Covid 2: The Best/Worst of Times

This is part two of a series on the lessons we should, and shouldn’t be drawing from the Coronavirus Pandemic. Part One is here.

Woman Wearing Mask on Train
Remembering the Cluetrain/Anna Shvets, Moscow

A crisis defines us. Perhaps more precisely, a crisis highlights what we have lost, and what defines us is how quickly we can regain it (or not).

First there’s the humanity. One of the redeeming features about Hong Kong’s dense life — and a restorer of faith in human nature — was that once you got into the hills and trails passing strangers would greet each other as if they were on a jaunt in Kew Gardens. It’s a strange world now, when we venture out alone and nervously pass another lone pedestrian at a safe distance, and bark when they get too close. And you know we are in the territory beyond compassion when a family loses one of its kind to the coronavirus, and yet doesn’t want to say that is the reason for fear of stigma. Society, even at its smallest component unit, can break down quickly if social norms don’t catch up with the crisis in its midst. Now that family (friends of a friend) can’t properly mourn, or warn others in the tightly packed neighbourhood where they live of a lethal infection, and those around can’t find a way to offer support because they can’t speak the killer’s name out loud. Empathy withers, rumours prosper and dog ignores dog.

But there are other trends afoot. When there are practical things to do, air rushes in to fill the gaps. Our obsession with just-in-time supply chains has exposed its achilles heel — a lack of the things we need the most. But others have stepped up. A group calling itself OSCMS-Mods (Open Source Covid-19 Medical Supplies) has emerged on Facebook “to evaluate, design, validate, and source the fabrication of open source emergency medical supplies around the world.” It has quickly proved its mettle: a document listing needs ranges from hand sanitizer to laryngoscopes, complete with glossary and warnings about safety and liability.

The Facebook group is dynamic. At the time of writing it has nearly 48,000 members. In the past hour or so I’ve seen posts by an electrical engineering instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison mulling whether to assign as a final project to his students an infrared thermometer. Others chip in, saying they’re working on something similar, offering advice (“don’t forget to program in an emissivity factor”) or help (“I’m pretty fast with 3D modeling and a 3D printer. If you guys need some help with the casing, hit me up!”). In another post a resident of Vancouver Island reports, after driving 500 km, that there is no hand sanitiser or isopropyl on the island. Some offer alternatives (not all them wise) but someone in Hong Kong offers a simpler solution: shipping some of the excess from Hong Kong, where emergency orders arrived too late and the price has fallen below its suppliers’ cost. Medical workers from Southampton, New York, post a photo of themselves in full gear to ask for help alleviate a shortage of surgical caps and masks. The jury is still out on this one, but there are some good suggestions, and hopefully the gap is plugged.

Such adhoc approaches are reassuring. For one thing, people want to help, and the platforms are there to make that a reality — Facebook, with its groups, and a growing mastery of the technology: 3D printing, materials, Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. Of course, these initiatives are only going to be meaningful if they are consistent, and find a way of ensuring that requests for help are not just met by comments and virtue-signalling responses, but concrete action. Time will tell. Technology can often be a hammer looking for a nail.

I think another side to this that may outlast these emergency responses is that the technology will find a way through to real usage, rather than a pure business model. In other words, that tools emerge not because people want to make money, but because they can be useful, and there’s nothing like a jolt to the system for us to realise we need different, or better tools and to define those needs better. A piece in TechCrunch relates how Jahanzeb Sherwani, who developed a popular screensharing app called ScreenHero which he sold to Slack, pushed out a follow-up app called Screen ahead of time — and made it free — to help teams stuck at home share their screens. Given how quickly we’ve grown sick of the ‘heads in a box’ conferencing view (where everyone to me looks like they’re baffled seniors, looking around for their false teeth) this tool works well by going the other way, realising that we’re online to work on something, not look up each other’s noses.

Image result for zoom multiple members

This reminds me much more of the 2000-2005 era, when collaboration and thoughtfulness tended to be the norms, a post-boom pause which led to the development (or propagation) of the tools that became Web 2.0, and which in turn provided the (largely unacknowledged) foundations of the social media era. I’m thinking RSS, XML, podcasts, wikis, tagging, web-based apps, microformats, the Cluetrain Manifesto, simple beautiful interfaces. If you think we could have got to Twitter, Facebook etc without the work of largely unrewarded pioneers of that age, you’re mistaken. But it was born out of a particular era, a transition from the web’s beginnings to the mobile, silo-ed era we know today. It was a vastly underestimated period, where an explosion of ideas and connectedness led to an explosion of tools to make the most of that. Nearly all those tools were open source, nearly all became bedrock of these later, frankly more selfish, times. But the spirit, it seems, lives on, and I am hoping that what I’m seeing in initiatives like OSCMS and Sherwani’s generosity is something akin to that: a realisation that technology is the handservant, not of viral growth and big payoffs, but of building connections between us – in times of calamity (personal or global) and beyond, by providing tools for free because they might be useful and might lead to something great.

