Superprotect: How Wikimedia board candidates addressed it

Image from NY Times article by Mark Pernice

I have long held that the Wikimedia Foundation’s flawed approach to software development and deployment, culminating in the sudden release of the draconian “superprotect” software feature last year, would be the central issue in this year’s election for three of the organization’s 10 Trustees. As I reported earlier, all three incumbent candidates were in fact voted out, which I interpret as a sign that the international community of Wikipedia volunteers will not tolerate such a ham-handed approach to governance.

Today, Andrew Lih published an op-ed piece in the New York Times: Can Wikipedia Survive? Lih, a longtime Wikipedian and author of The Wikipedia Revolution, highlighted superprotect as a significant issue in the election, and stated:

The real challenges for Wikipedia are to resolve the governance disputes — the tensions among foundation employees, longtime editors trying to protect their prerogatives, and new volunteers trying to break in — and to design a mobile-oriented editing environment.

The nature of the election Q-and-A pages (in which 20 candidates addressed 39 questions) makes it rather impenetrable for those wishing to evaluate the themes. A few people have contended that superprotect was not such a significant issue in the election; but along with myself and Andrew Lih, a number of respected colleagues have agreed that it is, in both public and private venues.

In order to better inform that question, I am presenting below the answers all candidates gave to the question about superprotect. (The question and all answers are available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.) I have highlighted the answers of the three successful candidates in green, and the answers of the three unsuccessful incumbents in red. I have also included my own answer at the bottom (I had answered during my brief candidacy, which I withdrew before voting began). Readers may also be interested in my analysis of all candidates, in which I focused on this question more than the others. See the question and answers below the fold: Continue reading

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PR firm covertly edits the Wikipedia entries of its celebrity clients

How a big Hollywood firm altered Naomi Campbell’s entry

Recently, Wiki Strategies was informed about the Wikipedia exploits of public relations firm Sunshine Sachs. Since Wikipedia’s editing history is preserved for all to see, we asked freelance journalist Jack Craver to dig into it. He found no disclosure of the Wikipedia accounts clearly employed by Sunshine Sachs, and found many edits that were clearly biased in favor of the firm’s clients. Here, we present his detailed analysis of one of their clients’ biographies. – Pete Forsyth, Principal, Wiki Strategies

Model Naomi Campbell in 2008. Photo CC BY-SA 3.0, Georges Biard.

Model Naomi Campbell in 2008. Photo CC BY-SA 3.0, Georges Biard.

Sunshine Sachs, a leading U.S. public relations firm representing corporations and A-list celebrities, has been using Wikipedia to promote its clients. Edits by its staff include furtive removal and downplaying of well-sourced information, as well as addition of promotional material. It’s impossible to know the extent of the the firm’s promotional work, but we’ve uncovered a number of edits that Sunshine associates made on behalf of clients, from obscure startup companies to big stars such as Mia Farrow and Naomi Campbell.

Many of the edits Sunshine employees have made are innocuous even helpful. They dutifully updated information regarding their clients’ careers, including new films or albums, often supported by solid references. They rewrote poorly-worded sentences and repaired broken links to references.

But much of their work clearly violated Wikipedia standards. They deleted or sought to minimize unflattering information about their clients – even when supported by multiple references. Moreover, Sunshine Sachs personnel didn’t disclose their relationships with the people or companies whose articles they altered. The most recent edits are direct violations of Wikipedia’s Terms of Use, which have required disclosure of paid editing since July 2014.

One user, who identifies as “Alexdltb,” has made edits since 2012 to articles about a number of Sunshine Sachs clients. His efforts include Farrow, Campbell, singer Sarah Brightman, journalist Mark Leibovich and, most recently, Levo, a web startup. Alexdltb seems to refer to Sunshine employee Alexander de la Torre Bueno, who indeed identifies Leibovich as a former client on his LinkedIn page. However, on his user account page, Alexdtb does not disclose his firm’s relationships with its clients. The only information on the user page is: “This page will document my draft work.”

