Steve & Mark – Controlled Anarchy

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Steve and Mark talk about the new paradigm of “controlled anarchy” as it relates to the development of collaborative resources like Wikipedia or the LingQ Library. 

Mark:     Hi everyone, it’s Mark Kaufmann here again.

Steve:    And Steve.

Mark:    We are back with another installment of the EnglishLingQ Podcast.

Steve has something that he wants to get off his chest today.

Steve:    Well yeah.

Yeah, I mean I always have something I want to get off my chest.

But I want to talk a little bit today about what I would call “creative disorder” a “creative mess” or how being too orderly and organized and having lots of rules can, in fact, be quite sterile for certain applications.

Mark:    Right.

The example that we were just discussing was Wikipedia and I think is one of the best examples of this where in the past, in terms of encyclopedias or reference information, you had to resort to paper, hardcopy, volume after volume of real encyclopedias (the Encyclopedia Britannica or whatever it was) and, obviously, (A) aren’t very portable, (B) they’re not easy to search through, (C) that information by the very nature of those books is not necessarily going to be very up-to-date.

Steve:    But it’s worse than that Mark.

It’s worse than that because what they’re saying is Encyclopedia Britannica will go and find the so-called leading expert or a leading expert from some leading university and he’ll write some very learned article, which will only reflect his own knowledge, experience, prejudice and so forth and so on…

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    …but he is a qualified expert.

But on Wikipedia they have all kinds of people commenting and revising and changing…

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    …and so you have something that is often shorter, more up-to-date.

Because a number of people are jumping in there and making comments and editing and so forth and so on it ends up being pretty good and nowadays I go to Wikipedia.

Mark:    For sure and most people do.

I mean, as you said, number one, it’s going to be more up-to-date.

Encyclopedias, even if you have a recently published set, were written years ago; the information is, at best, years old.

Maybe it doesn’t matter for a lot of things, but it does matter for many things as well.

So, number one, the ability to have up-to-date information is much, much better on Wikipedia and then, as you say, you get a more balanced perspective on most things; you get, at least, input from more than one source.

I know a lot of the learned sources and, of course, the encyclopedia producers would argue otherwise.

But the fact of the matter is that the information, for the most part, is probably better.

Steve:    It serves the purpose for most people.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    It serves the purpose.

And, you know, we’re talking about this insofar as LingQ is concerned.

We encourage people to create content for us in different languages and we can’t be editing and correcting and making sure that everything meets some kind of a standard.

Ultimately, the learners will tell us what’s not good and we just remove it but, in a sense, the more we try to control things the less good the product is.

That’s the Web 2.0 environment, it’s a little less organized, but by having a lot of people commenting and occasionally arguing — there’s nothing wrong with the odd little argument — hopefully, people can argue from the point of view that they have to respect the other person.

They don’t have to agree with them, but they have to respect them and respect their right to present their position; otherwise, you end up with this sort of everything has to be totally orderly, which presumes that there’s one correct point of view and you’re not allowed to argue.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    So, no, I think that there’s a lot in this whole…I mean that’s how the whole Internet thing evolved.

People who try to control things, I think they lose out.

Mark:    Well there are all kinds of examples of companies that had very restrictive sort of rules on what could or could not be done being outdistanced by competitors who had a more open environment and accepted contributions from even non-employees and, you know, the whole open-source situation in software development where by providing core components freely the companies that created them are able to reap the benefits that are developed by others using the original product, which then strengthens the company that created it in the first place.

Steve:    Well and even, again, getting back to LingQ, I mean some people who create content for us they say well, what if someone steals my content?

Well, so what if they steal your content.

I mean you get paid based on usage and someone else might distribute your content somewhere.

People find out about LingQ, they come to LingQ, more people use your content and so on and, as you were saying, in the end it may not be possible to control the ownership of different kinds of content.

Mark:    I have to believe that’s another example of trying to nail down, of trying to protect, the rights of the copyright holders and that battle is being fought mostly right now in the music space where, obviously, mp3 files are shared a lot.

I mean I’m sure there are more “shared” (in quotes) music files than purchased music files and so for a long time the music (whatever you call them) promoters/producers of music were trying to sell copyright-protected or DRM… whatever that means, I can’t remember; whatever that stands for…at any rate, DRM-protected mp3 files, which then can only be played on one mp3 player or two mp3 players.

