Telling the open source story - Part 1

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As open source software becomes more mainstream, it's easy to forget how amazing it is. Countless individuals, donating their time and sharing their brainpower, work to build a shared infrastructure on which the world's computing is done. Amazing. Even more amazing, in survey after survey, the big reason open source contributors give for their participation is that it's "fun." Even more amazing than that is the rate at which this technology improves because people are having fun building it.

Wikipedia, the free internet encyclopedia that anyone can write or edit, is no less amazing. Yet as it gains legitimacy, the exciting story of how it is created and renewed--daily, perpetually--is de-emphasized. Yes, Wikipedia is imperfect. By design, it will always be a work in progress. But because there is a collective human impulse to share knowledge, the fact that anyone can improve it any time they want, means that someone always will.

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By Wikimedia Foundation. Video credits: Directed by Jelly Helm, produced by Noah Stanik, shot by DP Reed Harkness, edited by Sarah Marcus. Music by Matt Carey. Production team, Living Colour. Agency partner Fenton Communications. (Wikimedia Foundation) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Marketers at open source technology companies tend to shy away from telling the broader open source story in favor of touting the features and benefits of their products and services. And, for the most part, this makes sense. People who buy enterprise technology generally already understand how open source works. They just need to make sure the solution will work for them. That's fine, but it can obscure the larger, very important idea that open source is what makes their technology better in the first place. Building a customer base means answering customers' questions, satisfying their need to know--most often about form and functionality. It can mean only telling half your story, but it's a necessary trade-off that usually works.

Wikipedia doesn't need new customers. In January of 2010, they were the fifth most visited site on the web (behind Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook), with 365 million unique visitors that month. And in April of 2010, the 1,000,000,000th edit was made.

But over the past few years, Wikipedians noticed the growth in the number of edits, especially in the English-language editions, was reaching a plateau, and they wanted to find a way to remind people that the collaborative act of creating Wikipedia is, well, a lot of fun.

So the Wikipedia Foundation produced four short videos (Username, Nice People, Edit Button, and Great Feeling) to "inform the general public about the people and inspiration behind our movement, and also to energize and inspire new Wikipedia editors to engage bravely in contributing to Wikipedia." 

To tell their story, they hired Portland, OR creative director Jelly Helm. Helm's team shot 35 Wikipedians at the Wikimania conference in Gdansk, Poland last July. Helm let the cameras roll, let the Wikipedians talk, and let their enthusiam and passion do the rest.

In Part II, we'll talk to Helm about the campaign and share what he learned from the experience about telling the open source story.

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Colin Dodd is a writer at Red Hat.


I am a Wikipedia cynic. All I can think when I watch these people is, "Yeah, you look so nice, but I know you're going to delete anything as soon as I write it."

There's a massive barrier to entry to joining the Wikipedia community, and it's other Wikipedians. My experience says that even if you follow all of the rules--contribute sourced information, organized correctly on the page, grammatically correct, etc., chances are good that it will be deleted pretty quickly by the page's "owners" within an hour, possibly without even having been read first. A few years ago, I also heard Elonka Dunin, who is (among many, many other interesting things) a Wikipedia administrator, give a talk about the Wikipedia hierarchy, which I suspect most non-Wikipedians are completely unaware of.

On the one hand, I expect this all helps with the accuracy of Wikipedia. On the other, making it so difficult for newcomers to get involved acts against the openness philosophy and discourages growth of the contributor base.

Agree, but I'm not too worried about the other editors yet. I haven't gotten that far. I'm more worried about learning and understanding the rules.

I've been trying to write an article about my friend Ron Liberti. He's a well-respected poster artist. His work has been collected by the Southern Folklife Center at UNC and shown all over the world. I have lots of verifiable primary sources. However, according to the rules, I am not supposed to write an article for a friend.

They do "clarify" in several places that the rules are more like guidelines, but still. I'm kind of stuck while I try to decide what's right. I don't want to offend or trespass.

(I do think it is easier when you are trying to post an original article, when you are the owner.)

Whether or not Wikipedians are any nicer than any other community of purpose, I love these promos because they remind me of how nice I am for wanting to tell the world about Ron and his posters, and it makes contributing (including dealing with all the hassles) seem warm and friendly - an act of generosity. I admire the videos for effectively kindling that feeling. That is hard to do in a minute-long video.

But yes, I can also feel a little like I am being hazed on my way to becoming a good Wikipedian.


An example to support Ruth point of view:
I'm from Poland. Wikipedia editors are generaly skewed to left side of political scene and don't tolerate something written by right side. There was this Big Important Guy's birthday or death anniversary or sth. I don't remember exactly at the moment. Anyway it was all over the news. Someone edited his wikipedia article reminding that he was an agent of secret police of socialist government of People's Republic of Poland. It was taken down claiming lack of proper sources, but the sources were already there - references to official documents. The real reason was that they didn't like one of their idols sins put on public display so they just deleted it. Objective and neutralize my a***.

No human endeavor is ever objective or neutral. I concede that. Wikipedia is no better than any other "source" of information. It is troubling, however, when facts can be manipulated, but I see that in books, encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, on TV and, of course, all over the web.

Yet, when I needed to fix a single-phase induction motor, there it was, everything I needed to know. Same thing when I needed the model number for the engine in my car. When I had to explain lightning to my daughter, it was there. And when I wanted to know when the town I live in was founded, it took about 10 seconds.

Granted, I was not doing serious scholarly work, but I was able to satisfy my curiosity. So, maybe it's a better source for things like physics and engineering than it is for literature, politics, social science, or history.

The merits of Wikipedia aren't really the focus of this story anyway. Love it or hate it, it is an impressive collection of information, however flawed. That's not really debatable.

What I want to talk about is how this collaboration is depicted, or how it is sold.

I think the creator of these videos has tapped into something essential about working together and sharing knowledge. The videos don't say Wikipedians are objective. They say Wikipedians have fun.

I think that's interesting. I find it more interesting that seeing their obvious pleasure makes me want (despite my own cynicism) to join them.

I mean, what is that? I'd like to understand how and why that "story" seems so powerful.

i read (in terry hancock's book, "achieving impossible things with free culture..." i think,) that it was going to be called "gnupedia," or something like that.

i'm sure that "wikipedia" sounds better, but you actually miss out on a great deal of history due to such name changes, even (or especially) when the story is retold.

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