I don’t think for a moment that these initiatives will of themselves be enough; it’s clear that nearly every public medical facility and service was woefully underfunded and hence underprepared. No battery of 3D printers is going to be able to fill that void. But hopefully the level of interest and involvement — call it civic, call it individualist — in trying to address that gap contributes to a broader discussion about what is our baseline for supplying, funding, equipping and populating such services in the future. And just as Wikipedia arose, not out of commissioning existing experts to write up entries (an effort that failed abysmally) but out of just letting anyone — no need to flash credentials — to contribute and allow the water level to rise by itself, so may we find that out of this Quarantined Era emerges a new sense of how individuals might contribute, and what mechanisms and tools need to be developed or honed to make that happen.

Why Do People Contribute Stuff for Free?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

If you want to see two worlds collide, introduce a Wikipedian to a bunch of journalists.

I’ve been doing this quite a bit recently, partly for fun, and partly because I’ve decided a key part of training journalists to be ready for online media is understanding what they’re up against. “This is your competitor,” I say, introducing them to a slightly pudgy PhD candidate in ancient Greek and Latin, still sweating from his journey and a couple of hours of fencing lessons. “This person works for the single biggest media property on the web.”

Needless to say, they all look askance at the man, and me, and I can see them thinking to themselves, “Well that’s something we don’t have to worry about.” Especially when the guy, called Edward, tells them he does all his work for free and largely, he says, because he’s a pedant.

Of course Wikipedia—that online encyclopedia that now boasts 2.5 million articles in English alone—doesn’t pretend to compete with traditional newspapers or media. It’s an encyclopedia, after all, although it’s updated far more frequently than most encyclopedias, and, dare I say it, many traditional media websites.

But it’s the fact that all this is done for free that gets the journalists in my class all riled up. Edward tells them he spends about 20 minutes a day working on pieces, either adding something to a page on an obscure Chinese bridge, or tidying up someone’s grammar on a page about a kind of Southeast Asian bread. Why? they ask? Why would you spend all this time doing all this?

Well, first off, I can tell he spends way more time on it than 20 minutes. In class you can see him get distracted by an article and then start tweaking it. We’re speaking serious compulsive tendencies here. But the truth is, he does it because he enjoys it. He really is a pedant, in the nicest sense. He can’t stand to see things online that aren’t, in his view, correct. Whether it’s a serious error or a more esoteric one (he’s the first person I’ve met who can talk about ligatures until the tripthongs come home.)

Edward may be unusual, but he, and people like him, are the bedrock of sites like Wikipedia. In fact, while Wikipedia is the seventh most popular website on the planet, only 0.2% of visitors contribute anything, and only a tiny fraction of that do most of the grunt work.

This isn’t just true of Wikipedia. The history of the Internet is about the few creating, the rest doing what is usually called lurking—sitting within earshot but not actually saying anything. The ratio is called the 1% rule, meaning 90 percent lurk, 9% contribute occasionally, and 1% account for most of the contribution.

This is probably true offline as well; anybody who’s tried to get volunteers to help out on committees or at events know all about freeloaders. The web just makes this more obvious—that a lot of people tend to freeload, and a handful of people just seem to keep on giving.

But that’s not exactly true. Everyone is motivated somehow, and the Edwards of this world are motivated too. Studies have been done to show how a Wikipedia environment is very much like an academic one: those who do contribute find themselves in a weird sort of social hierarchy. Some recognise their work—there’s a merit system within Wikipedia where contributors are given barnstars by other grateful contributors. Others complain they get no recognition and that the whole thing is political anyway.

Sound familiar?

For most websites like this, I suspect the story is similar. People get involved because they’re interested, and then they find it’s a community, and then they want to be a useful member of that community, and then they seek recognition in that community, and the rest is history. That’s not to denigrate it; a lot of fine work has been done for worse reasons.

The same is true of open source software, of Amazon book reviews, of comments on obscure ornithology websites about the lesser-spotted rabbit catcher. The Internet is a great leveler, in that anyone with an Internet connection can join in, but then human nature kicks in, and hierarchies form. In this case it tends to be around what you know, and how much you hang around and contribute.

But there’s a bigger point here. Just as each online community depends on these power users, so do they depends on ordinary folk like us. Editing a Wikipedia entry is remarkably easy, and the warm fuzzy feeling you get for correcting even the smallest error is a a heady one. Try it and you’ll see how easy it is to get addicted.

Indeed, websites make it so easy for us to play a role that in a way the model is changing. We can add our voice while doing nothing more tiring than listening to music on our computer. Software will feed our choices of songs to others who may share our tastes and are looking for new artists to listen to. We can easily add websites to social lists of bookmarks with just a mouse click. Increasingly we do this kind of thing with our friends via social networking sites–partly because it’s fun and partly because we like to be useful.

And maybe, in the end, that’s all it comes down to. My Dad used to walk around the village picking up bits of litter—some of them so small my toy microscope wouldn’t have spotted them—just because he wanted to be useful. I suspect Edward, and all those other Wikipedians out there, are doing something similar. Which gives me a warm fuzzy feeling about the future of the Internet. Of course, a couple of barn stars wouldn’t go amiss either.

Wikipedia: It’s Wicked

Here’s a great example of the Internet as it should be: A font of constantly updated knowledge — available for free.

