Wikipedia Senior Designer Brandon Harris. Photo from Wikimedia.

Q&A With Wikipedia Programmer Brandon Harris

by Jason Wire Dec 6, 2011
Jason Wire talks to Brandon Harris, one of Wikipedia’s most recognizable figures, about the company’s mission, philosophy, and the road ahead.

It wasn’t until I encountered Brandon Harris that I really understood Wikipedia.

You may think it’s a fact catalog. Or that it’s a beneficial byproduct of a bunch of dudes in their basement writing articles as a coping mechanism for loneliness. Or maybe you think it’s just a big conspiratorial pyramid scheme. It is none of these.

Wikipedia is about empathy with the rest of the universe. It’s about taking the sum of human knowledge–everything that’s visible and tangible, and everything that isn’t–and putting it out there as if we have a super-searchable map of everything that everyone’s ever known. As Brandon wrote in his appeal, “When we have access to free knowledge, we are better people. We understand the world is bigger than us, and we become infected with tolerance and understanding.”

Equally impressive is that Wikipedia is the 5th largest website in the world, handles a mind-boggling amount of data, and yet it runs on less than 100 paid employees–all without the aid of a single advertising dollar.

I hope you read this Q&A–it brings to light much of what makes Wikipedia such a special thing we all get to share. But if forced to choose between reading this and donating even $5 to what they do, pick the latter. Certainly, they need the support. But more importantly, it will underscore your own testament to the principles of peaceful empathy between all living things.

So, what is your “official” role within Wikipedia, outside of compelling people to donate?

I have worked at the Wikimedia Foundation for 18, maybe 20 months, and “officially” my title here is Senior Designer. At the foundation we dont really discriminate into specific jobs, so the best way to descibe it is “software designer” but it’s more like product designer. I’m kind of a problem solver.

That makes sense. For instance, you’ve been working on designing something called the Athena Project—that’s like a “mobile skin” for Wikipedia, right?

It’s what I’d call a universal skin. It starts with the idea of “mobile first” and the principle that you’re going to design for the mobile browser at the beginning, because it’s easier to scale upwards from a mobile browser than it is to scale downwards from a desktop. Also given that it’s highly likely that maybe 90% of all internet traffic will be on the mobile platform within the next 5-10 years, it’s important to start looking at that now and plan your strategies or philosophies in that direction.

Given Wikipedia’s far-reaching influence and popularity, do you get to travel much in your position?

Yes and no. I have done a lot of travel in the past year, but not necessarily through the foundation. I’ve done a lot of personal travel as well. The Foundation holds conferences, hack-a-thons, outreach programs, those types of things, so since I’ve been here I’ve been to Poland, Berlin, Washington D.C., Israel, and Mumbai.

Most of my recent personal travels have been within the United States. I like to go around and do pilgrimages; like when I was younger, I just decided to go to Devil’s Tower on a whim. Just to see it. I went to Nepal about a decade ago when I was just really burnt and stressed out. I had some money and some time and I just went and hung out with the locals for a while. It was pretty epic.

How has travel influenced your view of Wikimedia’s mission?

It has crystallized the importance of being multilingual and multicultural to me. When you design for American audiences and only for American audiences, or you only think about that, there’s a lot of bad decisions that you make—shortsighted ones.

People often ask about why the site’s language button holds such high prominence. It’s because more than 70% of our users are bilingual, and out of that, 30% of our users are trilingual or more. And then you go to India—and I didn’t even think about it this way—when you ask them, “What languages do you speak?” they say “English and Hindi.” And then you say, “Okay, well, how many [dialects of Hindi] can you read…” and then they start naming off so many. Tamil, Malayalam, Kanada…so to me, being multilingual is really important to what we do.

The other thing has to do with various psychological aspects about different cultures, having to do with things like iconography and color. For instance, a swastika symbol in Western cultural is considered to be a horrible, horrible thing. But in Indian and Nepalese cultures it’s actually considerd a sign of good luck. So you have to be aware that these certain things are going to change.

One of the earliest examples of this with my work at the Foundation was when I designed a tool that you allows you to rate articles. On the first iteration, when you selected the stars, they turned into red stars. And then I got complaints from people saying that they evoked communist sympathies…I thought that was pretty interesting.

One thing we’re really interested in at Matador is how certain knowledge concepts or expressions can only be conveyed in their native language, and that as languages go extinct, that knowledge is forever lost. How does Wikipedia view endangered languages–many of which are not written–and are plans ever discussed to help preserve that knowledge from highly localized languages?

I’m really glad you asked that question, because I actually had a conversation with a couple people yesterday about this. Again, back to India—they over 400 languages, a crazy number. At Wikipedia we currently have Wikis in, I think, 280 languages worldwide right now. So we are constantly wanting to bring up the languages, it’s actually our goal to preserve languages through what we do.

