Podcast Episode 4: Wikipedia!

By Paul Ford

Rich indulges Paul in talking about Wikipedia—how it’s good for the web and what it means to data. Nothing is decided but there are some good points made regarding how communities should actually be about something—making something.

Paul Ford: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Paul Ford.

Rich Ziade: And I’m Rich Ziade.

Paul Ford: And you’re listening to The Aboard Podcast. Aboard is a software product that we launched and then unlaunched.

Rich Ziade: And now we’re gonna take you on a journey from unlaunch to launching again. We’re gonna fix the internet Paul, and we’re gonna let everyone watch us do it.

Paul Ford: God, I hope we do. Or, well, let’s not even worry about, or what are we talking about today?

Paul Ford: Let’s talk about Wikipedia. We said we were going to, then we talked about failure.

Rich Ziade: Yawn.

Paul Ford: All right.

Rich Ziade: Alright let’s do it. Alright Paul, so we’re letting people into the journey of building Aboard – the startup that you and I founded – and we promised everyone, uh, you know, the, the rare glimpse into the ups and downs and lefts and rights of just trying to start something out of thin air. And we’re gonna do that, and we’ve been doing that actually.

Rich Ziade: We’ve been pretty transparent so far. But there are, [00:01:00] there’s a source of inspira- there are multiple sources of inspiration for what we’re doing. And one of them is, it’s so freaking exciting, is Wikipedia.

Paul Ford: So exciting.

Rich Ziade: I’m not gonna say much. I have my own views about Wikipedia and that donations– I don’t even wanna call it a banner. It’s not a banner. It just shoves my whole computer down into my– pause. Let me say it again. I have thoughts about Wikipedia, mostly positive. The donation page is something else, but we don’t have to get into that.

Paul Ford: You know, there, there’s, there was a lot of internal drama about that donation page recently.

Rich Ziade: Let’s come back to that.

Paul Ford: Okay.

Rich Ziade: What is Wikipedia to you?

Paul Ford: Wikipedia is a lot of things.

Paul Ford: So why are we talking about Wikipedia? We should give people, bring people into our, our, our lovemaking, uh, the– alright, let me do that without laughing. Pause. [00:02:00] What is Wikipedia? Let’s bring people into our lovemaking here, Rich, and show them what’s, what’s going on. So first of all, we’re building a platform that makes use of the web. Right?

Paul Ford: And it’s, I don’t think we’re giving away too much to see that it-

Rich Ziade: No.

Paul Ford: It brings the web in and tries to bring data in off the web to make it more accessible for lots of people.

Rich Ziade: Yes, yes.

Paul Ford: When you talk about data on the web, you talk about a whole lot of different things. You could talk about Amazon’s product catalog or you could talk about, uh, Google Spreadsheets.

Rich Ziade: I mean everything is data.

Paul Ford: Everything and then, and, and those things are very specific. You make a Google spreadsheet or Amazon owns its product database and people update.

Rich Ziade: Yes. 

Paul Ford: Wikipedia is something else, which is that it’s a collectively– collective set of encyclopedia pages, but it’s also the world’s biggest weirdest database.

Rich Ziade: Hmm. So most people see Wikipedia as a collection [00:03:00] of articles that frankly are revered on the internet. They are trusted.

Paul Ford: Wikipedia is the reason for the internet, right? Like that– it’s one of those sites where you go, okay well this is what we were hoping for. You know, the collective consciousness of humankind came together and created a resource that’s so valuable that it’s in every language.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, right. But you’re saying something interesting here. When I think of Wikipedia, and when I think most people think of Wikipedia, they see just written words, articles about things.

Paul Ford: Articles, links, pictures, and so on and so forth.

Rich Ziade: Even it’s, it’s, it’s not very visual. They’re, they, throw in some stuff here and there, but it’s mostly words and tables like episode guides for TV shows.

Rich Ziade: So when you say, it’s a database. What do you mean by that?

