Freedom’s Just Another Word for Something Left to Edit

I gave a talk at Wikimania 2014 in the Democratic Media strand. These are my speaking notes – what I said was different, but roughly aligned with this.

BBC Protest
BBC Protest


I’m part of the Democratic Media Strand, with a bunch of people whose work I’ve known and admired for many years. Heather Ford from the OII, Dan Gillmor, Carl Miller from Demos, Ryan Merkley from Creative Commons – here with us – and of course my old friend Danny O’Brien from EFF – twenty years ago Danny did a standup show called ‘Caught in the Net’ at the Edinburgh Fringe, and I sponsored it, and it was the start of a beautiful friendship1.

I’m also here to talk about ‘freedom’, and we’ll be discussions the freedoms that Creative Commons licences offer, as well as the nature of trust online, with Ryan and Luis exploring the ways we engage with each other and what could change for the better.

I’m going to frame my talk around a question that I face almost every day, in my work as a freelance journalist and commentator and as the head of partnership development for the archive group at the BBC, an institution that’s well known for its journalistic activity: what does it mean to do journalism in the modern world?

And I want to pick up a strand or two from an essay I published seven years ago called ‘The Cathedral and the Coffee House’, which was itself a response to Eric Raymond’s ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’. Eric was reflecting on the move to commons-based peer production for software and how that challenged the industrial model typified by companies such as Microsoft and Apple.

I was talking about the cacophony of voices that modern publishing platforms permit, and how they changed the environment within which people like me commit acts of journalism, but seven years ago we didn’t foresee (I didn’t foresee..) the enormous growth of wikilism.

(And yes, it’s a horrible word. So was ‘tabloid’ once, and ‘webinar’ will never be lovely. It is, however, the portmanteau that best describes what we’ve currently got and, like ‘television’ [half Greek/half Latin] I think it may thrive. I didn’t coin it, but I’m happy to accept it.)

You, more than most people, are aware that the Wiki model of collaborative editing, open publishing and global distribution is not just a way of creating an encyclopedia but a new way of capturing information on the events of the day and making it available in the public discourse. Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons and Wikinews fundamentally challenge the traditional journalistic models embedded in organisations like the BBC, The Guardian and the Daily Mail and the models of information flow embedded in every company, corporation, charity and government.

Let’s explore that.

Where to begin? Well, you may not know this, but there is a zeroth law of thermodynamics, which states that ‘if two thermodynamic systems A and B are in thermal equilibrium, and B and C are also in thermal equilibrium, then A and C are in thermal equilibrium’

The term zeroth law was coined by Ralph Fowler and is used because in many ways this natural law is more fundamental than any of the others. However, the need to state it explicitly as a law was not perceived until the first third of the 20th century, long after the first three laws were already widely in use and named as such.

Something similar has happened to journalism: once those of us who consider ourselves reporters were happy to believe that we were writing the first draft of history, but now this task falls to others. Straight reporting has become a zeroth draft that provides the raw material for journalistic analysis and comment.

But we’re not the only people there. The testimony of the citizen reporter, the eyewitness, the accidentally present audience, can stand with news reports and initial analyses as an equal record, as likely to be incorrect but as important a source for those who will come after.

And those people have their own ways to tell others what they have seen and what they think of what they have seen, like Tweets, Facebook updates Instagram posts and of course Wikipedia and Wikinews edits.

Citizen reporting, conversational media and the wikification of output change things. For one thing, they fatally undermine the model of journalism that sees the piece as the final product, the end of the process.

Dan Gillmor was right when he noted that ‘in a craft that’s shifting from lecture to conversation, the publication (or broadcast or whatever) is not The End. It is somewhere in the middle of an emergent system in which we all can keep learning, and teaching.’

A Wikipedia article never ends, but my filed copy is finished once it’s in the paper. Our zeroth drafts are merely the starting point, the mulch which feeds those who will come after, use, reuse and (surely) abuse what we have stated and argued.

If the story is not the end then the way in which we write and present the story no longer needs to pretend that it is.

In my essay The Cathedral and the Coffee House I pointed out that:

Modern mass media, whether print or broadcast or online, is built around the same information processing model as the Catholic church in the medieval age, and the nearest analogy to a newspaper, news magazine or TV news show is a gothic cathedral, with a team of acolytes working to embed the message in the stone, the stained glass and, above all, the word of the priest speaking from the pulpit.

And went on to say that:

Today the cathedrals of the mass media are empty because the people have a new skill, one that goes beyond the ability simply to read and understand what others are saying. Now they can speak as well as listen, and this new form of literacy is the real wellspring of the revolution in news journalism that we are currently experiencing.

