On Sourcing Quotes and the Wikimedia Way

This morning, I came across this Charlie Parker quote that I really loved:

“Master your instrument, master the music, then forget all that bullshit and just play.”

My first instinct was to tweet it. My second, more practiced instinct, was to check the source first. It’s really not that hard to at least do a quick check, and I’ve discovered lots of misattributed quotes this way.

A quick search surfaced a bunch of unattributed variants on that quote, as well as this entry from Wikiquote:

“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” –As quoted in Acting Is a Job: Real-life Lessons About the Acting Business (2006) by Jason Pugatch, p. 73; this statement has occurred with many different phrasings, including: “Learn the changes, then forget them.”

A book on acting is not the most credible source, probably no better than the blog post above. But at least it’s the start of a trail, one that anyone can follow to the end, if they so desire.

The ethos of sourcing facts is theoretically easier in this connected age, but the reality is that our connectivity seems to discourage it. We read funny or provocative things that speak to us, we click once, and boom, we’ve instantaneously shared it with hundreds of our followers without giving any thought to whether or not it’s true. That’s a problem.

Furthermore, social media tools seem to be actively evolving to discourage sourcing. I was guilted into this practice of sourcing-before-sharing after reading a rant by Evan Prodromou, who pointed out that a quote that was being widely and rapidly shared was actually misattributed.

Here’s the problem: Even though he posted it publicly somewhere, I can’t find it. It’s not on his blog, and it’s not on Status.net (the company he founded, which very much values persistent data), although he alludes to the rant there. Which means that he posted it on Facebook or Google Plus, which means that I can just about forget about ever finding it, since neither of those services seem to care about making posts persistent and findable. (Read a similar criticism that Kellan Eliott-McCrea had about Twitter.) Which means that this knowledge trail, minor though it may be, has been unnecessarily broken.

This is yet another reason why I appreciate Wikimedia so much. There is a deeply embedded ethos in that community around sourcing truth. Sometimes, this ethos surfaces some quirky challenges around epistemology,  such as the recent Philip Roth affair, but even situations like these only serve to make us smarter and more self-aware.

The wiki tool enables this ethos to some extent, but the reality is that its source is cultural, not technical, and the community is trying to apply this ethos to all forms of knowledge, not just encyclopedic. No one else is doing this. That’s unfortunate, because we need a lot more of it.

Openness Rocks

I took the above picture at Wikimania 2009 in Buenos Aires. It’s of Micah Alpern giving a talk entitled, “Designing a large scale community moderation system for Yahoo! Answers.” Micah, now at LinkedIn, was the design lead for Yahoo! Answers, and at the time, he was still at Yahoo!.

As you can see from my annotations, Jimmy Wales (co-founder of Wikia) and Jack Herrick (founder of wikiHow) were also in the audience. I thought nothing of this at the time. We’re all friends and are part of the same community, which is why we were all there in the first place. But afterward, I realized that folks from other industries might find this picture exceedingly strange. You could argue, for example, that wikiHow competes with Yahoo! Answers. (A bit of a stretch, but valid.) And at the time, Wikia was developing its own Q&A system.

In other words, here was Micah, freely giving away all of his lessons learned to two people who were arguably competitors, not to mention the rest of the audience and whoever else ended up watching the freely available, openly licensed video of the talk.

I was reminded of this picture and this moment by Kellan Elliott-McCrea’s short and sweet post, “Openness rocks.” He cites a few examples, and he concludes, “This is how we get better as an industry.”

That quote right there embodies the mindset that makes innovation happen, that makes certain industries a joy to be in, and that makes the world a better place. Openness indeed does rock.

Worldview, Diversity, and the iRAN Project

From Kellan Elliott-McCrea: Check out the iRAN Project, a Flickr collection of photos that show another side to life in Iran.    (LT5)

I’m a child of immigrants, and like all children of immigrants, I have a deep, almost biological understanding of what it’s like to live in a world with multiple worldviews. On the surface — well, perhaps just underneath the surface — I’m as American as apple pie, but my ethnic heritage has had a significant impact on who I am. Perhaps my greatest skill is my ability to reconcile different worldviews. I attribute this ability to my ethnicity, to my upbringing, and strangely enough, to growing up in this great country.    (LT6)

Mark Cuban recently said:    (LT7)

When you do something that the whole world thinks is difficult and you stand up and just be who you are and take on that difficulty factor, you’re an American hero no matter what. That’s what the American spirit’s all about, going against the grain and standing up for who you are, even if it’s not a popular position.    (LT8)

Cuban was talking about gay athletes in professional sports, but his statement resonates strongly with how I feel about this country’s values in general. America isn’t about tolerance. It’s about embracing those who are different from us, embracing them because we know that we will be all the richer for it.    (LT9)

