Marshall Poe Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Marshall Poe Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Marshall.. I first came across your work when I read "The Hive" in
The Atlantic last year. What led to your interest in Wikipedia, and wikis
home in general?
interviews index Well, that's an interesting story. I learned
about Wikipedia like most people, that is, I
just stumbled on it. I think I was Googling
myself (I admit it) one day in 2002 when I
subscribe to email updates
noticed a page returned from Wikipedia had
my name on it. Weird, I thought. I clicked
through and it was (of all things) the
RSS for interviews
"Sigismund von Herberstein" article. SvH
was a 16th century Austrian diplomat made
famous by his seminal description of Russia Rerum moscoviticarum. I
Paul's bio and projects wrote a book on early descriptions of Russia, and it was cited in the
Paul's email article. All this, I thought, was very strange. SvH is obscure. My book
was even more obscure. Yet someone took the time to write an entry
on SvH and, more remarkably, to read my book and cite it. The entry
was, I should add, quite good. At that time, I didn't really know what
WP was, so I began to look into it and discovered how it worked. Of
course, being an academic, I was amazed that it worked at all, and
realized that, historically speaking, it was virtually unprecedented.
Never before had this sort of open collaboration been attempted and if
the entry on SvH was any measure, I never had it worked so well.
All this made me really curious about Wikipedia, but I didn't have
much to do with it until several years later when I was working at The
Atlantic. I had moved from the editorial side to business development,
and we were looking hard at ways the Internet was changing the
production and dissemination of serious information. The top people at
The Atlantic are really forward looking and they were very interested in
the new media. So I did some research and wrote a long memo on
what would come to be called "user-generated content." Wikipedia
was one of the sites I profiled.
It was really as a result of that work that I encountered the amazing
story of the founding of Wikipedia, that is, how Larry Sanger and
Jimmy Wales, having failed to launch a rather conventional
encyclopedia (Nupedia), then opened editing to everyone and created
Wikipedia. Wikipedia, it seemed to me, was a terrific example of how
insight and serendipity operate together in many successful online
projects. An online encyclopedia is a good idea for a whole host of
reasons. This Sanger and Wales knew. But they didn't know how to
produce it. They didn't really "plan" Wikipedia; they discovered it. I think
the same can be said of eBay, Craigslist, Napster and many other
Web 2.0 projects. The fact is that we just didn't know that people could
collaborate productively the way they have in the past decade. The
propensity for mass collaboration online just wasn't apparent to
anyone (though Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond might object to
We probably should back up a bit so that people know how eclectic
your professional life has been..
How does your graduate school experience at Cal-Berkeley help,
and influence your work today?
Eclectic is the right word. I have varied interests and I've been lucky
enough to be able to pursue them in a variety of settings with a whole
bunch of really smart people. That's a true blessing. In high school I
was a jock with geeky interests. I majored, so to say, in basketball (I
still play), with a minor in all the other sports. I went to college to play
basketball, but there I met a professor - Dan Kaiser - who became my
mentor and changed everything. He turned me on to the life of the
mind. Absolutely amazing person. Meeting him was about the luckiest
thing that ever happened to me. He was a Russian historian, so I
became a Russian historian.
I wouldn 't say Berkeley really had much to with my work today. I
was a graduate student and spent nearly all my time in the library. I
saw my first online catalogue there, and I got my first PC (one of the
original Macs), but the things I was into really didn 't touch on the
Internet or collaboration. In fact, there was no Internet as far as I knew
and historians are among the least collaborative folk on the planet -
they almost never work in teams. For me, it was books, books and
more books at Berkeley. And a lot of basketball (they have great pick
What position do you like to play? Any favorite players.. past or
I'm not as mobile as I used to be, so my game has become binary -
I either play post (I'm 6'4") or I play on the parameter (I'm a decent
outside shooter). I always tell the people I play with-- If you see me
dribbling the ball, we're in trouble. As to players, I really liked George
Gervin, James Worthy, and Larry Bird. I don't really follow basketball
today, so I've no particular favorite players. I hear this kid Kobe
something or other is good.