There’s a whole committee that decides when Wikipedias get made in certain languages. There has to be an incubator, there have to be a certain number of articles made, there has to be at least the hope of enough readers or speakers to help survive it, and we want to push it forward and help preserve the language through the Wiki. It’s kind of a similar mission to what The Long Now Foundation tries to do.

In India, we support about twenty languages. There’s English, which is their primary language, and then there’s an insane number of other languages: Hindi, Malayam, Urdu, Bengali – just a lot. We’re working very hard right now to enable users in these types of languages to write in their own Wikipedias, in their own language. This requires us to introduce software like on-screen keyboards and character mappings and character sets, but font support is actually a huge nightmare. Most of these computers out there are really old, and the best they can run is Windows XP or earlier, so they don’t have native suport for things like Malayalam. So before anything else, we have to explain to them about how they can go about finding a “font,” and then installing it on their computer, it’s actually kind of sad.

That said, when I was there I actually had a rather depressing conversation with an extremely brilliant engineer who works there and is kind of an expert on language. And he told me that, in his opinion, we’re actually wasting our time making text versions of the Wikipedia in a lot of these outlier languages because most of the people who are multi-lingual will only use the English one—not like, say, Tamil—and those who only speak Tamil or local languages are probably illiterate and too poor to even have a phone, let alone a computer. But the Foundation doesn’t think this is a waste of time at all. We’re absolutely committed to supporting these language projects and it’s essential to our mission to support all communities building Wikipedia in their own languages.

But he got me thinking about a whole process of “How can I help these people?” How can we help them make a Wikipedia? And one of the ideas that we were talking about was setting up a pure phone interface that was almost entirely audio so that people could dictate pages and edits into the phone, and then the people who do have computers can modify and correct it. Because there’s a lot of oral history out there, and we want to try to capture that. And for the people who don’t know how to read, they can pick up a phone and dial “4-WIKI” or something, and say “Delhi” and be read back the article through a text-to-speech program. Or be read back a recorded article, as we already have a lot of people who are making voice recordings for articles.

My hope is that in the next 5 to 10 years, the general base of technology for mobile devices will be on par with smart phone capabilities as the technology gets cheaper. But things aren’t guaranteed, so I want to think about that as well.

As more and more people can access Wikipedia from their phones, does that pose a financial problem to Wikipedia in terms of being able to accommodate all of the new traffic?

As readership grows, we’re definitely going to face that problem. We haven’t done any fundraising on the mobiles yet, partly because the infrastructure just really isn’t there. Only in the past year has our mobile component arrived at the point to where we can start putting things on there. But right now, in the works, we have this thing called “Wikipedia Zero” which actually allows the phone carriers themselves to provide Wikipedia to you for free. It’s not exactly our bandwidth, and—well, it’s really in the works and I’m not entirely sure how this works—it’s something that there is a whole team working on. Their idea is that all these satellites in the sky have all this idle time, so we can just upload a copy of Wikipedia to them and just let it beam down constantly.

As our traffic increases, of course we’re going to have to increase our bandwidth allocation and number of servers, that’s just the cost of business. We want to look more into how we can move contributions from the desktop to the smartphone. Because typing on a smartphone sucks. It sucks even on tablets, so how do we go about letting people make edits or add articles through smartphones?

We’ve already completely annihilated the encyclopedia world by changing the rules — what happens if we do something like that to citizen journalism?

I think the first thing we’re going to try to do is to incorporate taking photos with your smartphone. So for instance, you’ll be standing at an obscure monument or something, and then your phone will say “Wikipedia would like you to take a photo of this for them,” and then you take the photo, zap it back to us, and it sticks right in the queue.

The other day we were talking really idealistically about how awesome it would be for our other sister sites, like WikiNews, to do instantaneous reporting from the phone. Like “I’m at Occupy Wall Street, this is happening now.” We’ve already disrupted the encyclopedia world, completely annihilated it by changing the rules, so what happens if we do something like that to citizen journalism?

You’ve said that the next big hurdle for Wikipedia to overcome is gaining significant ground in China, India, the Middle East, and Brazil. What do your outreach programs in these places entail?

From my perspective, the purpose of the outreach programs in other countries are to talk to the people, make friends, and understand the culture. We find people there willing to volunteer time and explain cultural norms so we don’t do stupid things, like put images of Muhammad on every page. We’re just not going to make inroads with the Middle East if we do things like that. We’ll ask what their specific problem is, and they’ll say, “Well, your right-to-left formatting system is just not working out very well in Arabic.” And actually right now there’s a really terrific engineer whose specific job is to work on right-to-left issues.

