my colleagues who are on the grants side of Wikimedia Foundation, who are on the product side, who are in the partnership side — is actually that because it’s a human project, relationships are really important. And actually bringing people together.
One of the most vital things we can do is create shared spaces, times, and places for making content and editing it. We call these things “Edit-a-thons”. There’s always content editing going on. But at an Edit-a-thon, it’s like a festival with a focus on a set of topics. It might be Black history, it might be African cinema — which our Nigerian community has led a number of initiatives to say, “There’s not enough Wikipedia articles on African cinema. And that means that the world, when it Googles these films, these titles, doesn’t get a lot of information.” And so you do an Edit-a-thon.
That’s been a really powerful way to really get things going. And you still have a lot of cultural specificity and agency when the topic and the terms and how it’s organized — at what time, with what snacks, and what speakers or resources — that can be set with the local communities. They can say, “Alright, if we want to succeed on film titles, this is what we’re going to need to be successful.”
KOSTA: Okay, so highly localized, specific, action-oriented community spaces where people come together for that specific purpose. That’s cool. I haven’t come across anything like that here. Do they happen all over the world?
ZACK: They do. I mean, we should have a whole lot more of them, so that they can be, again, common enough for you and any of the listeners to run into. Sometimes the people who can show up are very surprising. We had one in [Los Angeles] one time, and it ended up being attended by a number of celebrities.
KOSTA: No way. What was the topic?
ZACK: I think the topic was women in history. It was about a gender gap. These were actresses, and they said, “My family, my sons, my daughters, they’re relying on Wikipedia to understand the world around them. And I want them to see a more inclusive and diverse world where it’s not just white dudes with Wikipedia articles and women aren’t there.” That was a really fun, incredibly big moment.
But, as you’re asking, there are Edit-a-thons all the time. Of course, COVID has made us bring these virtual. And it’s like a lot of things — it’s really more fun in person.
KOSTA: Yeah, sure. You do the best in the circumstances. But the ability to even have remote Edit-a-thons is still a possibility that’s worth exploring until the world opens back up, right?
ZACK: Yeah, we just did one for Earth Day that was virtual and had a number of people join across all time zones. It’s actually a surreal topic — the Wikipedia article on Earth is an incredibly refined article. It’s a good example of both the humor and the delight of edit warring, where it’s like, “What do you put on the Earth article when anyone on Earth can edit it?”
KOSTA: Wow. It’s like something trying to define itself, isn’t it?
ZACK: Yeah. There’s also a Wikipedia article on Wikipedia, where you can go see that happen. [laughs]
KOSTA: I was gonna say, not only does the Earth page represent the delights of Wikipedia, but also just the weirdness and even some of the potential for weird information to be on there. Like, if we’re looking at Flat Earth stuff, does that come into that page at all?
ZACK: I don’t know. We should look.
KOSTA: You should have a look. [laughs]
ZACK: Yeah, it would be so interesting to see.
KOSTA: Of course, where there’s a lot of people who believe that, despite the best knowledge that we have available saying the contrary.
I guess just, as we sort of start to dovetail out of this conversation that I could probably keep going up forever, what would you say to people who have never really dipped their toes in this issue before? Why should they care? What are some of the first steps they could take to be involved?
ZACK: Wikipedia is really an effort towards the future. In contrast to a lot of what we do online — which is write an email or make a post, which is really all about timely, short-term media efforts — Wikipedia is very much like you are writing something for the future. You’re writing something for somebody else to learn from, to understand the world better.
I like to just encourage people, from a real emotional place, that you know something. You probably know a lot of things. And if you could share some of the things you know, the references that you have for those things — it could be about your community, it could be about your school, it could be about your favorite actor, scholar, scientist, or film — you’re actually enriching the world for others.
It’s incredibly generous to participate in free knowledge, because you’re basically making a donation to human understanding. To take part in that, you should find the things on Wikipedia that you care about, that look a little, I would say, bereft.
Find the thin areas about things you know about, and you will find that in those areas, help is welcome. Edits are welcome. Photographs are welcome. References are welcome. People want those things to grow. And that’s also true about our other projects — Wikidata, Wiki[media] Commons, where we’re trying to collect photographs and data points.
I started editing Wikipedia when I was in high school. It’s very selfish, but I added to my high school’s page, because I discovered that the rival high school had a much bigger page. It’s okay to be selfish. You can be like, “These are the things I care about, so I’m going to work on them.” And later, I started to notice all these adjacent topics that weren’t really well-covered, but were more neutral. Like communities — how many people lived there? There’s a park in my town. It didn’t have almost any definition. So I looked up when it was founded.