Paul Ford: Well, this was always the dream of the web, right? The dream of the web was that you would publish pages, and the web is a place where people go and they publish out of databases. Like Amazon is a [00:04:00] database that happens to have a web interface.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: The web makes it very accessible. Wikipedia, like when you look at– so first of all there’s every one of those entries needs a place in the database for the text to go and the pictures.

Rich Ziade: Fine.

Paul Ford: Okay. But then you start to say, “Hey, wait a minute, this is a country. What’s the population of this country? And you, what’s, uh, what’s the flag of this country? What’s the national anthem?”. Well, now you have to say that about every country.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: And so Wikipedia not a load in the world, but at a certain scale started to say, well, okay, we’re gonna put that stuff on the right of the page. Those are, you know, those are gonna be the info boxes.

Rich Ziade: Yep. That, that right section next to the, all the written words is usually sort of data fields that have been filled out: population capital, current president, et cetera, et cetera.

Paul Ford: Now, the way my brain is wired, what I love is that, okay, now that you’ve got that for all the countries and or all the cities or all the soccer [00:05:00] players,

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: You have all this data, well, what if instead of it just being on encyclopedia pages, you actually pulled it into a database.

Rich Ziade: Okay.

Paul Ford: Now I can say, show me all the countries by population that have flags with the color red in them. And you know, the countries with red in their flags have more people.

Rich Ziade: Which countries speak Portuguese?

Paul Ford: Exactly, that’s now again, specific kind of brain here. Not everybody is like, “oh my God, the greatest thing ever”.

Paul Ford: For me, this is the greatest thing ever. Now, okay, so we’ve got these info boxes. People start extracting that data and they start reusing it cause it’s one of the highest quality data sources you can get. It used to have to go to places with names like Lexus Nexus and Westlaw and, and-

Rich Ziade: Wolf from Alpha.

Paul Ford: Yeah, all these different data sources are online and Wikipedia starts actually showing itself as a data source.

Paul Ford: The same is also true of open street map, which is– looks like an alternative to Google Maps, but when you dig into it, [00:06:00] you can say to Open street Map, show me every fast food restaurant in the world.

Rich Ziade: Wow.

Rich Ziade: So let me push back Paul. Uh, I don’t care.

Paul Ford: Fair enough Rich. Most people don’t. That’s the story of my life, people look at me in the eyes and say-

Rich Ziade: Well, I mean, you’re a nerd and you love data.

Paul Ford: Absolutely.

Rich Ziade: You like, you like poking around with it, but I think Wikipedia frankly, is probably one of the few positive places on the internet.

Rich Ziade: Why? I think we’re doing fine. The info boxes work, what, what can we do beyond that? Like, so what? [chuckles].

Paul Ford: This is a totally fair point, right? But for someone like me…

Rich Ziade: Okay.

Paul Ford: I go, I can go to Wiki data, which is the data version of Wikipedia, and it’s a world of semantic web technologies, and it is not necessarily newcomer friendly.

Paul Ford: Okay. So it’s, it’s very abstract.

Rich Ziade: This is the same organization that, that powers Wikipedia.

Paul Ford: They have a lot of sub-projects. It’s a [00:07:00] big org.

Rich Ziade: Okay.

Paul Ford: And one of the, one of the sub-projects is, is Wiki data. Wiki data lets you create databases of information and add directly to the database. And then those databases, power tools inside of Wikipedia, like the info boxes or the-

Rich Ziade: Episode guides. 

Paul Ford: That’s right. They, they allow people to, uh, it, it’s sort of a bridge between the data world and the wiki editing world.

Rich Ziade: All the presidents of Brazil throughout history is a table,

Paul Ford: Correct. So you can query that and you can do all sorts of things with it. If you are the sort of person who’s like, what, well then, okay. But if you’re the sort of person who, like me, says things like, I wonder what all the, what the most common job is for the children of US presidents.

Rich Ziade: Mm.

Paul Ford: Suddenly with that data set, you can ask that question.

Rich Ziade: You can query in interesting ways.

Paul Ford: You can do it on- and it is hard. I, I almost don’t like talking about it because it’s a pretty [00:08:00] abstract stack of technologies. There’s a-

Rich Ziade: It’s hard when, when you say it’s hard. It’s, it’s- It’s not something you could just walk up to and just, put search in the box.