I understand you spent much of your time in the 90s, and shorter
stint from '00 to '02, teaching topics in Russian Studies at Harvard.
What was it like to be in Cambridge at that time?
What do the experiences there mean to you?
Well, things didn't change much when I got to Harvard. Historians
spend a lot of time in libraries, and Harvard has one of the best
Widener. I lived in that place. It really wasn't until the early 1990s that I
became interested in issues of scholarly communications, and those
led to interests in the Internet. I loved listservs, and was an active
participant on the first Russian history list (H-Russia). I understood
that they had the potential to open up scholarly discourse. I also saw
that the Internet could be used as a low-cost publication device for
"cold" materials such as the ones I (and nearly all scholars) produce.
"Cold" here means articles and books that are of interest to only a
small number of people and therefore can't be economically produced
Early Russian history is a small, scattered field, and the materials
we produced were read by only a tiny audience so are hard to publish.
So the listserv and the web seemed to me to be perfect ways to: (a)
bring us together as a field and (b) to disseminate our materials to
those who needed them at very low cost.
With this in mind, I founded the early Slavic studies list (ESSL at
the time, now H-EarlySlavic) and began to post materials I produced
on the web (e.g., source material). Both of these initiatives gained
attention in the late 1990s, and I began to write on the subject of
scholarly communications and the Internet. That's how I came to write
"Note to Self: Invent New Publishing Model." This article and another in
the Chronicle of Higher Education (both are online) caused a stir
because I was, in effect, proposing that the current model for scholarly
communications-centered on the department, conference, university
press, and library-- were in need of reform.
I became more interested in issues of scholarly communication
and collaboration than I was in Russian history per se (though I was
still writing the latter). After all, there was a revolution going on, and I
wanted to be part of it. I didn't want to be studying history while history
was being made. I also wanted to write for larger audiences. So, when
I got an offer to come work at The Atlantic, I jumped.
Based on your experience and intimacy with inner-workings at The
Atlantic, how do you see the Web changing mass media and
This is an important question, perhaps the question for providers of
serious content. If I had to boil it down, I'd say one word: video. We
know that people would usually rather watch than read. Whenever
people are given the choice, they will almost always watch. The
growth of movies and then TV are proof of this fact. And this
preference makes perfect sense.
Think of it this way. Writing/written words is to information as
composition/written notation is to music. Composing music is skill and
its language is written notation. You have to be trained to compose
music and read it (hence we have music schools). But most people -
without any skills or training at all - can enjoy performed music. The
same is true of writing/written words. Writing is a skill and its language
is written words. You really need to be trained to write and read (hence
we have grammar schools). But anyone - without any skills or training
at all - can enjoy a performed written piece, that is, a play, movie,
video, or what have you.
The preference for watching over reading has existed forever (or
rather, as long as we've had writing and reading!). Yet until recently,
we had to read and didn't have much to watch. The reasons for the
popularity of reading were two. First, before film there was no means
to permanently capture a performance. Plays are one-off. So if you
wanted to revisit a drama (or what have you), you had no choice but to
read it and re-read it. Second, even after a means to permanently
capture a performance existed (on film), it was not economical to do
much capturing. Film is expensive and hard to deliver, so that means
that you are not going to film very much and most of what you film is
not going to be broadcast very widely. Now, however, we have both a
means of capture (digital video) and a means of delivery (the Internet)
that are so easy and so low cost that pretty much anyone who puts
their mind to it can "perform" information that once could only be
efficiently written and read.
Consider this. The read-only web made everyone a publisher.