Forget about politics for a moment, and just think about people. When we speak from ignorance, when we act on simplistic assumptions about people who are different from us, we destroy the very value that makes this country strong. I don’t even want to start a conversation about politics unless I know that those of us who are talking truly understand who we are talking about.    (LTA)

Two years ago, at the first Wikimania in Frankfurt, I spent every evening breaking bread, talking, and laughing with folks who grew up in different countries, from Europe to Asia, from Latin America to the Middle East. Having been properly primed, I spent the following week in Berlin, visiting friends and colleagues and absorbing my surroundings.    (LTB)

On my last day there, Jan Muehlig told me that c-base was celebrating its 10th anniversary that evening, and he invited me to come celebrate with them. c-base is the German center of the underground artist and hacker universe. In addition to incubating a number of extraordinary collaborative projects, they regularly throw parties and host live music in their space, which looks like the remnants of a wrecked UFO.    (LTC)

I showed up at 9pm, and I didn’t know anyone there. (Jan, like most people, didn’t show up until after midnight.) I wandered out back, where people were eating and drinking in the cold, wet air on a river bank overlooking the city. Despite my lack of familiarity with the surroundings, I felt strangely at ease. People welcomed me, this complete stranger from America who had wandered into their space.    (LTD)

I had a long conversation with a tall, skinny fellow who had grown up in East Berlin. He was a teacher and a new father, and he was about to marry his life-long sweetheart and the mother of his child. We talked about our day-to-day lives, the trials and tribulations of turning 30, and the state of the world.    (LTE)

At one point, I noted that twenty years ago, we were enemies. Now, we were sitting on a river bank in the former East Berlin, drinking beers, laughing at each other’s jokes, and sharing stories about our lives. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t even imagine ever being where I ended up that drizzly evening. Now, when I think about Germany, I can’t help but remember that night, the people I met, and the conversations I had.    (LTF)

Every time I travel, whether it’s to the Midwest or halfway across the world, I am always moved by the experience. You can’t fully replace the experience of travel, but you can evoke similar emotions and learnings in other ways. Projects like iRAN are beautiful, because they help us remember what it means to be human.    (LTG)

“An Inconvenient Truth” Followups

Lots of cool followups to report on the excellent global warming movie, An Inconvenient Truth.    (KPM)

First, Eric Pan wrote the other day about his web site, Share The Truth, a marketplace for giving away free tickets to see the movie. I love Eric’s enthusiasm, and I love the fact that he did something about it, so I’m sponsoring three free tickets with the following caveats:    (KPN)

  • Whoever claims the ticket must not live in the Bay Area.    (KPO)
  • That person must bring at least one person who would not have otherwise seen the movie.    (KPP)
  • That person must blog his or her impressions of the movie or post them to the Share The Truth forum.    (KPQ)

If you want to take me up on the offer, respond directly on the forum.    (KPR)

In a similar vein, I dragged the HyperScope project team along with other folks in our extended community to see the movie. We had (and continue to have) lots of great discussion afterwards. I encourage all of you to take similar field trips.    (KPS)

Finally, in my review, I wrote:    (KPT)

We need more transparency in society, and we need tools that give us that transparency. For example, when I purchase food from the supermarket, I’d like to know the comparative “carbon costs” of those different items. As my friend StephanieSchaaf has often pointed out, when you buy locally grown produce, even if it’s nonorganic, you’re helping the environment, because less energy is consumed in transporting the food. Everyone needs to know these things, and then they can decide for themselves whether or not to do anything about it.  T    (KPU)

Boris Mann (via Kellan Elliott-McCrea) reports that there’s a grocery delivery service in Vancouver that includes distance travelled on its bill. It’s called Small Potatoes Urban Delivery. Cool stuff.    (KPV)

Making Change Safe

My buddy, Justin Lin, has a company that recently migrated from J2EE to Ruby On Rails, and he’s been thrilled by the results. This morning, we were IMing about Agile Programming, and something he said about Unit Tests really struck a chord. He said that their tests softened their fear of change, which changed the team’s entire attitude about change in general.    (KJX)

I’ve written about Unit Tests before in a coding context, and of course, their importance is well understood in the Agile Programming community. What struck me about Justin’s comments was that he was describing how a tool in a very specific context was catalyzing a cultural shift within his company. While he didn’t say this explicitly, I can imagine that shift extending beyond the technical component of the company.    (KJY)

The lesson: Tools that make change safe facilitate a culture of adaptation. An adaptive organization is a strong, effective organization.    (KJZ)

What are some other tools that make change safe? I saw Kellan Elliott-McCrea yesterday (welcome back to California, Kellan!), who reminded me of a suggestion I had made for Social Source Commons a while back: Wiki-style editing works because the revision history is visible. A visible revision history encourages change in the form of Permission To Participate, and that in turn can lead to a larger cultural shift within your team and even your organization as a whole.    (KK0)