A big part of it, I think, is to go there and actually meet the people in person. One thing that we’ve discovered is the value of seeing and talking to somebody, looking them in their eyes and having the conversation that we’re on the same side, that we agree, that we need this mission to succeed—to help people understand that they’re part of a bigger thing and not alone in whatever region that they’re living in. There is a degree of value that’s impossible to calculate with regards to empathy between people. This is like my number one thing: empathy. It’s probably our biggest weapon to fight the war against ignorance. Which is ultimately what we’re fighting, I think.

That’s an interesting concept–being “At war with ignorance.” Do you think it’s possible that ignorance could actually be considered a cultural choice in some ways, and that seeing objectivity and complete, unadulterated access to all information could be a colonialist way of spreading “truth”?

It’s definitely something I struggle with personally, and it’s definitely a lightning rod within the Wikipedia community. For instance, there’s a big set of discussions about this thing called an Image Filter, which would allow individual readers to not see certain images. So for instance, maybe you don’t want to see sexualized images. Or maybe you have arachnophobia, and the first thing you see on the page is a giant image of a spider. Or, maybe you’re a devout Muslim and you want to read about Mohammed, and there’s an image of Mohammed on the page—that’s not being very culturally sensitive.

At the same time, the argument is that we are culturally neutral. But in many ways, it’s impossible to be neutral. When you say “I want you to look at this image, because I think your culture is backwards,” what you’re actually saying is, “My culture is superior.” I personally do not believe that there is any culture that is more superior than any other.

When I was in college, many years ago, everyone said “We’re all multiculturalists. We need to be multiculturalists.” And I actually thought that I hated that term. I felt like it was saying “Let’s take all of these cultures and blend them into one, and keep the parts we like and discard the parts we don’t.” And I described myself once to somebody as a Cultural Pluralist, someone who thinks that all cultures should be able to say what they want and do what they want but shouldn’t be able to tell them what to do. And it’s okay to celebrate them and recognize them, but you don’t actually have to endorse them.

I hate to use the term Western culture—but in Western culture we’ve got the idea that we’re right, that we can tell people that they need to see certain images, that we’re not censored. And I don’t know if that’s right for everbody. It may be right, but I think that we need to give people the opportunity to make that choice for themselves. It could be that we have some culture that from every aspect is totally backwards and medieval, and maybe the people do want to be “enlightened,” for lack of a better word, but we should just provide them with the tools to do that on their own.

In Western culture we’ve got the idea that we’re right, that we’re not censored. And I don’t know if that’s right for everybody. It may be right, but I think that we need to give people the opportunity to make that choice for themselves.

I grew up in West Virginia. It was a small-ish town, and my life would have been totally different if I’d had an understanding of what the rest of the world was. My world was 30 square miles. If I’d have known then that it was okay to have certain opinions would have been a massive change. Similarly, you can see a lot of the interesting ideas happening in the Middle East because of the new ideas circulating, and what’s going on is that people are deciding that they don’t want to live in the Middle Ages anymore. And the reason they were even able to know that was because the Internet and technology had shown them that they were there. And from that, I realized that when people realize they’re being oppressed, they can no longer be oppressed.

Overall, though, it’s never as cut and dry as what I can see from 1,000 miles away, which comes back to outreach. That’s why we actually go there to meet these cultures in person.

In college, I was sometimes bothered by the fact that many students were able to do very little work but still succeed because of things like Wikipedia. I think that knowledge isn’t end-based, and that much of what you actually learn comes from the process, not the product of studying. What do you think about that?

I keep coming back to an example from an old Arthur C. Clarke novel called Rendezvous with Rama. And in this, Clarke posited that in the future, the person who would be the ship’s medic woud not be the guy who went to medical school, but instead the person who best knew about how to get the information about medicine. And I think he’s right. I think that our gaps in knowledge are filling exponentially, and there will come a time when it’s impossible to hold the sum of any topic in a person’s mind. And I don’t think there’s a problem with that.

I remember nothing about chemistry, but the best thing about that is that I know that I know nothing.

In my third year of college, I switched to Philosophy because I started to think about things differently. And when I came out, it took me a while to figure out what they were actually teaching. It wasn’t to memorize the writings of dead Greeks: they were actually teaching me how to think. And I think as we go forward we’re going to discover that what we need to teach people is not to look at the style of education that’s been popular over the past 100 years or so, but going back towards maybe the way that Thomas Jefferson was taught, which is to think for themselves and understand how certain systems of knowledge work together. I remember nothing about chemistry, but the best thing about that is that I know that I know nothing. It gives me the ability to say “I have no idea what I’m talking about, let me go look this up.” And Wikipedia will make this easier for me. I can understand where the gaps are, and then I can start targeting what I need to look at, and then I can find its references or sources to find better documentation.