We have abandoned the cathedral, and moved away from the burning wreckage to congregate in a nearby coffee house, where entry is free to anyone who can afford the price of a drink. In the coffee house anyone can speak, and instead of the clearly enunciated and carefully considered tones of the priest echoing off the stone columns and over the heads of the congregation the conversation is open to all.

One of the points I wanted to make in that essay was that credibility is no longer given by occupancy of the pulpit but from what one says and does and how it is received. The possibility of populism exists where it hadn’t before.

But what I hadn’t realised then was that the essentially collective nature of wiki-based editing, with every voice subsumed into the ever-changing ‘article’ brought its own power. The editors of Wikipedia and Wikinews, like the anonymous writers of The Economist, are happy to have their contributions taken, used and reused to improve the public discourse and not to enhance their own reputations except among their peers – fellow journalists for Economist writers, those who can be bothered to look at talk pages and edit histories for Wikiusers.

If anything gives me hope, this does.

So where do we go now?

The novel 2001: A Space Odyssey ends with the star child in orbit around earth, having journeyed through the portal at Europa as Dave Bowman and been remade.

It is wondering what to do next.

We’re in the same place. We have been transformed by the network and its affordances and sit, uncertain of our powers but sure that we now have them, above the world of forms that used to be all the reality we knew. We have created a new space, a shared hallucination where we can all think out loud and hear each other.

This is an enormous achievement.

When I immerse myself in a novel, no matter how compellingly written or engaging it may be, I’m on my own in my head. But if I tweet or post online there are other people with me, and the space is defined by our interactions.

I’ve been helping to build that new space for the past thirty years or so, since I began to explore the capabilities of the internet in the mid-80s and then started building websites for people like The Guardian in 1994/5.

I’ve been a working journalist throughout that time, in print, on the air and online, and for over a decade I taught the online journalism modules on the Journalism MA at City University.

For the last five years or so I’ve been immersed in one particular organisation, the BBC, where I’m supposed to be sorting out an approach to digitising and liberating the archive but am really engaged in the much more complicated task of trying to make the organisation take itself seriously as a cultural institution and not merely a commissioner, creator and broadcaster of TV and radio programmes.

The BBC was created in 1926 by Royal Charter to develop the new communications technology of radio transmission ‘in the national interest’.

1927 BBC Charter
1927 BBC Charter

With no advertising, and earning no income, the BBC found ways to use the new channel of radio to create the media of sound broadcasting and television, shaping our understanding of the ‘programme’, the ‘channel’ and the ‘station’ – all ideas that were newly minted to support the electronic media.

In the 1920’s radio brought the nation together and created a space within which the best of the world’s culture could be brought into living rooms through conversation, music and sound.

From the 1940’s onwards television added moving pictures to the public space, and since 1994 we have begun the move towards a converged world within which the boundaries between media are dimly remembered but few can understand what it was to live in a disconnected world.

Now the Wikimedia community is doing the same, with no adverts9 and no money, using the communications channel of the internet to shape the new media of Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, Wikinews and Wikidata in order to serve the wider public interest, and reaching many more people than the BBC.

It reminds me of the Human Genome Project.

When John Sulston discovered that Craig Ventner planned to sequence and patent the human genome he assembled funding and scientists to do it first and make the results free data.

Wiki* in all its forms is doing the same for all forms of news journalism, science publishing and the rest, and major organisations like the Wellcome Library are freely contributing their collections to the cause.

It’s organising the world’s knowledge and making it available, and it doesn’t rely on The Algorithm to do it.

Wiki* is the expression of collective action online in opposition to the datafactory owners who would limit our lives, exploit our labour and restrict our freedom. It is the Trade Union Movement of the online world, and like the Luddites it calls for technology to be used for good and for the products of technology to be crafted, valued and infused with the human spirit.

However it’s important that the Wikimedia Foundation doesn’t go on to make the mistake the BBC has made, of confusing the means with the goal – too many people inside and outside the Beeb believe that the corporation was created to make TV and radio programmes, yet that isn’t in the Charter at all: it’s part of an agreement between the BBC and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport but is a choice that has been made by the BBC10 and the politicians.

If the BBC decided that its public purposes were best served by spending £3bn a year making socially-responsive video games then it could ask to do that – though I doubt it ever would.

And the Foundation doesn’t have to do Wikipedia if it stops being the best way to deliver its wider goals11. As Andy Mabbett pointed out in June this year:

“It is important to realise that our mission is not to make a website, but to share knowledge, freely available for reuse”


What has been built so far is an instrument for democratic engagement that embraces the news media, the knowledge industry and many other areas of human endeavour. We really are at the start of what commons-based peer production on open platforms can achieve – so we should not settle for being a ‘replacement’ for anything. We can build something new here.

And before you ask, I have absolutely no idea what that might be, though I’m willing to play my part in the process.