Blogging made everyone a journalist. YouTube will make everyone a
So the question that faces print content providers today is how to
migrate their content into video. They know people would rather watch
than read, and they know low-cost, high-quality video can be
produced. The question is one of execution. In that sense it's a very
exciting time to be a "creative" in a publishing, newspaper, or
magazine company, because new video genres are being invented as
Not surprisingly, I suppose, the path is being blazed by people
outside the institutional confines of these companies. Take the
remarkable video "Amen Break" by the artist Nate Harrison. It's the
history of a drum break told in sound and video. Watch it and tell me if
it doesn't remind you of an Atlantic or New Yorker article. It's original,
informed, a bit quirky, and extremely well executed. It was also done, I
imagine, at very low cost. And it is available to anyone with an Internet
connection anytime for free. "Amen Break," I think, is a good example
of what serious publishers (or perhaps we should say "content
providers") are going to be producing in the coming decades.
USA Today just did a major overhaul of their website. It looks like
they've tried to make the site much more interactive for the
reader/user by incorporating community features..
What's your impression?
It's good, but I still don't think that print publishers have figured out
how to do "news" on the web.
Here's the problem...
Newspapers and magazines are generally consumed where: (a)
it's inconvenient to access other media and (b) you need mobility.
Since paper/print is silent, self-contained, light, and low cost it's
perfect when you are (say) in the loo or on the go. No web-based
computer anything can compete with ink/paper in these places - they
are the print niche (though portable digital paper might do the trick
Trying to put an entire big
newspaper or magazine online is "... the Web's
like trying to put them on TV: you primary
are taking a genre designed for distinguishing
one medium and plopping it into feature -
another with different rules. The the hyperlink."
folks at USA Today have done a
terrific job of putting a newspaper layout onto the web. The problem is
that a newspaper layout doesn't take advantage of the Web's primary
distinguishing feature - the hyperlink. On the web, you can go
anywhere from anywhere else instantly. This ability more or less
dictates the proper form for the presentation of "news" on the web'that
form is a list of hyperlinked headlines + short descriptions, divided into
"sections" and ordered from most important to least important. That's
it. For examples of this sort of design see Metafilter or Arts and Letters
I think print publishers moving to the web are paying too much
attention to the fancy front page with charts, pictures, colors, videos
and other eye candy. The graphic-heavy front page (newspaper) and
cover (magazine) are devices used to entice people to buy
newspapers and magazines. That's why they so often have nearly
naked ladies on them. Gets attention, sells copy. But it doesn't work
on the web because news websites are not sold - they are given
away. Moreover, no one is going to be enticed to peruse your
newspaper or magazine website because you have Ms. Starlet Du
Jour on your front page or cover. If they want to see pictures of Ms. Du
Jour on the web, they can go to any number of fan sites and see all
they want (and probably more).
Here's the first principle for building a serious, intelligent audience
on the web:
People will come to your website if you have something smart and
useful not available anywhere else.
Readers do not go to Metafilter or Arts and Letters Daily - both of
which are very popular - because of their fancy front pages. They don't
have them. They are just hyperlinked lists. Rather, they go to these
sites because the material is good. I hate to use a tired clich - , but
content really is king on the web. If your newspaper or magazine has
better stuff than your competitors, people will come and read it. We
see this every day in the winnowing out of blog market. The better
blogs find audiences, the worse ones don't. Sure, there are
exceptions, but the rule generally holds. Newspapers and magazines
have to learn this lesson and stop futzing with their front pages. They
should pay reporters and writers to produce good, original content'in
text, audio and video - and the audiences will come. In other words,
they should work on breaking stories, not on designing websites.
As for the user-gen components to the USA Today site, they are
fine. These things are now a cost of doing business, and are a kind of
boon for smart companies looking to improve their content. They
should be embraced by everyone providing news on the web. And they
You launched the wiki-based site called MemoryArchive in August
2005, and I see you have about 875 memoirs so far. That's
What propelled you to embark on such a project?
Well, I had been investigating new media businesses for the
Atlantic, one of which was Wikipedia. The more I looked at it, the more
I thought there ought to be some way to use this technology in popular
and academic history. I considered various options - a topically
specific wiki (say on Russian history), a biographical wiki, a
bibliographic wiki, and so on. Since I was working on the project with a
class of very bright undergraduates at American University in DC, I
threw the question to them and, after a lot of discussion, we all agreed
that personal memoirs were the best option.
