Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Trip Report: Wikipedia HQ

Years ago I worked as a legal videographer. It's basically like being a justice roadie. You run around with equipment needed to make The Law happen. People treat you civilly, and the occasional court reporter or neophyte attorney will give you the social equivalent of a mistaken- or pity-handjob before a deposition or site visit starts, but for the most part, you're meant to disappear whenever the big boys arrive.

It wasn't a bad gig. Because people expected me to dissolve into the background, I'd get to do what I wanted most of the time. I'd do a read-on to announce the beginning of a tape, then pretty much spend the day wearing a suit, sitting in swank conference chairs, sipping coffee and reading books. I read the entirety of The Naked and the Dead during a two-day deposition about a car accident, and thanks to the almost cartoonish evil of health insurance companies, I've read almost everything by Livy. While I was doing that, I made anywhere from $30-$50 per hour.

But because I was essentially alone the whole time, I had to try to make things fun. Books helped, but I'd go stir crazy without talking to someone. And there are only so many jokes you can make during the mic check. ("Check one check one, habeascorpus. Check two, check two, mortmain, mortmain. Check three, check three, enfeoffment, ennnnnfeoffment...") That's why I always used the setup hour to wander.

Lawyers don't understand AV equipment. They take one look at all those clip-on mikes and the tiny mixing board and the rest and just blanche, despite the complexity of hooking it all up being on par with hooking up an HDTV to a 5.1 surround system. This works to the advantage of deposition service companies, who charge anywhere from $80-$120 per hour for video: this stuff costs this much because we need trained professionals who've mastered the art of Noticing Where Wires Go to apply this arcane knowledge to a digital home video camera and a VCR. The downside, naturally, was (and is, I suppose) that I had to maintain the polite fiction that what I was doing was difficult, which meant showing up an hour early to "get set up."

Technically, it's a sensible strategy: on the off chance that you have no tapes or have lost a wire, you can always jet over to Radio Shack or a Wal-Mart and replace the equipment before a shark in a $600 suit starts getting pissy with your narrow ass delaying his alloted time for telling lies in front of society. But since I always checked my equipment the night before, this never happened, and mostly I got set up in a grand total of seven minutes and spent the remaining 53 dicking around an office building trying to find something cool to steal or a receptionist to hit on for the hell of it.

This is pretty much how I stumbled across the worldwide headquarters for Wikipedia, in downtown St. Petersburg.

I don't remember exactly why I was there. It was for expert testimony from someone for some purpose, inside a building that was shaped something like a digital-display zero. Around the perimeter, going up a handful of storeys, one could find the offices. The center of the building, however, was a skylit galleria with tropical bushes and trees on the ground floor, surrounded by benches and paths, and occasional pedestrian bridges on the upper levels, crisscrossing the center. Obviously, a poor architect had high hopes for this being the sort of place that people would want to hang out, some artful simulacrum of Florida foliage they would like to sit amongst while the rain blattered on the skylight and reminded them why it was so much better to be inside, in the air-conditioning. Unfortunately, an interior designer had, with remarkable efficiency, managed to murder this man's dream.

Most of the decor looked like it had been stolen from the sets of 1970s thrillers about the government secretly eliminating people, and as a result, the place gave off a comparable level of comfort and welcome. People who worked there must have expected Max von Sydow to loom from behind every corner and strangle them to death while wearing a houndstooth trilby. Brown pressboard nearly everywhere; beige almost everywhere the brown wasn't, a particularly warm shade of beige that looked like beige mixed with mildew; and where those two colors weren't — like much of the ground floor — a green that wanted to be something like seafoam but had taken a wrong turn somewhere and headed toward sick summer-babyshit. The walls were unevenly covered, the carpeting too thin, and the benches hard and unfriendly.

I should also take time to mention the smell. Anyone who's ever been in an old elevator with the old floor buttons like oversized checkers pieces set on a narrow metal pin knows the way these elevators smelled. The building itself combined mulchy plantlife with sweat and age. (Oddly, it smelled exactly like a medical office building on Welch Road in Palo Alto, CA, but I don't expect anyone else to understand this.) Secluded corners gave off the odor of plastic paneling left to sit for hours in the sun. A faint scent of mildew and moldy ceiling tiles suffused everything.

