Programmers Turn Wikipedia Into Music to Make a Point

Stephen LaPorte (left) and Mahmoud Hashemi created Listen to Wikipedia, as well as a rock sculpture of Listen to Wikipedia. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Programmer Mahmoud Hashemi wants to do more with his coding skills than make money for a tech company. He sees so many meaningful things that engineers like himself could be doing.

Hashemi says, “There's so much work out there, there's so much to do, there's so much that needs organization and automation and all the things that software excels at.”

In the Bay Area, Hashemi did not have to look hard to find what he felt was a worthy project: Wikipedia.

By many measures, Wikipedia is one of the most successful tech companies in the Bay Area. It is the seventh-most-visited website in the world, drawing more traffic than Twitter, LinkedIn or eBay. But unlike those tech companies, Wikipedia is a nonprofit with a relatively small staff. It has less manpower to show off its achievements.

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Hashemi decided he wanted to help bring attention to the free, open-source encyclopedia.  So he teamed up with his friend, Stephen LaPorte, and the two started writing programs in their spare time to show what Wikipedia does. It is the kind of promotional work that nearby for-profit tech companies spend boatloads on, LaPorte says.

“All these startups, when you go into their lobby they have this cool visualization that shows the few hundred people using their site, and something like Wikipedia doesn’t have the same level of professional polish," he says.

LaPorte, who has since become a lawyer for Wikipedia, went to college with Hashemi in the Midwest. The 20-somethings started collaborating three years ago at a Wikipedia hackathon. Hashemi was disappointed by how few local programmers showed up and stayed late. At one point he looked around and the only ones left were him and LaPorte.

Hashemi says, “So we were both these like wide-eyed kids from Nebraska who'd come out planning on doing just this sort of thing, figuring that, yeah, everyone else is here to do the same. And instead it was just the two of us.”

What they started working on that night grew into Hatnote.

Hatnote is a collection of programs Hashemi and LaPorte have written to shine light on Wikipedia. They have created interactive maps, data visualizations and a program that will email you the most edited articles every week. But their most successful project has been Listen to Wikipedia. Over 2 million people have seen and heard it.

With Listen to Wikipedia, you can hear all the edits to the encyclopedia in real time.

With Listen to Wikipedia you can hear and see the encyclopedia being edited in real time
With Listen to Wikipedia you can hear and see the encyclopedia being edited in real time (Sam Harnett/KQED)

LaPorte shows me the program on his laptop. Whenever someone makes any edit on Wikipedia, a colored ball appears with the name of the article, along with a sound. Bells mean someone just added to an article. Strings mean they deleted something. The deeper the note, the bigger the edit.

There are several edits every second on Wikipedia, thousands every hour. Hearing them all still mesmerizes Hashemi and LaPorte.

LaPorte says, “There was a few month period where I couldn't listen to it because I spent so much time tuning the notes. I think I drove my roommate crazy.”

For Hashemi, this whole project is a welcome respite from the culture of Silicon Valley. He feels like most people here are obsessed only with making money and technology for technology's sake.

“It's absurd,” Hashemi says. “We programmers by and large end up doing a lot of things because we can, not because we should.”

Hashemi works for PayPal, which he is relatively positive about because it is a payment platform, not a startup trying to monetize people. But generally, Hashemi says, the hypercapitalist culture of “The Valley,” crushes the creativity and promise of programmers.

Hashemi says, “I see so many promising kids not unlike myself coming into these big organizations, and they're very eager, energetic. And frankly, these sorts of companies are built on the backs of these kids and it's messed up.”

Hashemi is 29 years old. The Internet was young when he was young. It was weird, full of possibilities. He started teaching himself how to program on sites like Wikipedia.

“There were no Nigerian princes, and you know spam was still mostly a food,” Hashemi says. “There was just so much trust and purity then, but we can never go back to those times, unfortunately.”

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Hashemi is not quitting his day job anytime soon, and he does not expect other programmers to either. He and LaPorte just hope more programmers are inspired to contribute their valuable skills to something they feel good about and really believe in.

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