Memoirs are important historical sources, and people love to tell
stories. So we started to work on the site. I divided the class up into
teams - software, content, design, publicity, etc - just like you would at
a magazine. Despite the fact that none of the students had any
experience with these issues, they did a marvelous job and we
launched the site in November of 2005. I should add that Erik Miller,
currently serving on the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees (the
folks who govern Wikipedia), was instrumental in the creation of the
site. He did most of the technical work and hosts it for free.
And MemoryArchive has been a success. As you say, we are
approaching 1000 memoirs and get good traffic everyday. We've had
some nice press as well. The site is growing: Erik is currently setting
up non-English language versions, so soon there will be German,
French, Russian, and other MemoryArchives. Anyone who'd like to
help should feel free to contact me.
Some logistical questions about MemoryArchive..
How many editors do you have?
How is MemoryArchive funded?
I ask the latter question since there's been a lot of discussion on
blogs regarding the financial sustainability of wiki and social network
sites. (recently, Wikipedia ran a "capital campaign" to support its
Well, there are really only three editors per se, me, Erik, and
Natasha Assa (our Russian editor). We have, however, a bunch of
excellent "Site Stewards" and are looking for more all the time. The
Stewards solicit new content, do clean up, and generally spread the
good word about the project. As for funding, MemoryArchive is entirely
supported by me and Erik, and we don't plan to change that unless the
costs of hosting the site become too burdensome.
What is Data360?
How did you get involved?
Data360 is a serious data aggregation and presentation site. Its
aim is to be the dashboard for a democratic society. Data360 contains
serious historical and contemporary data of every kind - on the
economy, military, politics, society, culture and so on. It's what you
need to know, data-wise, to be an informed citizen. The site also has a
big user-generated component insofar as it allows users to contribute
serious data to the site and share them with others.
Data360 was started by Tom Paper, a broad-minded consultant in
SF who saw the need to quickly and telegraphically present the "big
picture" to his clients and, by extension, his fellow citizens. Tom
believes, correctly I think, that a central repository for important,
serious data will raise what we might call the "collective intelligence" of
both business and the nation.
That's the point of Data360 - to make us all better decision makers.
I met Tom through a friend. Once I heard his vision for Data360 I was
sold and I've been contributing to the project ever since. I plan to
continue to do so as the site grows.
You've told me that "Web 2.0" is a term that you like to avoid when
It seems to me that use of the term "Web 2.0" creates a lot of
confusion now, even among Web watchers, and is no longer very
useful as an operating concept. I've read a few people pushing for a
Web 3.0. (good grief)
Why do you avoid using the term?
I just don't want to become involved in a terminological dispute.
People argue endlessly about what Web 2.0 is and isn't, but the core
of the concept is captured by an older, unfashionable tag that I prefer
the "Read/Write Web. " The web is a medium that allows you to
consume and produce content. That's pretty much it, and it
distinguishes the web from one-way media like print, radio and TV.
"Web 2.0" is opaque.
The "Read/Write Web" is telegraphic you can read it, and you can
write to it. That's about as theoretical as I get with these things.
You are currently writing a new book to be published later this year,
or early next year. The working title is "Everyone Knows Everything".
Can you give us a trailer of sorts as to what topics you plan to
Sure. "Everyone Knows Everything" is a history and analysis of
mass collaboration on the Internet. By "mass collaboration" I mean
Internet projects that allow many people to work together to
accomplish something they could not accomplish in the real world, at
least very easily. Examples include: finding ancestors (FamilySearch),
playing mass games (Worlds of Warcraft), selling stuff (eBay,
Craigslist), finding romance (Match), trading files (BitTorrent), making
friends (MySpace), exchanging news and opinions (Metafilter), and
catalogue knowledge (Wikipedia).