This was a dying office building, and from its location and design, it had been dying since the day it opened sometime in what was probably 1981. People who worked here weren't going anywhere; it was a holding cell for the condemned who hadn't exhausted all their appeals yet. The receptionists were correspondingly unattractive and not worth flirting with. I wandered, doing full loops on each level before going up another one via the nostalgically stinky elevator. I think Wikipedia was on the second floor.

Now, obviously, Wikipedia wasn't in there. The servers probably reside on some giant server farm maintained by another business, and it's not like there were shelves and shelves of printouts of old editions of encyclopedia entries. All I saw at first was a set of french doors with wooden paneling and blinds on the interior side, one door open, the other proudly displaying the Wikipedia name.

I wish I could say the offices were more exciting or that I did something more interesting, but to be honest, I was sort of stunned that they even existed. I knew from reading New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly profiles that Wikipedia maintained offices in St. Pete, but something about the "otherness" of both the internet and things one reads about in national magazines made the idea of their existing at all seem somewhat fantastical. As it was, it featured exactly what you'd expect it to: a few phones, some shelving, a copy machine, some accounting books: everything you'd need to send out fundraising mailers and process fundraising checks. All except for the three dudes standing in the middle of the room.

If I hadn't seen the name on the door, I would have imagined this was the headquarters for FreeRepublic. All three guys were overweight, had bushy John Bolton mustaches and were wearing fat-guy madras shorts straining under the weight of oversized wallets and keychains that probably had every key they'd ever owned on them. They were standing around open cardboard boxes, holding shirts over their chests.

"Uh, hey," I said modestly. "What's going on?"
"Can we help you?" said the guy with the biggest Freeperstache. That's kind of how it is with these people. He who can grow the biggest mustache is chosen as the leader.
"Just wandering around, checkin' stuff out. What's that you got there?"
"Shirts," said another, showing me a white shirt with the Wikipedia logo on it. Leaderstache shot him a scowl.
"Cool. Can I have one?"

Leaderstache was not pleased. Although Wikipedia doesn't detail the compensation donors receive, I assumed that these were set aside for donors who'd made significant contributions, sort of like how NPR and PBS will give you a bumper sticker or a mug for a $25 donation, but you've got to pony up something a little bigger to get the tote bag. I probably was not meant to know about the shirts, because if I were a minor donor, I might spill the beans on a Wiki talk page and start some sort of populist uprising about SHIRTS FOR ALL.

Ordinarily, I'm pretty polite and obliging with strangers, especially people who have to interact with me because it's their job. Years of retail and food-service work made me very gracious because I knew how I felt when I was on the other side of the exchange. But something about wearing a good suit and nice shoes brings out my cheek, the sort of winking confidence I learned by watching my dad manage millionaires and city leaders. You look good; you feel good; things are going good. Let's fuck with some people, see what happens, you know? I'd noticed Leaderstache's discomfort and felt like I could use it.

"Why not?"
"We're not really handing them out."
"Are you giving them to donors?"
"We can't say," Leaderstache said, flashing a look of recognition that said I was right.
"Come on, man, I donate." (I don't.)
"Really? What's your name?" he said, feinting at a computer, as if he would look it up if I gave him a name.
"John Gardiner." (This is always a good name to use. There's a John Gardiner/Gardner/Gardener everywhere, and if they don't think to ask you the spelling before looking it up, you're home free.) I'd answered fast enough that he just accepted it as true.
"What's your address?"
"What's yours?" I said, grabbing a pen and a small notebook out of my jacket pocket.
"Well, we're not giving them away anyway."

That sucked. He shut the whole thing down right when I started getting some leverage. I switched to a friendlier tack and put away the pen and notebook.

"Seriously, I'll wear the shirt over my shirt and tie. I'm gonna be spending the day with a bunch of guys from [name of whichever big-shot Florida law firm was going to be at the deposition]. Those guys have to throw away thousands on donations for taxes. I'll be a walking ad."

Leaderstache just shook his head and repeated his earlier explanation and came around the desk and stood a little close to me so that I'd back away and thus move closer to the door. His idea of how to control a room and a situation wasn't exactly subtle, so I played along with it, to a point.

