My friend and colleague Ben Yates died Monday evening. He was 29. He was my co-author, with Charles Matthews, on our book How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It. He was a skilled artist and designer, and he was responsible for the beautiful figures in the book.
I first encountered Ben before that, in 2006, when he contributed designs for our international conference Wikimania. Ben ended up designing a striking and easily reproducible logo for Wikimania 2006, which we have used ever since for the annual conference. Ben was also interested in Wikipedia merchandise, designing t-shirts and posters, and helped propose fundraising ideas (including the idea of collecting stories from community members) that are only today really being implemented at the WMF — he was ahead of his time.
Ben had been a Wikipedia editor, as User:Tlogmer, since 2003. He wasn’t a heavy contributor, but he was a good one, and like me he was interested in the project from a meta perspective. He wrote a blog about Wikipedia that, while it ran, was widely read in and out of our community — the reporter for the New York Times that has long covered Wikipedia issues once mentioned it to me as one of his sources. Ben was insightful and incisive, funny and smart, with a fondness for the small, absurd things that make Wikipedia so enjoyable. He had a long history of contributions to collaborative projects; he was a contributor to Everything2, starting in 1999. And he was a musician in addition to an artist and writer.
We worked closely together for months on the book, but never got a chance to meet in person. The three of us did almost all of our work over email, and on those long threads and endless discussions Ben was always patient, responsible and helpful; I never had a bad interaction with him. He was shy, too; I never knew much about his personal life. In the last couple of years, we weren’t in close touch; we corresponded a bit and I knew that he was still living in Michigan, where he was from. He never got a chance to go to Wikimania, the conference that enabled his logo to be shown on 5 continents, from banners on the street in Taiwan to books in Argentina.
Ben was a lovely person, and he will be greatly missed.
I was looking for things on the web by Ben, and came across this short piece he wrote on Andrew Lih’s wiki where contributors speculated about the way forward for Wikipedia. Ben died on the eve of Encyclopedia Britannica posting that they were no longer going to produce printed volumes, so this seems prescient — as does the note about alternative views, given recent discussions.
“Wikipedia will not see a real competitor for a long time. Direct competition is a quixotic task, because of wikipedia’s mindshare advantage, or whatever you want to call it — size begets size.
But “rivalry” is the wrong way to think about it. There’s a lot of potential for other ways of viewing and framing and contextualizing and thinking about wikipedia content — who’s to say that there shouldn’t be wikipedia in one frame and another resource in another? Or a commentary on the wiki page integrated into the text, color-coded? Or that the most recent version of the wiki article must be the canonical one (the one you see first)? There will be alternate interfaces to wikipedia’s content, especially as the API becomes more full-featured.
The catch is that a customized version of wikipedia (look! I’m by default only seeing the article revision rated funniest by wikipediafilter!) is in some ways less compelling than the ordinary version — there’s power in seeing what a bunch of other people are seeing. It ties you into society. Alternate interfaces will have to overcome this obstacle if they are to succeed.”