The changes Alexdltb made to Naomi Campbell’s biography constitute perhaps the clearest example of how he used Wikipedia to further his clients’ interests. After adding two updates about the veteran model’s career, Alexdltb worked to downplay less flattering aspects of her life and work: her multiple convictions for assault and her unsuccessful ventures in music, fiction writing and business.

In his first major edit to Campbell’s biography, Alexdltb deleted a reference to the negative reviews of Campbell’s 1994 ghostwritten novel, “Swan.” He deleted the last three words of the following sentence: “Her novel ‘Swan’, about a supermodel dealing with blackmail, was released in 1994 to poor reviews.” In the same edit, Alexdltb deleted a clause that referred to Campbell’s 1994 album, Babywoman, as “a critical and commercial failure.” Alexdltb also deleted the words “ill-fated” from a sentence regarding an unsuccessful restaurant chain Campbell had invested in.

Alexdltb justified the edits thus: “I removed a number of opinionated comments in Campbells (sic) Wikipedia entry. Many of these comment reference articles which are also opinion rather than editorial pieces.”

Indeed, literary and music criticism is a form of opinion. The fact that Campbell’s album and book were critical failures is based on the overwhelmingly negative opinions they elicited from critics. But the comments Alexdltb was deleting weren’t supported simply by stand-alone reviews; they were articles from established publications that referenced the critical consensus.

The 2007 New York Times article supporting the contention that her book was a critical failure not only called the book “truly awful;” it also reported that the novel had received poor reviews, and had won Seventeen magazine’s Super-Cheesy Award.

Similarly, Alexdltb deleted a quote attributed to Campbell, in which the model justified hiring a ghostwriter for the novel because she “just did not have the time to sit down and write a book.” Alexdltb said he made the change because the reference cited for the quote was “not an authentic editorial source.”

This edit highlights the difference between a dispassionate Wikipedia editor and hired gun: if Alexdltb were truly interested in solid references, he could have simply Googled the quote and found immediate confirmation of its authenticity from media outlets like The Guardian, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Daily Mail any of which he could have added as a reference.

The claim that Campbell’s album “Baby Woman” was a critical and commercial failure was supported by a 2006 article by the Independent, which summarized a Q Magazine list of the 50 worst albums of all time. Better references than the Independent to support the album’s critical failure exist and are not difficult to find. For instance, a 2014 restrospective review in the Guardian begins by asking, “was Baby Woman really so bad?”  and a 1996 New York Times commentary noted that Seventeen “had reviewed her record as a comedy.”

Instead, Alexdltb simply deleted the comment and the reference.

Alexdltb’s removal of the term “ill-fated” from the description of the failed restaurant chain backed by Campbell was also problematic. Try googling the “Fashion Cafe” and you will immediately find articles that detail the chain’s failure in 1998 as well as the subsequent prosecution of the restaurant founders for fraud.

In another instance, Alexdltb sought to remove any mention of Campbell’s notorious legal troubles from the lead section of her biography.

Here’s what he removed from the bottom of the introductory section: “Her personal life is widely reported, particularly her relationships with prominent men—including boxer Mike Tyson and actor Robert De Niroand several highly-publicised convictions for assault.

Explaining the deletion for the benefit of other Wikipedians, Alexdltb wrote that “The information, about Campbell’s controversial relationships, that I removed is reported throughout the document and does not belong belong in the exposition as it relates to her personal life, not her identity as a public figure.

But Wikipedia’s guideline on lead sections is explicit, stating: “The lead should be able to stand alone as a concise overview. It should define the topic, establish context, explain why the topic is notable, and summarize the most important points, including any prominent controversies.” (Emphasis added.)

Alexdltb’s efforts on the Naomi Campbell biography reflect just one example of Sunshine Sachs’ covert efforts to bend Wikipedia’s coverage toward their clients’ interests. Alexdltb also deleted substantiated facts, or added promotional material, to biographies of Mark Leibovich, Mia Farrow, Sarah Brightman, and other Sunshine Sachs clients; and other Wikipedia users, such as Orangegrad and Blue56349, also appear to have a singular interest in promoting the interests of the firm’s clients.