By Jeremy Wagstaff (WSJ, FEER)

Feb. 16, 2004 6:56 pm ET (original is here (paywall))

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place on the Internet where educated folk pooled their knowledge for nothing, conscientiously building up a huge, orderly and free database on subjects as varied as wind gradients and the yellow-wattled lapwing?

Actually, it’s already happened. It’s an online encyclopedia called Wikipedia, and it probably qualifies as the largest ever collaborative effort on the Internet. Late last month it reached a milestone: 200,000 entries (compare that with 60,000 at MSN Encarta Premium, Columbia’s 51,000 entries, and’s 57,000 articles). By the end of this year, Wikipedia is expected to have about 330,000 articles.

But of course, quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. So I ran a few checks on some recent topics. What about bird flu? Britannica’s online ( service found 75 responses to “avian influenza,” none of which seemed to have anything specific. had nothing. I couldn’t log onto the MSN Encarta Web site at ($5 a month, $30 a year) because, I was told: “Your market is not currently supported.” The three-CD deluxe version of Encarta had nothing on bird flu, even after I updated it online.

But Wikipedia? Entering “bird flu” or “avian influenza” in the search box took me straight to the right page, with information about infection, bird flu in humans, prevention and treatment, and a link to the World Health Organization’s avian-influenza fact sheet. The page had been modified the previous day to update statistics on fatalities to add the suspected case of human-to-human transmission in Vietnam.

This, I have to say, is impressive knowledge management. And it wasn’t a fluke: I tried “ricin,” the toxin that was recently found in the U.S. Senate mail room. On Britannica it took me a couple of jumps before I found out that ricin is a poison derived from the castor-oil plant; Columbia Encyclopedia only mentioned this in passing, as did Encarta Deluxe did a much better job, with an article that had been updated two weeks before. (However, if I hadn’t updated the contents, and had used only the CD’s data, I wouldn’t have found anything.) Wikipedia still won, though, with a page dedicated to the subject, and updated to include the discovery of ricin traces in the homes of a suspected terrorist ring in London last year.

So how does all this happen? How can such a huge database be maintained, and stay free? Wikipedia was set up three years ago by Jimmy Wales, a 37-year-old Internet entrepreneur who lives in Florida with his three-year-old daughter, a Hyundai and a mortgage. He wanted, he says, “to distribute, for free, a complete and comprehensive encyclopedia in every language of the world, easily and affordably accessible to even the poorest and most oppressed people.” (He admits it sounds corny and made up, but all good things do.)

Anybody visiting the site can update, add or edit any entry as they see fit, via an online form. They don’t even have to register first. The reason it works is, in part, because the software is really easy to use, and saves all copies of whatever has been changed or deleted. (This is where the “wiki” bit comes in: It’s Hawaiian for “quick,” and Wikiwiki is the open-source collaborative software that Wikipedia is run on, but that’s another story.)

The most obvious concern, with all this freedom, is abuse. What is there to stop people with bad intentions, or just bias, altering, defacing or deleting content? How can we be sure that what we’re reading is accurate, if anyone can contribute? The answer: peer pressure. It’s not that this kind of thing doesn’t happen; it’s just that it’s fixed so quickly most people won’t notice. That’s because the software is set up so that, while anybody can change anything they want, other folk can see what has been changed and, if necessary, alter it or change it back. With about 200 regulars watching the site, and another 1,000 or so frequently monitoring, there are a lot of folk watching out for wreckers, zealots and the misinformed.

Recent research by a team from IBM found that most vandalism suffered by Wikipedia had been repaired within five minutes. That’s fast: “We were surprised at how often we found vandalism, and then surprised again at how fast it was fixed,” says Martin Wattenberg, a researcher in the IBM TJ Watson Research Centre, in Cambridge, Mass.

Of course, this doesn’t mean everything is going to be accurate or unbiased. But once again, the sheer volume of people actively involved tends to lead towards some sort of consensus based on facts. And the rules, such as they are, tend to help rather than hinder. The goal, for example, of all posts is NPOV, which stands for Neutral Point of View. There is no hierarchy, beyond Mr. Wales as a kind of benevolent dictator. But even he doesn’t interfere much. Instead, users talk out controversies online, and only rarely pull the plug on someone. As Mr. Wales himself puts it: “There’s an institutional danger if we start kicking people out that ideological considerations might play a role that we don’t want them to play. An encyclopedia is a neutral reference standard.”

While such discussions can be heated, they reveal the high caliber of contributors: I trawled around and found some recent spats about Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko, the Arab-Israeli conflict and atheism. If that’s the level of debate, the material can’t be bad.

So where is all this going? Mr. Wales has just raised $50,000 in donations from users and fans to upgrade computers (he asked for $20,000) and hopes to raise some more by selling a version of the database to Yahoo. In the long run, however, he wants to find a way to get a hard copy of the encyclopedia to folk who don’t have easy access to information. He’s kind of hoping someone like talk-show host Oprah Winfrey might be interested in helping out.

Over to you, Oprah. And if you know something about something, do your bit by adding, editing or correcting entries. I tried it, and the warm fuzzy feeling you get is great.