The Longest Now

What it means to be a Wikipedian
Wednesday July 29th 2009, 10:38 pm
Filed under: chain-gang,international

Part 1 in a series about being a Wikimedian.

When people ask me about myself, I often say I am a Wikipedian and a physicist.   A physicist in that I want to know how things work at different scales, and to estimate specifics from first principles, limiting factors, conserved properties.  And a Wikipedian in that I want to understand what large groups of people can do to fix what needs fixing while learning and enjoying themselves.

I regularly have to explain what I mean by this last bit – not a desire to add to Wikipedia itself, or to contribute tidbits of knowledge to something, but the quick check for the edit button when you find a mistake in any environment, the urge to improve things on the spot – the sense of turning to someone next to you and saying, “let’s fix this”.


Let me give you an example from recent memory.  Last week I was visiting my local clinic in Cambridge.  It is a quiet building, competently staffed, with more security and information desk staff than is absolutely necessary.  Noone would say they were struggling to make ends meet.  They have a few vending machines throughout the clinic – offering drinks and snacks that are decidedly unhealthy.  I couldn’t find a single healthy product in them, aside from bottled water (and there are water fountains on every floor).

Clearly a fine idea gone wrong.  This didn’t sit well with me, so I started asking the staff about it.  Noone could say for sure how they were chosen; and all agreed that while the convenience was nice, they should at least be limited to healthy foods.  I asked if there was anyone I could talk to about it (not really), and left a request card suggesting a replacement.

This was deeply unsatisfying.  I wanted to fix this right away… it seemed clear this would make everyone better off,  and I had an idea of what to do.   I could imagine a process of replacement running like this:

  1. Define a proposal to replace the machines with healthier options
  2. Find the person in the clinic heirarchy responsible for such things and make the recommendation
  3. Research alternatives and present a few options with their costs, including the general cost of replacement and of cancelling any existing contracts with the current vending vendor.
  4. Talk casually to staff and patients to get their input, since as long as such a change is being made, it should be enjoyed afterwards.
  5. Pursue this through the gears of hospital bureaucracy.

All of this would take a fair bit of time and persistent followup.  (Despite a personal fondness for things that vend, I don’t know the first thing about the world of vending machine vendors and their alternatives, and I doubted people reading that card would either.)  Certainly more than my personal benefit would merit if I had to do it all myself.

But if there were a natural way to pursue this as a community, I would gladly get it started.  And if there were a way to make such a proposal, and then extend it to all clinics in the country that might be in the same situation, I could recruit health advocates who would delightedly devote a hundred hours to the project — doing so would be the highlight of their year.  The benefits are so obvious, and the implications for our culture as well as individual patients would be tangible.  I’m inclined to find my local community-health group and see if they are up to the challenge.  But they tend to think in terms of political advocacy.   And my idea isn’t to stand outside with placards and digital petitions shouting for legislators to mandate clincial change — it is to research, plan, design, suggest, and help implement a change directly and quickly.

So among other things, being a Wikipedian means : the recognition that things can be directly changed; the sense that collaboration of neighbors, and the promise of scale, can make any challenge worth the effort.  (As for what being a Wikimedian means… there’s less consensus on that point!  I tried to answer that in a recent Q&A.)

11 Comments so far
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Great post, it’s definitely part of the nerd sensibility. I often go out of my way, even do people’s jobs for them, to fix something, and they still drop the ball and wonder why I’m even bothering since it’s a small thing.

Comment by Joseph Reagle 07.30.09 @ 9:14 am

Totally! I find myself filing real life bug reports and/or giving away free plans all the time similar to working on the web.

Comment by Jon Phillips 07.30.09 @ 8:35 pm

I, too, have this urge to correct or change things when in the physical space with the ease of an “edit” button. Or how many times have I seen an error in the MSM and had this wish to immediately correct it? Instead, I make it a point to send an email to the journalist with the correction, or have my voice heard about the problem in the physical space. The world would be a much better place if we all had the wiki-mentality.

Comment by elizabeth 07.30.09 @ 9:10 pm

“I wanted to fix this right away… it seemed clear this would make everyone better off, and I knew roughly what to do.” – Who frigg’n died and make you god of vending machines?

For all we know, in situations like this Coca Cola, Pepsi, etc. may have an exclusive deal with the location and in exchange for that exclusivity kick in a nice chunk of change to the hospital. The point is, what you think is so clearly right might not be the same from the valid perspective of others. That bureaucracy that you deride is in place to specifically prevent know-it-all’s like yourself from imposing your sudden strokes of genius on the rest of society without first taking into the opinions and information of others into the equation.

Comment by none 07.30.09 @ 10:19 pm

Real world change can take so much longer than cyberspace change, it is easy to get discouraged.

Suggestion: make an “edit” magnet listing the URL, affix it to the device, and link to this page.

Comment by webchick 07.30.09 @ 10:35 pm

none : the essence of being a Wikipedian is not thinking that ‘knowing how to fix a problem’ makes you a god of anything.

I mentioned that the clinic isn’t in need of cash. So it can’t possibly be doing this as a last-ditch way to stay afloat. Why then would it be working directly against its own dieticians? Why would it even impose unhealthy options on its staff? This seems like a case of not thinking through the ramifications of what might well have been a small business deal.

And I am certain that the vendors, if not a Coke or Pepsi, provided the machines and installation under some contract or exclusivity — I mentioned that one of the costs would be that of breaking out of any such deals.

I have no interest in imposing ideas on others without taking their opinions into consideration, nor did I suggest it – that’s no way to develop a lasting resolution (or relationship with the clinic).

Perhaps the idea that a change could benefit everyone offends you? Non-Wikipedians tend to think that if the Experts or local gods haven’t deemed it important to fix something, it’s for a good reason… either ask them about it (and wait forever for a response) or find a way to rationalize it (and stay quiet), or demand that the local gods fix it themselves (and hold a rally). All of which starts from an assumption of powerlessness – when in fact each of is has the power to change large problems indeed. The mindset that everything is done for good reason, no matter how ridiculous, can keep a society from fixing glaring mistakes.

Comment by metasj 07.31.09 @ 6:17 pm

webchick: that is such a good idea I’m inclined to start a little “edit this world!” store online to sell this sort of custom gear. (and even provide a place to host the desired edits, for people without a blgo of their own…)

Comment by metasj 07.31.09 @ 6:18 pm

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Pingback by SJ’s Longest Now » a platform and a request 07.31.09 @ 8:11 pm

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Pingback by SJ’s Longest Now » My Wikimedia platform 07.31.09 @ 8:13 pm

“webchick: that is such a good idea I’m inclined to start a little “edit this world!” store online to sell this sort of custom gear. (and even provide a place to host the desired edits, for people without a blgo of their own…)”

I say “go for it”, SJ! Let me know if you need any help 🙂

Comment by webchick 08.02.09 @ 3:04 pm

This would cause a panic in the work place, people would hit the deck thinking their was obviously a gun shot, so it didn’t require much time before Pepsi pulled all those neat little wall-mounted machines off the market as quickly as possible. You can set the equipment to free-vend (nocost to employees) or charge a small nickel per cup towards the employees and invoice the organization for the difference.While these won’t build a havoc inside your veins immediately, they, too are not innocent.

Comment by Anonymous 07.05.17 @ 3:11 pm

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