Posted in journalism, Statements of Ethics, Terms of Use, wiki, Wikipedia | 6 Comments

An author improves his Wikipedia bio

Photo CC BY-SA 2.0, Randy Stewart

“I am the subject of this Wikipedia entry. The service says that details in the entry require sources. … What to do?” — Stephen Baker in unanswered talk page note, October 2008.
Photo CC BY-SA 2.0, Randy Stewart.

This spring, we worked with bestselling author Stephen Baker, who had a longstanding — but easily corrected — Wikipedia problem. We guided him in adding citations and making some updates to his biography, which had been flagged for insufficient citations since 2008.

Prior to working with us, Baker assiduously followed the unofficial advice often given by Wikipedia editors, including founder Jimmy Wales: when you have a conflict of interest, limit your efforts to discussion about the article; don’t edit the article yourself. Some Wikipedia editors go further, suggesting that it’s impossible for somebody in a conflict of interest to make worthwhile contributions.

But for more than six years, Baker’s hands-off approach completely failed; while a handful of citations were added by others in that span, they fell far short of being the best references for the biography. So, with our guidance, he took a more direct approach, and simply improved the biography.

Baker reflected on this project in a blog post, “Editing my Wikipedia bio.”

Baker is like many of our clients. As his blog post makes clear, he respects Wikipedia as a place for neutral information, not self-promotion: “I thought to fiddle with your own page was a bit pathetic, the ultimate selfie,” he says. His inclination to abide by Wikipedia’s rules, both written and unwritten, is  reflected in the short note he left on the biography’s talk page in 2008, and in the 6+ years he patiently waited for a response, making no further edits.

And yet, the changes he wanted were not promotional. His primary goal was to directly address the request for better reference sources. With our guidance, he ultimately added more than 10 citations to a biography that had previously contained only five; his additions included sources like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the LA Times – far more substantial than the initial five links. How long should the subject of an article wait for a response to a talk page inquiry, before taking a more direct approach? We would say: not six years. In a case like this, a week or so would have been plenty.

Often, prominent people approach Wikipedia as a platform to promote their own interests, with little regard for its editorial policies and practices — for instance, author Philip Roth. But many others approach Wikipedia with respect and admiration. We admire Stephen Baker’s dedication to Wikipedia’s rules and spirit. His heart was in the right place all along; all he needed was a little guidance in how to navigate Wikipedia’s social and technical labyrinth. With that guidance, he was able to make a few improvements that satisfy the site’s exacting standards, and also satisfy his own wishes for the article.

Posted in Beginner how-to, governance, How-to, journalism, Statements of Ethics, wiki, Wikipedia | Leave a comment

Success! Wikimedia Foundation board election results

Today, the results of the 2015 Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) board of trustees election were announced. 5,167 people voted, making this the highest turnout in any Wikimedia election to date.

The winners — Dariusz Jemielniak, James Heilman, and Denny Vrandečić — were three of the top four I endorsed.

As stated in the Wikipedia Signpost’s coverage, “The relationship between the WMF and the community has been strained in recent times,” and “voting in this election is one of the primary outlets by which Wikipedians can shape the strategic direction of the WMF.” When the WMF declined to acknowledge or address a letter from more than 1,000 people, the main avenue that remained to dissatisfied Wikimedians was to replace the three community-elected board members; and today, they did.

The departing incumbents — and each of the candidates — have made many substantial contributions to the Wikimedia vision over the years, in spite of their divergent positions on Superprotect and related issues.  On the most general Wikimedia email list (Wikimedia-L), longtime Wikipedian David Gerard recently expressed his admiration for the group of candidates as a whole. I would like to echo this sentiment; as I reviewed the answers from 20 candidates, to the 40 questions community members put to them, I was continually impressed with the passion and thoughtful consideration from all candidates. Although I had important philosophical differences with a number of them, I deeply respect the dedication each has brought to their work in the Wikimedia world. This is especially true of SJ Klein and Phoebe Ayers, two departing incumbents I have considered friends and allies for a number of years; I appreciate their many contributions to the Wikimedia vision, and their years of service on the Board.