Paul Ford: I wish it was, no. They they have tried, everybody has made valiant attempts.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Um, but the best interface for a lot of this stuff is text is just the tables that get produced, right?

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Like it’s, but you know, if you’re– what I love about it, what is genuinely exciting to me and still exciting about the web, is that when you put words together, things happen.

Paul Ford: And I actually think it’s very relevant for stuff related to climate change and sort of structural explorations of the world.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm, mm-hm.

Paul Ford: You know, cause I, I don’t know, like what is the languages with the fewest speakers, things like that.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm.

Paul Ford: These were very hard questions to get answered in, in times of yore.

Rich Ziade: Google seems to try to do that.

Paul Ford: Google has, yes– Google has its own, uh, I think they call it the knowledge engine, uh, something like [00:09:00] that, which is,

Rich Ziade: Knowledge graph I think or something, whatever.

Paul Ford: When you, when you query Google for like best horror movies, it will have 10 in a little grid up top.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: So I think-

Rich Ziade: It’s very data like.

Paul Ford: It is, it’s a data engine. They’ve been working on this for years and years.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: What I think you’ve got with Google is also the fact that everyone at this point, Google has to assume that every webpage is essentially a bad actor for real, right?

Rich Ziade: [chuckles].

Paul Ford: Like yeah, they can trust that the New York Times is gonna continue to publish, you know, news articles that are reported by professional journalists,

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Or that an article, a wire cutter is about the thing that it says it’s about.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: But for the most part, Google has to treat the entire web as someone who is trying to game Google to get better results.

Rich Ziade: It is.

Paul Ford: It is, right.

Rich Ziade: It’s humanity. 

Paul Ford: It’s, it’s a very, we talked about this on another podcast, but it’s a very toxic place because everybody keeps saying, Google’s getting worse. I doubt Google’s getting worse. I imagine it’s really good at search.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And it, yes, it’s jamming, more ads in.

Rich Ziade: Yeah. [00:10:00] 

Paul Ford: But when I, as I scroll down, and I see the content, I see the search results. They’re not that good.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And I think it’s because like, at a certain point, everyone just-

Rich Ziade: Everyone’s trying to game Google.

Paul Ford: Well there’s also an element of like, the web is so big now, right?

Paul Ford: And so like, there’s no, like, the content’s not that great cause there’s no motivation to put up your own website.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, yeah.

Paul Ford: So you have giant news organizations, Wikipedia, uh, you know-

Rich Ziade: Wiki data, which colors so much when you ask Google a question like “which chemicals are safe to ingest”, or if you type in, uh, some symptoms cause you’re trying to figure out an ailment, it brings up structured data.

Paul Ford: So my assumption is that most of that’s coming from Google. I know that they do pay, uh, the Wikipedia Foundation for access to a custom API. There’s like an-

Rich Ziade: They better.

Paul Ford: Yeah. No, no. I mean that’s-

Rich Ziade: And they also should support it, right? I mean, the Wiki, Wikipedia, I mean, you just said the web’s a toxic place, but [00:11:00] Wikipedia and Wikidata and, and these kinds of initiatives, um, have done an incredible job of, um, carving out trusted, safe information for us.

Paul Ford: This is a subject you and I do not have an answer to this question. I would love to pursue this for a future podcast, which is why is it so hard for large organizations to care for the infrastructure they rely upon.

Paul Ford: Like, it’s hard for Google to support, open source projects, they just don’t do a lot of it. But if you ask them, they’ll say, “of course we do. We, we give lots of code”.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, yeah.

Paul Ford: But a good example, WikiData is a great example, Wikipedia is a great example until it didn’t have a really easy structured way for giant orgs to give it, give it money until it provided a service.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Because those orgs aren’t set up like Google is not in the business of giving charitable donations to its data providers anyway, regardless– that’s a different conversation.

Rich Ziade: Let me answer it [00:12:00] in a, in a very brief way.

Paul Ford: Okay.