I get into discussions with some of my academic friends who will say that Wikipdia is awful for certain things, and that I should never use it in those instances, but my response is always that Wikipedia is a “source for sources.” It skips the difficulty of wandering through the library’s dewey decimal system.

I definitely agree with you there. That’s what encyclopedias have always been, it’s not like there’s just some expert about every single topic writing, it’s a collection of sources.

But you couldn’t even go into the encyclopedia and figure out where they actually got their medicine, you just had to trust them. And it actually turns out that their error rate was the same as ours. But even further, theirs wasn’t improvable. We can improve ours. And then we’ll show you where the improvements come from.

Whether you find them related to Wikipedia’s mission or not, what is your take on Wikileaks?

I believe that governments should be transparent, and they should be accountable for their actions. So in a nutshell, the expressed interest of Wikileaks is possibly right. However, I don’t think that Wikileaks themselves are transparent. I do not believe that anyone can submit, and I think that they’re focused on a specific kind of content. At this point it kind of appears that their intent is to specifically embarrass governments, not to make them transparent. I don’t think they’re curating their stuff. Just mass-blasting 50,000 cables is not a very useful way to curate your data.

At Wikipedia we have wars between inclusionists and delitionists, and the delitionists believe that encyclopedias should contain useful information, and not just every piece of information on the planet because some pieces are not of value and they tend to get in the way. On the other side, the inclusionists believe that everyhing should be there because this space is cheap, and it’s our mission to do that. I’m personally of the belief that curation is better than not.

Aditionally, every time that Wikileaks drops out a big cable dump, it’s actually the news outlets that go through it for them to find what they think is important. And I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it.

Obviously, you’ve received a lot of attention for your role as “one of the guys asking for money on the banner.” Have you guys thought about trying to raise money in other ways, by say, selling Wikipedia mechandise or something?

There are experiments from time to time selling merchandise, and we actually do have a Wikipedia store. But the over-under on that is not really anything to write home about because the cost of production is fairly high compared to profit margin, so it’s really difficult to raise any bulk amount unless everybody on the planet bought one shirt. It’s really kind of difficult to pull it in that way.

When it comes to donations, there are two models: large donations, where somebody gives you a grant for a million or two million dollars, or the small donation model where somebody, you or me, gives like five, ten, twenty dollars. And we have chosen the small donation model as our primary point, and our reason for this is twofold. The first is the impression of bias; we don’t want Google to give us $5 million and have everybody say that we’re just working for google, that they’re a shareholder. The second is that a lot of times these grants come with some stings attached to them, things like the fact that “the money must be spent on X.” So for instance, a year or two ago we received $3 million, but we had to spend the money on “user experience.” And that’s great and all, but we weren’t able to move various pieces of cash around to handle issues that needed to be done.

Why do you think that only 15% of Wikipedia contributors are women?

We have statistics and surveys that have told us that, and this is a topic that is very near and dear to me as a cultural empathist. I don’t think we can truly have the “full” encyclopedia unless we have everybody’s voice, and if we aren’t hearing from women, then we have a bias. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. There are many things that go on with this. For instance, my fiancee never checks what gender she is when she creates an account on a website because of the degree of harassment that happens. And so 15% is the number that’s self-reported, but I suspect that the number is actually higher, probably around 30%, but either way that’s still pretty low.

Personally I find the Wikipedia editing system to be a little tedious and perhaps not the most user-friendly. Do you think that it has anything to do with the fact that most who work in IT areas are male, and that a degree of technical literacy/enthusiasm just isn’t there among females?

I do not believe that that is the problem. Most of the people in the world who blog are women. And the technical requirements to edit Wikipedia are not that different, they’re actually effectively the same. I don’t think that women are inherently less intelligent—for all I know they might be inherently smarter—so I don’t think the technical thing is the problem.

I think it’s very much a cultural thing. There is a certain type of socialization in tech culture that just never happens, and so as we get older and become more entrenched in the community, the social norms start focusing away from certain kinds of politeness and general attitudes. So it will become okay to be abrupt and call someone stupid or be aggressive in language simply because that’s the way everyone else does it, kind of like a Bystander Problem.

So I think this is very off-putting for women in general. Men are biologically wired to attack and be confrontaional and to point out that our ideas are better than others, whereas women are much more consensus-driven and far more likely to say “it’s not worth my time to argue about this,” and they’ll just leave. And I think this definitely happens in Wikipedia and in tech, because it’s a Good Ol’ Boys Club. The first thing that happens at a hacker meeting when a girl shows up is that all the guys try to hit on her. You can’t do that.

So I think this comes back to having empathy to someone’s position. You might say “Well, if you can’t take the heat, then get out of the kitchen,” but they might be leaving because the kitchen’s on fire and nobody notices it.

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