The election results also listed me. Although my name was listed as a withdrawn candidate, a number of people cast votes. The results were not favorable — 108 people supported my candidacy, and 439 opposed. I suppose this validates my decision to withdraw; although I believe my perspectives on what the organization needs to do are important, I was likely not the right person to move them forward as a Trustee.

But Dariusz, James, and Denny are surely well qualified to work on the important issues. As I said at the outset of the election, they have an important opportunity to help the organization realign its approach to the 100,000 volunteers who have built, and continue to build, Wikipedia and the Wikimedia projects. I offer the newly-elected trustees my hearty congratulations, and I have high hopes for their influence at this critical time for the organization and for the Wikimedia projects.

Posted in core, governance, wiki, Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia | Tagged | 1 Comment

Wikimedia Board candidate recommendations

Since I withdrew from the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees election, a number of people have asked for my opinions on the remaining candidates. With just a few days left to vote, I have read through all the question-and-answer pages, and I am ready to publish a fairly comprehensive list of recommendations. With 20 candidates and three positions, there are many close calls; however, there are certainly some standout candidates I am happy to recommend, and several who, despite admirable records in the Wikimedia world, are clearly ill-suited to address the issues the Board must face in the next two years.

Although I am publishing this late in the voting period, please note that any who have voted can re-submit their ballot up until Sunday, with new votes. If any of this (or anything) sways your opinions, you can update your ballot.

Before listing my recommendations, a few words about how I arrived at these decisions. I consider the question about “superprotect,” – a software feature that even a Trustee standing for reelection (Samuel Klein) has conceded “opposed our wiki values, distracted the projects, and did not solve any pressing problem” — to be of particular significance. Continue reading

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Board election update

Before I chose to run for a seat on the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, I spoke with several trusted colleagues. I had not planned on running; but as I watched candidates release their opening statements, I was dismayed to see how few of them mentioned community dynamics and good governance. As the author of an open letter to the Wikimedia Foundation that drew 1,000 signatures, but then went utterly disregarded by the Trustees, I felt a responsibility to bring those issues into prominent view in the election.

Today, as the opening of voting approaches, I have answered all the questions posed (see this archive of my answers), and have read most of the responses of my fellow candidates. I am very happy to report that these issues have indeed received strong and thoughtful attention from many candidates. I see some echoes of my own words — most notably, my insistence that even absent a formal reply, the Wikimedia Foundation has been egregious in neglecting to address the conditions for using the controversial Superprotect feature. But I am also convinced that some of these candidates have held laudable views on these issues from some time, and done excellent related work; and it simply took some time for it to become visible.

With that in mind, the question my friend Eugene Eric Kim initially asked rings strongly in my ears: “Do you want to be on the Board?” He was adamant about that question, and urged me to keep my deliberation simple and focused. I told him that I did want to, but we both knew my desire wasn’t 100%. After all, I have been able to do a lot of work I take pride in, without any involvement with the Wikimedia Foundation; and joining the Board of Trustees would inevitably impact my ability to continue some of that work.

And so, as the voting period approaches, I have made up my mind: I am stepping aside from the election.

I remain convinced that the incumbent community-elected trustees (Phoebe Ayers, Samuel Klein, and María Sefidari) should be replaced. I am highly confident in two of my fellow candidates, and strongly endorse them: Denny Vrandečić and Dariusz Jemielniak. I plan to elaborate on my reasons in coming blog posts, before voting closes at the end of the month; and I expect to endorse additional candidates, as well.

For further context, please see my other blog posts about this election, in this blog category.

Posted in core, governance, government, wiki, Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia | Tagged | Leave a comment

Divide and Subjugate

The Wikimedia Foundation’s bold vision for Wikipedia’s future

Jan-Bart de Vreede in a decidedly non-hostile mood at Wikimania 2014. Photo CC BY-SA Adam Novak.

