For Wikipedia’s 10th Birthday, A Love Letter
For some weeks now I have been meaning to write about why I work at the Wikimedia Foundation and today seems as good a day as any.
Why do I work at the Foundation? It’s simple.
I am a reasonably intelligent man. Few paths of study would have been beyond my reach but I knew, somehow, that I would find the stereotypical “success” paths of medicine or law or politics unsatisfying. For a time I dabbled in the creative arts but in many ways that felt hollow because my motivations were hollow.
Greatness does not come from superficiality.
Say what you will about Wikipedia. Its community is fickle bunch, drama-laden, often harsh and hidebound. The projects have flaws, inconsistencies, and errors. It’s bureaucratic to a degree that Sam Lowry would find comforting. We are often wrong.
However, Wikipedia is not superficial.
A year ago I was working at Electronic Arts and becoming increasingly unhappy with my work there. I wrote two kinds of software: programs that made it easier to hire people and programs that made it easier to fire those same people six months later. It was a bit depressing (but certainly not as depressing as working on artificial intelligence systems for the military). The office politics were becoming toxic and I felt little agency to control my own destiny.
Then one day, out of the blue, my friend Danese Cooper initiated a Facebook chat with me. I’d known Danese for over a decade, having worked with her husband on and off (first at Sun Microsystems, where I was a “webmaster” in the late 1990s and then at Elemental Security, where I was the User Interface Lead).
She had taken the position of Chief Technical Officer at the Foundation a few months prior and was looking for a designer. While the Foundation had a few people with smatterings of design talent, they didn’t have anyone with my skill set, and would I be interested in taking a massive pay cut in order to make the world a better place?
Well now. That had a nice ring to it.
I figured that at the worst case, I’d be able to walk away in a year or two with a nice, fat top-five property on my resume. The commute was a big draw as well: I was spending upwards of two hours in the car every morning and a 15 minute train ride was very attractive. I wanted to get back into writing games, which I couldn’t do while working for a game company. And so forth.
I was focused on how this job would benefit me. I was focused on the superficialities of work.
But then, a few weeks into working at the Foundation, something wonderful happened.
I understood The Mission. I became fully aware that I was living the first line of my obituary.
The Mission can be summed thusly:
“To provide the sum of human knowledge to everyone in the world for free.”
That’s easy enough to say and easy enough to understand. But that easy understanding is feeble and, honestly, superficial. It expresses an immediacy that really isn’t there.
The power of The Mission lies in its implications.
The Mission is about enabling children in Pune, India learn about the world in a way that just simply would never be available to them. The Mission is about helping developmentally disabled learn for themselves. The Mission is about providing laptops to the poor in South America.
The Mission is about helping people learn another language. The Mission is about exposing people to new ideas. It’s about consensus. It’s about opening eyes and changing minds – forever.
The Mission is about telling people that there is a great big world out there, and you can learn all you want to about it. The Mission is thinking outside of the box – forever.
The Mission is about preserving our history and culture throughout time. Years from now, our descendants will be able to look back through the history and discussion pages for every article and be able to know how we understood the universe at that time.
The Mission is about giving to the future.
Wikipedia is the promise of the internet. It’s here, you know. Right now. The future. You’ve already got it, and I want to say thank you for giving it to me.
You can actually hear the capitals when people say “The Mission” when someone understands it.
All the bullshit in our lives is transient and superficial. Economic downturns, poor political schemes, bad housing investments, trends in movies, tastes in fashion, life, love, sadness and joy: they are all temporary.
The Mission is not. The Mission remains and always will. It may come to pass that Wikipedia will cease to be, but that’s okay: Wikipedia is simply part of The Mission, one way of attempting to realize it.
I’ve got The Mission now. It can’t be taken away from me.