Rich Ziade: Which is, there is a tension between, uh, greater good outcomes and, uh, commercial uh, parenthesis, selfish motivations. Uh, it’s Google has an obligation to its owners.

Paul Ford: Sure.

Rich Ziade: which, it’s a publicly traded company. It’s a classic tension there, right?

Paul Ford: Yeah.

Rich Ziade: And, and what you end up with eventually is, um, this long meandering road towards standards that can, uh, lift all boats like wifi. Nobody wants a new wifi standard. Matter is, is this new home automation standard that it’s taking hold at, everyone’s agreed on Apple, Google, and others, and that took 10 years.

Paul Ford: Sure.

Rich Ziade: For everybody to even come to the table. And the only reason they came to the table is if we can get on the same page here, we can open up billions in value. That’s [00:13:00] the only reason they all came back to the table. No one, uh, it takes a lot for people to line up to align, especially commercial interests to align.

Rich Ziade: Paul, I wanna pose a question to you.

Paul Ford: Alright. Thank you for letting me talk about Wikipedia on this podcast. It’s very therapeutic.

Rich Ziade: Oh no, it’s, it’s, it’s relevant for us because, it’s inspiration, it’s motivation. It’s actually driving a lot of our product thinking as we think about Aboard. So it’s gonna come together, hang in there everybody.

Rich Ziade: But I have a question for you.

Paul Ford: I do. I definitely give them money every month on a, but I still get the big ad. There’s no, there’s no escape.

Rich Ziade: It’s devastating.

Paul Ford: Yeah.

Rich Ziade: That ad. So I have a question for you.

Paul Ford: Sure.

Rich Ziade: There are so few good, decent, reputable places on the internet. There’s Wikipedia, which we just talked about.

Paul Ford: Okay. 

Rich Ziade: There’s the Mayo Clinic.

Paul Ford: That’s, we have a rule in my family that you’re, if you have ailments, you’re only allowed to look at the Mayo Clinic website.

Rich Ziade: [00:14:00] I’m gonna, uh, on another, on another podcast, remind me to tell you the story of how my cousin thought he had what was essentially a World War I soldier’s ailment cause he’d sat on the internet for so long looking for why his shoulder hurts.

Paul Ford: Get off those Forbes.

Rich Ziade: Get off those, get off the, get off the internet [laughter]. Um, the Mayo Clinic, Wikipedia, I guess maybe ESPN… sometimes?

Paul Ford: Okay, okay.

Rich Ziade: Why is the, why are there so few high quality, reputable places to go on the internet?

Paul Ford: Well, let me put it this way.

Paul Ford: All of those are funded, right? All of those have money and resources, so that’s one big thing. They’re, they, they actually, there’s a structure. There’s money for the structure. But I’ll give you the second big thing, which is that, I’ve thought about this for a while, and a lot of times what people say is like, we just need better moderation and you need like better community tools and so on.

Paul Ford: I think you need a goal. I think the idea of getting everyone together just to talk is a [00:15:00] disaster, but with Wikipedia, the goal is let’s make a better and more accurate encyclopedia page. With the Mayo Clinic, it’s let’s give people. A clear guided health advice that allows them to make decisions about when to pursue care, following Western medical tradition, right?

Paul Ford: Like I feel that if people have a goal, then community follows organically. You still need to moderate you still– everybody still fights in the forums, so you can’t win on that, but without the goal, and Twitter is a good example. If the goal is purely communication.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: We get into trouble. That’s not good for our species. We’re not wired that way. We need to go chop down a tree or draw a picture or be, you know, a good community that’s pretty healthy? Deviant art.

Rich Ziade: Mmmm.

Paul Ford: Still going decade after that, they just end-

Rich Ziade: Digital art forums and-

Paul Ford: People who are making their furry avatars? Sure.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: But because they’re focused on the art because they’re focused on [00:16:00] making the thing.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, yeah.

Paul Ford: That community is, is really active. You know, one of the most toxic communities I, I don’t even have to tell you what’s the most toxic thing online?

Rich Ziade: Politics?

Paul Ford: Gaming.

