Today the Wikimedia Foundation published #Edit2014. This is the Foundation’s first-ever year-in-review video, a look at how the world used and contributed to Wikipedia in 2014. To learn more about how the project came to be, I interviewed the video’s director and producer, and Wikimedia Foundation storyteller, Victor Grigas (User:VGrigas (WMF)).
Halla Imam: This is the first time the Wikimedia Foundation has ever done a year-in-review. What inspired the Foundation to start this year?
Victor Grigas: So many people around the world use and love Wikipedia, but not everyone knows where it comes from, or how it is supported and maintained. The vast majority of people who read Wikipedia don’t edit or upload. They use it to learn and discover. We wanted to capture that experience, but also highlight how powerful editing can be. As an editor, you are creating all of this knowledge for the public.
So Katherine (the Wikimedia Foundation’s CCO) and I talked in September about maybe doing something like this for the end of this year. My first response was that it sounded great, even though it was a short time period to dream up an entire project and execute it. I said I’d research it. A couple weeks later I decided it was doable, so we pressed go.
HI: It seems like you chose Ebola as the centerpiece story. Was this an obvious choice? Why choose such bad news?
VG: This was an obvious choice. Let me put it this way: 2014 was filled with bad news; I think it was a particularly bad year for global news. We decided to focus on this particular story because this was also something that galvanized the Wikimedia community.
When the Ebola outbreak happened, members of our medical community organized with Translators Without Borders to translate the Wikipedia Ebola virus disease article into more than 50 different languages, including some of those spoken in the affected regions of West Africa. Many of these other Wikipedias had very few articles before, but now they have information about Ebola. The use of Wikipedia to understand Ebola was a story that ended up in The New York Times. By recreating this story visually through reenacting the editing process, we’re highlighting its impact. It’s a news event that happened globally, but also within the Wikimedia community.
HI: Were there controversial moments in 2014 that you felt should not be included in the video?
VG: Not really. There are all kinds of events that happened that have political ramifications. The whole point of Wikimedia is to be neutral about them. We wanted to show the events as events, and not necessarily push for one side or the other. There was one scene in particular where we show the Gaza war from this year. We saw it as a way to showcase Wikipedia’s policies on Neutral Point of View (NPOV), where knowledge on Wikipedia is self-critical. You see the famous  tag, and you see the [disputed-discuss] tags, the wall of references, and the articles in English and Arabic and Hebrew. The goal on Wikipedia is to have a wide range of sources to illustrate the knowledge being presented.
HI: Did you worry about finding a balance between positive and negative events to showcase in the video?
VG: Yes. 1,000%. It’s not just positive or negative events, but how they show certain parts of the world. Ideally, it would have been a mix of stories that show the positive and negative everywhere. Unfortunately, this year, we saw a lot of terrible events in places that already are experiencing hardship — like Ebola in West Africa. We realized there was so much bad news in 2014, what’s the good news? Well, we had all these global sporting events, like the FIFA World Cup and the Sochi Winter Olympics, and a lot of very powerful science content too..
HI: Do you think you succeeded in making the video sufficiently international, given the global diversity of Wikimedia’s editors?
VG: We started and ended with an event that felt universal — we get a close up on a comet! That doesn’t really need text or any dialogue, but humanity only has so many of those experiences. I think the video leans towards being understood by people who don’t speak English, but unfortunately they may not understand it entirely. We’d love to make that video in the future.
As a team, we tried to be conscious of world view. I am from the United States, so I have my own inherent bias. I think everyone does. So we tried to make it as wide-ranging as we could, reaching out to as many people as we could, because Wikipedia is truly global and we wanted to represent that. But it is impossible to have one video represent the totality of things that mattered to the world in three minutes. This is a first attempt, and like Wikipedia, we’ll be looking to make this even more balanced for the future.
HI: Other organizations do year-in-review videos. What makes the Wikimedia Foundation’s different?
VG: I think for any video like this, you’re trying to communicate an identity. Wikimedia’s identity is about contributing, sharing, and learning. We don’t have shareholders, we have stakeholders: we have editors, readers, donors, people who want a wide range of information and knowledge. We’re the platform that allows them to contribute that to the world. They want to be able to have access to the knowledge that happened in 2014. We tried to put in as much as we could without sacrificing too much. It’s a balancing act to try and capture the world.
HI: How did you choose Bach as the soundtrack?
VG: It was a bit of a surprise! We needed to score the video with something as a placeholder. I found the Bach on Wikipedia and initially used it as a temporary track, but then everyone who watched it felt like it just sounded right. So we kept it.
We did work with a musician, Andy R. Jordan, to score the section on Ebola. It needed something to convey the gravity of the moment. We used simple sounds and instruments — a cello bow being rubbed against a wooden marimba key. It had a resonance and solemnity that felt appropriate.