The book begins by describing the physics of what I call
"WikiWorld" that is, the virtual space in which all these websites
operate. The basic thesis is that we don't really do anything different in
WikiWorld, we simply do what we always did more efficiently and at a
In the second chapter I discuss
In the second chapter I discuss
"WikiWorld the reasons humans cooperate with
is the non-kin at all (turns out we are very
unusual in this way) and lay out the
largest of all..." evolution of cooperative institutions
over the past 50,000 years. These
include the family, tribe, city, state, religion, and science, in that order. I
highlight some interesting and little noticed patterns in social evolution,
for example, that each successive cooperative institution is
demographically larger than its predecessor and in some sense
includes its predecessor. WikiWorld is the largest of all (being virtually
universal) and includes all that came before it.
The remaining chapters of the book explore how these cooperative
institutions have been migrated into Wikiworld, so we have "The
Families of WikiWorld," "The Tribes of WikiWorld," "The Cities of
WikiWorld," and so on.
Who is publishing your new book?
Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House. A big shout out to
my agent, the magical Bob Mecoy and my editor, the mystical Gerry
What is the writing process like for you? Do you have any particular
Or do you approach projects and pieces differently from one to the
I begin by looking for the big picture, the basic structure or plot upon
which all the parts will hang. In other words, I need to find a thesis and
a story. Without a thesis and a story, I can't do anything. Finding them
involves nothing more than reading broadly, talking to a lot of people,
and thinking, thinking, thinking. I'm also a bit of a contrarian, so I try to
find theses and stories that go against the received wisdom. Pretty
much all my work has the structure - You thought you knew X, but
actually the truth is closer to Y. - The Greeks called this rhetorical play
"anagnorisis," the moment of discovery. Now when use this form, you
have to be careful to not oversell you story. This is why I shy away
from expose as a rhetorical form, because most things that claim to
be exposes are actually just ginned up correctives. Anytime you read
"And now the TRUTH! " or "This CHANGES everything! " you can be
pretty sure you are being sold a false bill of goods. The truth is subtle
and nothing ever changes everything. But sometimes things are not
as they seem, and that's what I try to get at, usually by putting things in
a big frame and telling a compelling story.
"Web 2.0" or the "Read/Write Web" is a good example. We know
what it is and it doesn't change everything. In fact, what it is is pretty
obvious - that is, a better form of inexpensive interactive
communication - and what it does is not new - that is, it lets us do
what we already did, just a bit better. What's really interesting to me is
that we didn't see it coming. The story of Wikipedia (or eBay, Napster,
MySpace, YouTube, etc.) is one of discovery, not invention. In the
unfolding of these sites, we found out that the human propensity to
collaborate was much greater than we suspected. We had misread
Now that's a story.
It's not everyday that you discover in a huge natural experiment that
your picture of human nature has always been a little off.
You have a lot of very interesting projects going on right now. Do
you have any other big plans this year, whether it's professionally
related or for recreation?
Actually, yes. I want to start to make non-fiction videos. Short, high-
quality, compelling Internet-distributed videos on topical themes. Think
of "An Inconvenient Truth" in 5 minutes or an Atlantic article in video.
The basic aim is to flesh out a new non-fiction genre for a new
medium, namely digital video, a bit like Montaigne and Bacon invented
the "essay" for a new medium, namely print, some 400 years ago.
I'm working with Tom Paper at Data360 on this and talking to
people at The Atlantic about it. If anyone who reads this is interested in
participating, tell them to give me a call.
March 13, 2007
Paul - Needless to say, I found the interview of Marshall
fascinating and interesting. Times, they are changing, and
hanging out with the likes of Marshall Poe is a joy. I checked
out your website and loved it. I read about Peter Blau whose
life is inspiring and I can only imagine what it would have
been like to have known him while he was alive. I watched
the Chris Anderson video and will definitely be back to your
site to sample some others.
All the best, Tom Paper
Tom Paper | March 15, 2007 at 9:43 AM
Tom, thanks for your post and comments. It's great to
see you here. This was a very enjoyable interview, and as I
told Marshall, I learned a lot from his insights.
Data360 is a terrific project. Being an observations and
data junkie myself, I definitely look forward to checking in
Paul DiPerna | March 15, 2007 at 12:26 PM
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