Graduating Stanford Law students have elected to crowdsource the student commencement address this year. Marta Belcher J.D. ’15, who proposed the idea, described the student response and speechwriting process to The Daily.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Why did you propose crowdsourcing the student commencement speech?
Marta Belcher (MB): When I heard that Stanford Law School would be holding an election to choose a student graduation speaker, my first thought was that it was a shame that the speaker couldn’t truly represent all of us. I have been fascinated with collective intelligence and online mass collaboration for a long time, so the idea of writing the speech together as a class using a wiki seemed almost obvious. The Internet has allowed us to harness the wisdom of crowds in so many interesting ways—the obvious example being Wikipedia—and I truly believe that, together, we can come up with a speech that is better than what any individual could write.
TSD: Had you heard of students crowdsourcing commencement speeches elsewhere?
MB: When I first had the idea, I poked around and found some examples of people “crowdsourcing” speeches by asking for others to contribute stories and anecdotes and incorporating that into their own, individually written speech, but I couldn’t find an example of anyone writing a graduation speech—or any speech for that matter—using an online wiki in which each word is decided through a collaborative process. I couldn’t see why this hadn’t been done, so I decided to pitch the idea to my class.
TSD: How did you pitch your idea and gain support from peers?
MB: I started by reaching out to individuals who I knew were interested in innovation—my peers at the law school’s Juelsgaard Intellectual Property and Innovation Clinic—to see if they thought it was completely crazy. They were very supportive, so I started talking with other classmates to throw around ideas about how we could make a crowdsourced speech work. It was kind of meta in a way—crowdsourcing the task of figuring out how to crowdsource a speech—but it paid off.
My classmates had so many amazing ideas. Ian McKinley J.D. ’15, for example, came up with the idea of writing the speech in stages to keep everything organized. The name “WikiSpeech” itself emerged from group conversations. Once I was confident that this just might work, I officially entered the election for student commencement speaker, running on the platform that we would all write the speech together using a wiki.
TSD: How widespread was student support? Given the novelty of crowdsourcing a commencement speech, traditionally delivered by a single student, did you face any resistance to the idea?
MB: I would say the reaction ranged from unequivocal support to intense skepticism. On average, I think the reaction was, as one classmate put it, “Even if we fail, if anyone is going to try this, it should be us.”
TSD: How did you gather content for the speech?
MB: First, I got the online wiki up and running and gave everyone in the class the code to join so that they could set up accounts. It’s a very traditional wiki; it looks a lot like Wikipedia, which was intentional. We had decided to write the wiki in stages rather than just having a blank page and a free-for-all (which would have been another option). Stage 1 was determining themes and categories to which people would contribute in Stage 2—categories like “funny moments in law school” and “serious messages about the law.” I guess those served as prompts, in a way. Stage 2 was submitting content. We had a wiki page with all the finalized categories, and people directly added their stories and ideas to the wiki in bullet points below the appropriate category. There were no word limits. The idea was to get as much raw content as possible so that we could then pull from it in Stage 3.
The final step is the editing phase. We kicked off that stage by inviting the entire class to an in-person edit-a-thon where attendees talked about the content that had been contributed and outlined an overarching narrative of the speech. We’re still in Stage 3. Any class member can go to the speech and directly delete things or add things, and there are also discussion forums where people talk about everything from high-level things like the tone of the speech to detail-oriented things like, “What’s a better word for this?” It sounds chaotic, but I have been incredibly impressed with how organized the online writing process has been. We’ve had several in-person edit-a-thons, and our last one is coming up this week.
TSD: How many students contributed content?
MB: So far, more than 90 out of a class of around 180 have participated on the online wiki site, and approximately 40 have attended in-person edit-a-thons. I anticipate those numbers will go up as we get closer to graduation.
TSD: Who decided which contributions would make it into the speech?
MB: Anyone can pull content from the Stage 2 wiki page, where we collected all the content from any class member who wanted to contribute, and put it on the Stage 3 page, where we are editing the speech itself, if they think it fits. The speech is evolving over time, and that’s part of the magic of it: it gets better and better with every edit, or if it doesn’t get better after an edit, we just revert to an earlier version.
TSD: How will you deliver the speech?
MB: We looked at options involving a video, audio, or live delivery, and we ultimately held a vote of the class to determine the delivery method. The delivery method chosen was for me and two other classmates to give the speech live. The other two were selected by lottery from a pool of volunteers. Thirty-one classmates entered the lottery, and the winners were Michael Mestitz J.D. ’15 and Ashlee Pinto J.D. ’15. There are a lot of really cool things we can do with a live three-person delivery, and I’m very excited about it!
TSD: Are you pleased with how the speech is taking shape?
MB: Absolutely! We’re at a point where we could freeze the wiki at any moment and deliver that as the speech, and it would be great. But we’re still editing, and it just keeps getting better every time someone clicks “edit.” This process involves everyone in the class placing a tremendous amount of faith in each other, and my classmates have truly stepped up.
TSD: What challenges have you encountered in producing the speech?
MB: Determining the delivery method was by far the biggest challenge. Writing the speech itself has been more fluid and organized than I anticipated, even with so many people contributing. The great thing about a wiki is that if there is content someone doesn’t like, they only have to press three buttons—“edit,” “delete” and “save”—and that content is gone. There have certainly been debates on the wiki about a word or passage, but that’s part of what makes this a great writing process. It’s like sanding wood: The more friction you apply, the smoother it gets.
TSD: What advice would you give to those who might try to crowdsource future commencement speeches?
MB: I really hope this idea catches on and that other schools use a wiki or other online crowdsourcing mechanism to write their student commencement addresses collaboratively. Technologically speaking, it doesn’t have to be difficult; we used a custom wiki site, but it could just as easily be accomplished using a Google Doc. We have a relatively small class of 180, but I suspect that this could be successful even with much bigger groups. Some people might be deterred from crowdsourcing a speech because of the uncertainty of how the final speech will turn out, but the joy of WikiSpeech is in the writing process itself. My advice is to give it a shot.