They’re restricted; usage is restricted of those files.

Eventually, those files don’t work for the guy who bought them, which is not a great way to treat your customer.

Plus, on top of that, the free version is always readily available.

So, before too long, I just don’t see why people are going to continue paying for something that’s inferior because you can’t trade it with your friend, you can’t play it on three players and you have to pay and over here there’s a free version that’s completely free.

In fact, what’s happening now is a lot of the music producers are removing this protection and allowing the songs to be sold DRM free because, in the long run, I guess they figure they’re better off.

I don’t now how well this worked, but some bands released albums freely on the Internet and asked people for donations.

Steve:    Right.

Mark:    I don’t know if that worked or not.

Steve:    Right.

Mark:    I’m not a big fan of the donation model, but I think, in the long run, those songs are going to end up being more of a promotional vehicle to attract people to concerts where you have to pay.

Here’s the guy performing, you have to pay.

Steve:    I mean the whole thing is that the production and distribution costs of the music have gone down so dramatically that the economic parameters have changed…

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    …or are changing.

Mark:    Exactly.

Steve:    We’re, of course, encountering this with LingQ and then if we get back to the encyclopedia model.

I mean, theoretically, Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, had this great name “Britannica”.

Like it’s almost run by the government…

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    …and it’s got leading experts and whatever.

I sold Encyclopedia Britannica as a 17-year-old in Montreal and the sales of that was the schlockiest, you know, door-to-door, trick salesman thing I’d ever come across; I was amazed.

I mean our lines, as I’ve often said, my opening line when I rang someone’s doorbell was to say “If I gave you a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica free of charge would you be interested?”  That was my opener.

And so some people would be gullible enough to let me in their home and then I’d start into my sales presentation and then I’d tell them how much it cost.

I’d say “You know, for less than a package of cigarettes, you know, every day…”  They’d say “Well I thought it was free?”  Then I was supposed to say “Well you have to understand, we can’t possibly give it to you for free.”  Normally that would have me out the door in a hurry.

But, I mean the cost, you know, in those days it would sell for like $480 and I made $200 per sale…

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    …if I sold any.

Mark:    Yeah.

Steve:    Like there were encyclopedia salesmen who were making a tremendous amount of money.

So, on the one hand, it’s presented as this great authoritative, you know, source.

Encyclopedia Britannica, no school can be without it, no home can be without it.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    On the other hand it was sold on some kind of a pyramid, schlocko sales system.

It’s very expensive to distribute, very expensive to produce, so Wikipedia.

Mark:    Yeah.

Steve:    I mean it’s there. It’s totally inexpensive to produce…

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    …totally inexpensive to distribute. And so it’s a…

Mark:    And more wide-ranging.

Steve:    And available.

Mark:    I mean the encyclopedia can’t possibly have as much stuff as is in Wikipedia because it’s limited by the number of volumes they can crank out.

In Wikipedia there are pages on everything in umpteen languages constantly updated.

Steve:    But there could be material there that’s not very good.

I mean somebody’s going to get on there…I mean if the Georgians are fighting the Ossetians some Ossetian is going to put up there that all the Georgians are pigs and the Georgians will do the same, but that will get, you know, cleaned up pretty quickly.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    So, yeah, you’ll occasionally come to a page that’s not very good, but most of the stuff there is pretty good.

I think that’s got to be our model with LingQ.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    Some people get very concerned that we aren’t policing this or aren’t policing that.

We can’t.

Mark:    No.

Steve:    We’re far better off to get lots of people…

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    And, you know, it fundamentally gets back to the same approach as we had that we share and many of us at LingQ share in terms of language learning.

You have to be able to deal with uncertainty; you have to be able to deal with mistakes.

You’re going to learn better if you don’t try to nail everything down.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    You’re going to learn this term, you’re going to learn this rule and study it and the first half of the year we’re going to work on…  I get on these Russian sites where people are learning Russian, these sites and they spend the first six months on verbs of motion.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    And then the next six months they’re going to do, you know, cases.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    Well just because you work at them for the first six months doesn’t mean you’re going to learn them in the first six months.

Mark:    No.

Steve:    It’s all part of this term “fuzzy logic”; it’s not linear.

Mark:    Well, plus, if you’re studying motion verbs I guess that’s all you’re doing then for Russian.