Jan-Bart de Vreede (center-left) in a decidedly non-hostile mood at Wikimania 2014. Photo CC BY-SA Adam Novak.

Jan-Bart de Vreede was frustrated. His inbox was filling up. As chair of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Board of Trustees, he was deeply committed to increasing engagement from Wikipedia volunteers invested in the site’s future. But not this kind of participation!

Every new software feature the foundation released, it seemed, would bring backlash from people who were supposed to be on his side — some of Wikipedia’s most highly engaged volunteer contributors. One million-dollar project after another would run aground upon release; even software that was ultimately welcomed by new and veteran volunteers, like a notification feature, was greeted with exasperation and mistrust. De Vreede was growing alarmed by the increasing hostility around software changes.

So de Vreede published a statement. He invoked, and sought to strengthen, the bedrock of goodwill that has united 100,000 volunteers around the world in a shared vision of free knowledge for all. (Note — my description of de Vreede’s thinking is speculative; I haven’t discussed this with him directly.) Wikipedia’s vision is one you probably share — even if you question the value of the publication itself. In an era marked by corporate media consolidation, social media echo chambers, and an increasing flood of sponsored content, Wikipedia has planted its flag on principles of integrity: We can and must agree on the facts behind our varying opinions. We invite broad participation. We value vigilance and diligence around conflicts of interest and other corrupting influences over the information we consume. We use collaborative platforms that preserve the history of text and invite scrutiny.

All across Wikipedia, little debates and diligent work bring you information you might otherwise never learn about. Sometimes, it leads to incredible Wikipedia articles; other times, not so much. But this human-powered engine, continually reoriented around the need to improve articles, gives everyday people the chance to share and refine knowledge alongside the elites (journalists, politicians, academics, public relations machines, corporate boards…) who control more traditional media.

But Wikipedia was, de Vreede told us, “at a crossroads.” In order to “save Wikipedia,” as Time Magazine later described the foundation’s mandate, his staff had to be permitted to upgrade the software. He offered elevated words of conciliation: “Blaming each other … does not make much sense.”

Not, at least, with the finger of blame pointed at de Vreede or his team.

But a few short sentences later, with the finger pointed in the other direction, blaming suddenly made sense again. De Vreede pointed squarely at those who did not fall in line with the foundation’s plans. Those plans “might not be acceptable to some of you,” he said. “I understand that if you decide to take a wiki-break, that might be the way things have to be.” Using the most gracious language he could summon, he pointed to the exit door, and benevolently invited naysayers to use it.

At its core, Wikipedia is a social project. Without purpose-driven social activity, the site we turn to for information and context on a daily basis could not exist. Unlike corporate neighbors like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, Wikipedia was born of idealism and purpose, not of a business plan; it subsists on a steady diet of human creativity and collaboration. Since you began reading this column, hundreds of people have made small improvements to Wikipedia’s hundreds of language editions. And in order to work together, they rely on a sophisticated framework of guiding principles, rules, suggestions, and processes of varying formality.

De Vreede is right about this much: Hostility can be toxic to a community that thrives on a collaborative spirit. Moreover, hostility is frequently identified as a significant contributing factor to the site’s dismal ratio of female and minority writers and editors.

So why is hostility acceptable when issued by the chair of the Board of Trustees?

Given increasing alarm about Wikipedia’s uncertain future, with a declining editor base and aging software, one unpalatable explanation looms large. If the goal was to destroy Wikipedia, a promising tactic would be to provoke and amplify existing hostility within its ranks, with the goal of undermining what trust and collegiality do exist. From a purely tactical standpoint, it would be hard to dismiss the possibility of an agent provocateur approach; maybe the foundation is trying to break Wikipedia. But as someone who has known de Vreede and most of his colleagues in leadership at the Wikimedia Foundation for several years, I am entirely confident of their good intentions.