"Well, it was a real pleasure to meet you!" I said, with a shit-eating grin and a forceful extended hand. I felt like making him shake my hand. He did, reluctantly, and I gave his hand two or three deliberately oblivious enthusiastic pumps before singing byeeeeee and walking out.

As it turned out, though, that wasn't my only trip to that Godawful building. I had to be back about a month later, for one of the last jobs I did before I soured on the whole business and bailed on it.

Once again, I was there an hour early and set up with over 45 minutes to go and nothing to do. This time, I glanced through the open doorway of the Wikipedia offices while walking past and confirmed that the men in there with Freeperstaches were actually totally different from the ones I'd met the first time. I don't know what it says about Wikipedia that its staff was completely different in under a month's time; perhaps it's the open-source editing policy applied to real life. Regardless, I found it sort of odd that they had a seemingly bottomless supply of fat dudes who all looked like they owned a lot of firearms, spent free time in camping chairs and politically and socially distrusted negroes. It's a bizarre physiological demographic to tap into when the wealth of your contributors are geeky informational proto-communists.

When I knew I was going back to this building, I tried to think up a way of cadging a free shirt out of them. One, I like free shit. Two, I like fucking with people. Three, I'd been vandalizing Wikipedia off and on for a year or so, and thought that this would be a conceptually satisfying way to carry that impulse into real life. Immediately after passing by their open door and seeing different staff members, I wheeled around and rushed back and through their door as if confused.

"Whoa. Almost blew right past you. I want to talk about the person who's been reverting my edits."
"What?" said this other bountifully mustachioed leader figure.
"My edits. I keep making important updates, and someone's deleting them."
"I'm sorry?"
"No, don't do that to me. This IS Wikipedia, isn't it?"
"Well, yeah..."
"Well good. I want to talk to the person in charge and do something about this, because I've been a loyal user for years, and someone is reverting my content, and it's GOOD CONTENT."

At this point, the second Leaderstache caught on and gave me a boilerplate explanation about how the person who'd been reverting my edits was an online user that they had no contact with, because the content and editing was online user-oriented. I just shook my head like he was giving me bureaucratic runaround.

"Excuse me. This is the home office, right? It's got your name on the door. I didn't drive all this way to get blown off. If you're not in charge here, I want to speak to someone who is. I want to get someone here who can make some changes."

Again, another explanation about Real Life v. The Internet, and another response from me about wanting to speak to someone in charge. This guy was actually pretty patient and understanding of my apparent confusion, and I started to feel like an asshole and like I should just salvage something of civility if this didn't go somewhere good soon.

"Look," I said, "I've been a loyal contributor for a long time. There are thousands of words about Family Guy that all come down to me. I added a TON to the episode guide. But if someone online is gonna blow me off, and if you're gonna blow me off, you're gonna have to give me a damn good reason to stay."
"Like what?"
"Like my edits back."
"I'm sorry, but we don't have any control over that."
"How about a shirt, then?"
"Those shirts, over there," I pointed at a box. "Gimme a Wikipedia shirt. I earned it."
"We can't give those away."
"Come on, man, I've done a ton for Wikipedia. Show me someone who's posted more. Have you posted more? Show me. I practically MADE the Family Guy entry."
"I'm sorry. We just can't."
"Well, you just lost yourself a contributor."

I stomped out. The guy didn't follow. Fucker. I wanted a shirt.

I tried my best. I'm sure I'm misremembering details, and I know I had to fill in some dialogue gaps in memory and probably made them sound a lot cooler in the process, but I know I put up a good genial and, later, a good outraged front. No sale. I really have no idea how to get a t-shirt out of Wikipedia, but I know I'll never give them enough money to find out how it's done. For one thing, I'm genuinely disturbed that their real-life staff is indistinguishable from Freepers. For another, the site is too unreliable and subject to vandalism for me to respect it and not consider it just something whose convenience accounts for the vast majority of its utility. Most importantly, I'm just too cheap.

That said, I would hope anyone who's ever in or near St. Pete would give it a try. Somebody should get a shirt out of them. Thousands of intelligent people literally throw away hours of their lives to create accessible information for which they'll never be compensated — information that is subject to the capricious dismissal or deletion of unaccountable admins and editors who are just as spiteful or benighted as any other authority figures on the internet or in real life. The least they could do is be forced to cough up some shirts.