Rich Ziade: Gaming.

Paul Ford: It’s even worse than politics.

Rich Ziade:Yeah, you’re right.

Paul Ford: Because there’s no goal. You don’t make anything.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: You just play and get angrier.

Rich Ziade: And keep score. You keep score of your social status. You keep score of your own standing in that community, which is, I think, where things go south real fast.

Paul Ford: Here’s what I would argue, and I don’t think that people will love this, but I, I think it’s real, which is that. Even if what you’re making isn’t particularly meaningful or valuable, the actual act of making it is the health healthiest thing for humans in a community.

Rich Ziade: I totally agree. 

Paul Ford: And like, I’ll tell you, I’m getting into music a lot lately. I’m loving it. I have a synthesizer. I mess around with it. I play with, with production. I don’t believe I will ever release any music. I don’t want to be a musician. I don’t have talent.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, yeah.

Paul Ford: But I love learning it [00:17:00] and that, the act of making it is so satisfying.

Rich Ziade: Um, okay, fine and good, Paul, but that’s your headphones on alone. I’m talking about the internet, which is this like, look global, down, square, or blah, blah, blah. Like what? Like what? How do you turn that into something positive? Are there communities where people share information and, and help others into the synth world?

Paul Ford: Oh, there’s tons. There’s lots.

Rich Ziade: Okay.

Paul Ford: Yeah, and there’s communities for people who make vinyl albums. There’s community for people who are into making their own clothes.

Rich Ziade: You’re touching on something interesting here. Those communities are not toxic.

Paul Ford: No, they have plenty of toxic traits. They melt down and then-

Rich Ziade: Humans, some humans are toxic. There’s always a, there’s going to be a certain baseline level, but let’s face it, it’s not the most brutal place to hang out. The vinyl, uh, record community is not– is a welcoming place, is my guess.

Paul Ford: You wanna know what doesn’t matter as much in the vinyl [00:18:00] community?

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: That someone shares the exact same belief system that you do.

Rich Ziade: Right, right.

Paul Ford: Because the th that you’re there for the vinyl, you’re there for the, the video game making. You’re there for the, because you wanna be a cobbler.

Rich Ziade: Communities that are excited about seeing their communities grow is a good signal.

Paul Ford: Yeah…

Rich Ziade: They wanna welcome you in. “Hey, you don’t know anything about this. Let me for, let me point you to here. This is a great primer. And then come back and tell us what you’re thinking”.

Paul Ford: You know, that is true. A, a wonderful indicator of a community’s health is its onboarding.

Rich Ziade: Ab- oh, it’s the whole thing, it’s the whole thing.

Paul Ford: Check out the FAQ, great question. You know, there’s the room for newbies.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: There’s the, you see that on the discords that are pretty effective, where it’s like-

Rich Ziade: Yeah, absolutely.

Paul Ford: newcomer come over here cause this is where, and then you have the people who are happy to be caretakers for the newcomers.

Rich Ziade: That’s right.

Paul Ford: And then the bleakest ones are the ones with the huge learning curve and they die.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: I’ve seen so many of them die.

Rich Ziade: Of course, of course. This podcast started about Wikipedia, but it’s really about people and [00:19:00]communities and relationships and how, I mean that and– and I’m gonna get nostalgic for a second and date myself, that was the promise of the internet, early days.

Paul Ford: Well, it was small, so you saw a lot of it.

Rich Ziade: You saw a lot of it [chuckles]. Yeah.

Paul Ford: And the people who were there who showed up had interests like ours, you were into like 3D graphics cards, where are you gonna go?

Rich Ziade: Yeah. There was, it was not, it was a small neighborhood.

Paul Ford: Right.

Rich Ziade: Paul, we’re gonna keep sharing sources of inspiration, there are others. We are also gonna share sources of frustration and anger, uh, as we go on this journey with The Aboard Podcast.

Rich Ziade: Uh, next time, uh, I’d love for us to talk about domain names.

Paul Ford: Can’t wait.

Rich Ziade: Have a lovely week.

Paul Ford: Bye.