Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Zen out with hi-tech ambient sound.
Trying to buckle down and work? Noise-cancelling headphones aren’t the only mellow way to drown out your co-workers’ incessant chattering or the whirring of a coffee machine at your local café. Try listening to the dulcet tones of Wikipedia being edited in real time.
Listen to Wikipedia is a site and app that that draws from Wikipedia’s recent changes feed to translate the sum of the tweaks into a chilled-out symphony. (Click through to give it a listen.) Bells denote additions to a page, and plucked strings represent deletions. Synthesized strings swell and fall in the background. Larger revisions yield more resonant notes. It uses a pentatonic scale to avoid screeching dissonance. (Think: tones produced by xylophones and lutes.)
Designed by Wikimedia lawyer Stephen LaPorte and PayPal engineer Mahmoud Hashemi, the site and app draw about 25,000 unique visitors per month. Librarians seem especially intrigued by the "informed relaxation," says Hashemi. The James B. Hunt, Jr. Library at North Carolina State University even installed an interactive version of the app last spring.
Listen to Wikipedia also chronicles the number of changes happening to the site per minute, and how many bytes of data are flying around. You can even see whether revisions were made by users or a bot. When you’re listening online, you can watch a series of purple, white, and green bubbles appear against a gray background. (Purple circles are bots, white circles are registered users, and green circles anonymous editors). The name of each edited page pops up, then fades away. In a 30-second span, edited pages included “extreme dodgeball,” “Marfan syndrome,” and “Doink the Clown,” an uncanny, creepy persona adopted by former professional wrestler Matt Osborne. (One of his signature moves was called The Whoopie Cushion.)
As much as the site is about a zen-inducing auditory experience, it’s also an aural celebration of collaboration and freedom of speech. It serves as a sensory reminder that people are sharing and responding to ideas all the time, at a mind-boggling pace. "People are used to imagining an encyclopedia as an authorless text," says LaPorte. "But in reality, Wikipedia articles are often written by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of different people." Write the developers, “There’s something reassuring about knowing that every user makes a noise, every edit has a voice in the roar.”