You start adding small things. It’s really a Lego brick process. Just add a Lego brick, and the magical thing is, you’re going to find out you’re not alone. Someone else will come there and build on top of it. That is the most magical experience you can have — you start putting heat, care, and love into something, and then other people show up too and you really do have the feeling of raising a barn together.
You realize that after a few weeks or even a few months, you’ve actually made something really rich. And now it’s that rich for anybody. Anyone in the world who looks that up or encounters it has been improved by your understanding. And I’m going to say thank you in advance for doing that.
KOSTA: Yeah, that’s great. Of course. Outside of Wikimedia Foundation, as well, are there other ways to participate in this movement more generally? Or would you see Wikimedia as the primary proponent?
ZACK: When we think of the web today, zooming out of the Wikimedia projects, there are parts of the web that are really trying to collect things, knowledge, [and] insights that are free for other people to use.
For example, ICS is very related to the Noun Project, which is an extraordinary effort to create icons for all sorts of topics around the world. I participate a lot on on Noun Project personally, as a volunteer. You wouldn’t even believe the amount of things that don’t have an icon. You’ll find there’s 100 penguin icons, but there may be a bird in your community that no one has an icon for.
Basically, gender gaps [and] culture gaps exist on the internet everywhere. If you’re trying to work on gender, diversity, culture gaps on the internet, you are spiritually a part of the Wikimedia movement and the movement for free knowledge. If you’re giving something to the collective of the web that other people can access and use, you’re doing it.
Of course, there’s lots of parts that keep this thing going. We have the Internet Archive, or archive.org. They collect a lot of media files, even books and sources, so maybe you’re interested in that. If you’re a lawyer, way to go. Lots of room for lawyers. You can work on Creative Commons and the licensing, or even the Electronic Frontier Foundation (the EFF), which is like a bit of the ACLU slash Amnesty International of internet policy and internet law. I wish I had a simple website to be like, “Tell me how activist you are. Tell me the things you want to do. Tell me what culture you want to participate in”, and it would just pop it out. Because there’s a lot.
KOSTA: Maybe that’s Wikimedia’s next project, to have a map for people to fit into this free knowledge movement. I know our designers love the Noun Project. But it sounds like there’s a place and a space for all, and we’re still trying to figure out where to fit everyone in. Maybe that’s the next challenge, where we can help people find their place within this broader, really important movement.
Man, that’s really been really fascinating. Zack, I think I’ll leave it there, but thank you so much for a really stimulating, kind of hopeful conversation. If anyone is curious about your work or you yourself, if you do other things, where can people find you or stuff about your work?
ZACK: You can find all about the Wikimedia Foundation at wikimediafoundation.org. A lot of our top-line projects are there. That’s where you can find out more about the nonprofit behind Wikipedia; our projects are supported by that.
For myself, if you want to come see the things that I’m working on… Right now, I’m working on a petroglyph project.
KOSTA: A what, sorry?
ZACK: Petroglyph rock art. Ancient rock art.
KOSTA: Ah, got it. That’s the etymology brain. [laughs]
ZACK: You’re all about it, exactly. I’m basically making a bunch of petroglyphs, rock art examples from around the world. I’m trying to do 50 by September, and you can follow that on my Instagram, which is @zmccune. That’s my Instagram handle, and you can see what I’m doing with that.
KOSTA: Oh, that sounds amazing. So specific and niche, but so cool.
ZACK: It’s a gap! There’s almost no documentation. I found it, and I’m working on it. I’m worried. You find yourself being like, “Oh, I’d really like a book of petroglyphs from around the world.” Then you discover that people have only done these very niche studies on individual sites, and I’m like, “I really want all of them.”
KOSTA: Okay, great. Hopefully you’ll get some new Facebook stalkers as a result of putting that out there, because that sounds super interesting.
Zack, thank you so much for today’s conversation. Stay safe. I’m sure we’ll reconnect again.
ZACK: Kosta, it’s been a joy. Thanks for having me on.
KOSTA: Thank you.
You’ve been listening to Undesign, a series of conversations about the big issues that matter to all of us. Undesign is made possible by the wonderful team at DrawHistory. If you want to learn more about each guest or each topic, we have curated a suite of resources and reflections for you on our Undesign page at www.drawhistory.com.
Thank you to the talented Jimmy Linville for editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guests for joining us and showing us how important we all are in redesigning our world’s futures. And last but not least, a huge thank you to you, our dear listeners, for joining us on this journey of discovery and hope. The future needs you.
Make sure you stay on the journey with us by subscribing to Undesign on Apple, Spotify, and wherever else podcasts are available.