De Vreede’s rhetoric is driven by something much more mundane. He and his colleagues, who have tremendous responsibilities and a passionate, diverse array of supporters and critics, have grown tired. The Board of Trustees made a crucial mistake last year, hiring a technologist for an executive director, instead of a proven leader adept in dealing with broad constituencies. They disregarded those of us who advised they instead choose someone whose experience lies in social movements, community governance, or group facilitation. If all you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails; and so the executive director now boasts of hiring dozens of new engineers, while the organization remains baffled by basic group dynamics and decision-making. When problems of a social nature inevitably rear their heads, foundation leaders and staff react impulsively, lashing out at the nearest target.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales at Wikimania 2014

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales at Wikimania 2014. Photo licensed CC BY-SA, Fabrice Florin.

This dynamic is understandable on a human level. Nevertheless, its perils are substantial — no less than if they were, in fact, driven by a coordinated assault on Wikipedia. The kind of misery a board member endures, it turns out, loves company:

  • In the same month (August 2014) that de Vreede posted his ominous message inviting dissenters to take a break, Wikimedia founder (and fellow Trustee) Jimmy Wales identified “annoying users” as unwelcome interlopers in his Wikimania conference keynote speech.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation launched a new strategic planning process in February 2015, in which participants were asked to address two specific questions; the results were then evaluated behind closed doors. This stands in stark contrast to the previous effort (2010), in which the foundation boasted of 1,000 active participants in an open-ended process, which it publicly summarized.
  • In April 2015, the Wikimedia Foundation’s executive director, Lila Tretikov, dismissed dissenting views in a feature article in Time Magazine: “It’s not realistic to have everybody always in the boat with you.”
  • The enforcement mechanism of this rhetoric — the foundation’s “superprotect” software — drew an objection from 1,000 volunteers, but remains in full effect to this day, with no definition around how it might or might not be used.

So perhaps the efforts of de Vreede and company are deliberate, after all; maybe the foundation is heeding the words of a U.S. Army major in Vietnam, who once explained that it became necessary to destroy a village, in order to “save” it. Maybe the Foundation is trying to destroy the old Wikipedia, and wishes to make way for a new one. But destroying the old Wikipedia is a huge risk to take, without a rock solid plan for a new one. As any community manager knows, it takes a long time to build trust and a short time to destroy it. 100,000 volunteers — or 1,000 of the most dedicated — will be a difficult asset to replace, once lost.

In less than 15 years, Wikipedia has become an indispensable lens, helping all of us make sense of the rising flood of information the Internet offers. Many Wikipedia writers are experts — scientists, journalists, teachers — but they are not gatekeepers. Many more people are simply curious, careful readers and editors, who want to build knowledge together. If you find a problem with a Wikipedia article, you can learn a lot about how it occurred…and then you can fix it.

If Wikipedia declines, the world will suffer. You might have trouble finding out what the key play was in the 1986 World Series…or you might just miss an opportunity to spot the deception in that pharmaceutical company’s advertising. And that might just impact your health.

The engine that drives Wikipedia — the human engine, more than the technical one — needs to be looked after. But the organization tasked with “saving Wikipedia” is damaging that engine, when it should instead be learning to maintain and repair it.

Posted in core, governance, wiki, Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia | Tagged | 3 Comments

I am running for the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees

As recent readers are aware, I’ve had a few things to say about the present election for three seats on the Wikimedia Foundation’s Board of Trustees; I’ve blogged about why it’s important, and what to look for in a candidate. At the filing deadline, I found myself uncertain that three candidates (since there are three positions to be filled) were sufficiently committed to the issues I consider most important; so I decided to put myself forward as a candidate.

