06 November 2008
With Stuart, XM Malaysia’s Creative Director, I took the short ride down to Singapore to attend the Global Brand Forum. In its fifth year, having hosted speakers like Al Gore and Francis Ford Coppola, it seemed the right place to be. I came away underwhelmed, though it did have its sublime moments.
By Sandeep Joseph

With Stuart, XM Malaysia’s Creative Director, I took the short ride down to Singapore to attend the Global Brand Forum. In its fifth year, having hosted speakers like Al Gore and Francis Ford Coppola, it seemed the right place to be. I came away underwhelmed, though it did have its sublime moments.

Keynote speaker, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, would have got a standing ovation just for his idea, demonstrating the power inherent in communities. Wikipedia is one of the most used websites worldwide. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s an encyclopaedia written by readers. Anyone can contribute, on any topic. Should they write relevant content, it will stay online. If the content is malicious or one-sided, other users will most likely correct it. Simple, isn’t it? Far bigger than the Britannica, it covers a far broader range of topics.

Wales’ brainchild exists in over 200 languages. In more than 150 languages, you can find over 1000 articles each. Wales revealed that 1000 was the critical mass and once a language reached that number, its Wikipedia survived and prospered. Surprisingly, it didn’t take too many people to reach that number: about 15-20 editors, and about 50-60 contributors. That’s the proven math of Wikipedia, supporting the concept of the tipping point.

Creating and nurturing communities is painstakingly difficult. More conventional, company-created brands can testify to that. It’s inspiring then, what Wales has achieved—with no offer of a carrot to users, no fame or financial gain. The anonymous editors of Wikipedia do their unpaid work for the love of it, for the love of information and its accuracy.

Wales told us how many people are shocked to find that there is no big Wikipedia building, a la Googleplex, in California, and that his total staff strength was 15. These folks mainly ensure servers are working, and funnel any user complaints about articles to the relevant editors and communities.

While Wales hasn’t made his fortune from Wikipedia, it has made his name. He’s been listed as one of the world’s most influential people by Time magazine. Despite his stature and achievement, he seemed sincere and was dressed Steve Jobs’ style, in all black sweater and slacks.

He shared his new project too. It’s a tilt at all-pervasive Google. Wales feels that Google provides an editorial view on the net. Google’s search results determine which websites we see, and which ones we don’t. While its search algorithms could be mathematically precise, because Google ranks sites on the basis of technology, it can be manipulated. Enter search optimisation: the villain for Wales.

Consumers, feels Wales, should freely decide which sites to see. Consumers should rank websites, and those rankings should be instantaneous, not based on historical data. Hopefully consumers will act towards the greater good of everyone, as Wikipedia shows. Over time, the best sites will rise to the top, and sites which manipulate the system will sink.

Wikia, this new search, is in beta. Wales and his team hope to make money through—you guessed it—selling advertising space. I wish him well. Anyone who gave us Wikipedia deserves good things.

THE BALLAD OF WILL WRIGHT

While Jimmy Wales was the most widely recognised name, Will Wright, chief game designer of Electronic Arts had the most hardcore fans. A journalist from GameWatch magazine had travelled from Japan to hear Wright speak. This young man declared, with ferocity: “Will Wright is God. Game God.” Will Wright did walk up to us some moments after (it was more to have a breather, less because he wanted to meet us). But we were lucky enough to talk, and it left us feeling that while he wasn’t necessarily God, he was definitely ethereal.

He’s the inventor of SimCity and the Sims. More recently too a game where players create their own characters: Spore. His presentation oozed deadpan humour, and was loaded with insights delivered at machine gun pace. He mixed graphs that showed how hardcore games become mass over time, with jokes about beer. He is modest, passionate, and geekily obsessive.

While he ate lunch and Stuart smoked, we chatted in the sunken gardens of the Ritz Carlton. It was the kind of inspiring experience that one can’t replicate. Wright shared how he develops new games: he thinks, researches on his own, for about a year, before getting a small team involved. This group creates the game, testing with consumers. Game testing lasts years. Consequently Wright must anticipate technology. “I can’t see seven years ahead, but three or four is easy.”

Games are developed for hardcore audiences, and through osmosis good ones reach the masses. Stuart and Wright discussed games they liked, from Battlefield to Grand Theft Auto. We had been permitted a glimpse of genius, and so we were sorry when other delegates elbowed their way to our table, deluging Wright with their own theories, driving him away. C’est la vie.

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