Because if you then try to study or read anything or listen to anything while you’re studying only motion verbs, presumably, there’s going to be other words in there besides motion verbs.

Steve:    Well exactly.

Mark:    And then what are you supposed to do?

Steve:    Exactly and this comes up all the time.

Because I do look at grammar books and I want to see how they present grammar.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    And it’s impossible.

If you say okay, chapter one, we’re going to do pronouns.

You’re not going to have any verbs?

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    How can you have a pronoun without a verb?

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    You’re not going to have any tenses?

You end up with stuff that gets introduced out of order.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    But you focus on “We really only want you to learn this.”  So all the other stuff you hear forget about it and just focus on this.

Mark:    Ignore, yeah.

Steve:    It doesn’t work that way.

Mark:    No.

Steve:    So what did I say?

“Creative disorder.”  Not in terms of a mental disorder, but “creative anarchy”.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    I think we have the means now where anarchy can be quite creative in certain circumstance.

I mean you can’t build an airplane based on anarchy.

There has to be certain standards or the plane will crash.

Mark:    Right.

However, there are all kinds of examples of websites that have made at least a portion of their site or code or software available for outsiders to play with; to build extensions for, to integrate with their own products or whatever, which only ends up enhancing the original product.

Steve:    Well didn’t we…

Mark:    I mean we have to, eventually, try and do that ourselves here.

Steve:    Well didn’t we take advantage of some work that Alejandro had done in Mexico on our image cropper?

Mark:    I’m not exactly sure where that came from.

Steve:    He showed us some work that he had done and we took it a little further.

Mark:    Yeah. That wasn’t quite what I was getting at.

Steve:    Right.

Mark:    Like I was getting at opening up our sites.

Like an API interface with our site, so that people could build extensions that interacted with our site.

Alejandro had a component that I think he had done or worked on that we were able to use in our image cropper, but that’s something different.

Steve:    Oh, okay.

Yeah, so I think that, you know, the new world we’re heading towards is more creative because there are, perhaps, fewer rules, more opportunities for people to contribute and that’s what this whole…that’s the Web 2.0 environment.

Mark:    Absolutely.

Steve:    There’s going to be some friction at times, there’s going to be disagreements.

There’s going to be some pieces here and there maybe where there are some mistakes or problems and we just live with it and move on.

Mark:    Right.

And people will figure out, you know, in terms of at least content on our site, what it makes sense to produce, what it doesn’t make sense to produce.

Some things are easier for some people; other things are easier for others.

For instance, some people like to record podcasts and have good sound quality; other people have bad sound quality, but then they can do other things like transcribe.

Steve:    Or they can even write things.

Mark:    So people have to find their own way and I guess, fundamentally, the more people we have doing stuff and interacting the quicker we will build up our content and our community and the more likely people will figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Steve:    Well, you know it reminds me, when I approached the American (What do they call it?)

Society for Applied Linguistics and asked them to look at LingQ.

And, you know, after six months and much prodding they finally said “Well, we found there was no overarching pedagogical theory.”  Or something like that that supported what you are doing.

And, of course, I hadn’t presented it to umpteen conferences and published papers cross-referencing other people and stuff.

Well yeah, but so what, you know?

Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.

I mean I was on the…

Mark:    Well the point is that whatever their doing also maybe works maybe doesn’t.

In fact, it doesn’t work for most people because conventional language teaching, in fact, doesn’t work for most people.

Steve:    That’s right.

Mark:    But, yes, it’s been cross-referenced and studied to death.

Steve:    And they have their different fads at different moments.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    Right now there’s a fad called “Multiple Intelligences and Differential Instruction.”  You know, of course, they’re probably running seminars all over the country on this thing and it will have no impact on the success of teaching languages in class.

Mark:    Right.

Steve:    None, zero.

Mark:    None, yeah.

Steve:    The bigger impact is from, probably, the quality of the teacher — in terms of how encouraging and enthusiastic the teach can be — and if the classrooms are willing to move people towards a system where they are able to read and listen to things that they like and not have to follow some structure that’s imposed on them by the teacher accompanied by tests and all the usual stuff.

So long live creative anarchy in our schools!

We need anarchy in our schools.

Mark:    You heard it here first.

Steve:    Alright.

Mark:    We’ll talk to you next time.

Steve:    Anarchy at LingQ!

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