HI: Wikipedia relies on Creative Commons and other freely licenced work — was it difficult to find all the imagery you needed using only freely licensed imagery?
VG: One of the first things I realized in researching is that we wouldn’t be able to license footage, because Wikimedia only publishes content that is Creative Commons. So we needed to use media that has been contributed by Wikimedians, and that means we had to be creative. We ultimately found a way around this by telling these stories using screen shots of the Wikipedia articles. In the end, I think it makes the experience stronger, communicating the message of Wikimedia through the experience of Wikipedia itself.
For example, we don’t always have a wealth of visual content about hard news, because although some Wikimedians are photojournalists, most photojournalists are not Wikimedians. Similarly, there’s a disparity among countries: the more industrialized a country is, the more images you’ll find. There’s more internet connectivity, they’ve been online longer, they have more access to cellphones and cameras, and things like that. Less industrialized countries are less well covered. These disparities did make it more difficult to cover certain world events. For example, the images for Ebola are from an outbreak in what was then Zaire, in 1976. So here’s a call to action: Photographers, freely license and upload your images to Commons! Do it for the world!
HI: Were there any images that were especially challenging to obtain?
VG: Wikimedia Commons has images of just about everything, but sometimes we wanted to show a more personal or nuanced perspective. For example, when it came to the Hong Kong ‘Umbrella protests,’ many of the images were too busy or confusing. So I spent a day on Twitter trying to find photographers in Hong Kong, and asking them if they’d contribute their images to Commons. In the end, I found two who were happy to contribute — a special thanks to them!
Similarly, we know Wikipedia isn’t only used for science, history, and philosophy. Pop culture is very popular, but most pop culture imagery is totally proprietary. We didn’t have the rights to show scenes from TV shows, but we could show the article about the tv show. So while I would have loved to create a montage of popular television programs from around the world, that’s just not the content we typically have on Wikipedia.
HI: What were some of the other roadblocks you face in producing this video?
VG: Well, we worked on a shoestring budget. We’re a non-profit, so that was just something we knew was a constraint early on. But instead of seeing that as a limitation, we looked at it as inspiration to get creative: what can we do to make this happen? Once we did the research, we saw that it was something we could do within our budget.
HI: Filmmaking is a ‘dictatorship,’ but Wikimedia is famous for being a collaborative project. Was this video collaborative?
VG: In some ways! We drew on source material that was highly collaborative — all the images and video and text you see were contributed by people around the world. Most of this content is from Wikimedia Commons. In that way it is collaborative, but it isn’t a collaborative in the sense of being ‘real time.’ It is collaborative in the sense that Wikipedia is — made up of contributions from all over, from many different people and sources.
We’d love to have left it wide open, and had a lot of people weigh in, but we only had a few weeks to get it done. I took input from a lot of individuals I knew personally from across Wikimedia from as many different countries as possible. They say video productions are dictatorships because there needs to be some kind of visual and auditory continuity. You could argue the same thing about Wikipedia, how is it not going to be a huge blend of competing voices? But somehow Wikipedia works.
HI: What is Wiki Loves Monuments?
VG: It’s a photo competition that started in the Netherlands. Now, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the world’s largest photo competition. In the early drafts of this script, we wanted to segue from the point of view of a reader of Wikipedia to an editor, and show the engine of the car — what’s under the hood. We ended up scrapping that approach, but fell in love with the images, so we kept them.
In Wiki Loves Monuments, different countries have an open contest to submit photos to illustrate monuments, buildings, or other landmarks in their country. They’re gorgeous images, and they’re all get judged by an international jury. The contest isn’t over yet, so we picked a few. I reached out to this great guy, Patrick David, a parallax illustrator, who animates images. He volunteered to bring of these images to life, which was fantastic.
HI: Will you produce another video next year? If so, what would you do differently?
VG: I’d like to experiment to see if we could make it an even more collaborative process. I would love to be able to say “Take my idea, my rough concept, my script, my notes, and can you — the plural you — help research this?” Imagine — if making this video were a truly open collaboration like Wikipedia, we have the potential to make something really incredible. You could imagine people all over researching content, weighing in on visuals, and justifying cuts. Would having those discussions in public amplify the efforts? It’d be interesting to find out.
HI: Do you have a favorite moment in the video?
VG: If you watch closely, you’ll notice there are no pans or zooms except for when we click the “Edit” button. That was my favorite part of the video.
HI: Is there anything you learned about Wikimedia or its contributors that you didn’t know before you started?
VG: I learned how many Wikimedians are also on social networks! That proved a great way to reach out to a lot more people. The experience of spending a day reaching out to people on Twitter who might have photos to share — that was really interesting.