My position is simple: the Wikimedia Foundation has for too long focused on technical issues, at the expense of investing in social expertise, and learning to engage effectively with the complex social dynamics and wisdom in its various communities. These problems have persisted for many years; but as of 2015, the resulting problems are readily apparent. If the foundation wants to be relevant and have positive influence, it must change course. The must pressing needs:

  • The foundation should meet the challenging questions around decision-making, which were raised by its misguided introduction of the “superprotect” feature last year, head on.
  • The foundation should commit to modeling exemplary, transparent and accountable behavior; this would include, for instance, timely and comprehensive meeting minutes; clear and effective mechanisms for strategic input; and internal processes that lead to better, more generative communication practices from all staff and board members.
  • The foundation should invest in staff with both academic and practical expertise in effective engagement with complex social systems, drawing on disciplines like organizational development (as applied toward the community at large, not just the staff); community management and facilitation; and leadership cultivation. These problems are hardly unique to the Wikimedia movement; much wisdom around them exists both within, and beyond, our community. It’s a largely untapped resource. Technical decisions should be guided from the outset by well-vetted theories of social change.

Since announcing my candidacy, I have been heartened by the statements of many of my fellow candidates Continue reading

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What Wikimedia needs in a Trustee

Last week, I noted the upcoming election for three of the 10 Wikimedia Foundation Trustees. I opined there, and in a followup post, about some of the things the foundation can and should do better. But what specific qualities should we seek in a trustee, as we go to the virtual ballot box?

This is the "theory of change" produced for the 2010 Strategic Plan.

This is the “theory of change” produced for the 2010 Strategic Plan…

A better way to look at how Wikimedia works

…but Wikimedia’s unique asset belongs in the center.

We should elect three new people who can draw Wikimedia Foundation’s attention away from shiny technical tools, and back to its core distinguishing asset: 100,000 volunteers around the world who work tirelessly in support of the Wikimedia mission. In a few hours, we will know who the choices are; as of now, there are 20 candidates for three positions.

The need is clear: Wikipedia, and the family of web sites around it, would not exist without those who have chosen to write, edit, code, curate, discuss, and disseminate knowledge, in their free time. But the Wikimedia Foundation has neglected that community, instead pursuing an identity as a technology company. Yes, Wikipedia has an important technical core; but so does every popular web site. The social dynamics that have produced Wikipedia are what matters; everything else is secondary. Technology should serve social goals, not the other way around.

The foundation has relentlessly pursued a tech-focused agenda, and in the process, has failed to properly get to know the social dynamics that make its sites hum, or to devise an effective plan to move to a better place. Although many advised that expertise in social dynamics was key, last year the foundation hired an executive director whose core qualifications derive from her experience with technical products. Most of the foundation’s many millions are spent on technical projects, but the core social problem it has chosen as a central metric — a declining editor base — is not improving. Perhaps products (like the Media Viewer) that introduce millions of pages without an “edit” button, or products (like the mobile site) that eliminate core collaboration features found in the main software, have something to do with that; but it’s hard to know, since there is no scientific approach to improving social dynamics behind these decisions.

What the Wikimedia Foundation needs, if it is to become a force for positive change for Wikipedia, are Trustees with a background in (or, at minimum, an appreciation for) social movements, the social sciences, and effective governance practices.

Right now, the Wikimedia Foundation looks at a problem and says:

“Let’s hire somebody to write a program that solve it.”

What is needed are trustees who will say, instead:

“How can we leverage social action toward solving this, and encourage leadership? How could technology support those efforts?”

People who will insist on clear communication and accountability within the organization, and when the organization speaks to its stakeholders. People who believe the way to end a cycle of hostility and dysfunction is to be accountable, to listen, to carefully synthesize information.

Nominations are due in a few hours, so we will have to decide among the candidates who have already declared. But even after this election, Wikimedia and the foundation will need people with these skills and sensibilities, for the board and in other positions. Where might we find such people, outside the Wikimedia community?

Look in successful online communities. Look in government. Look in large, diverse social systems (university system, hospital administration) that have passionate and diverse groups of stakeholders — people with a record of success in systems like that, and who are established thought leaders.

If the Wikimedia Foundation can’t find ways to nurture and grow leadership within its ranks, its future looks grim. Can Wikipedia and the rest of the Wikimedia projects survive with a steward organization that takes little interest its needs? I would like to believe it can. But it’s hard to see how it can thrive.

The Wikimedia Foundation has tried many things. In the process, it has lost sight of its core asset. Let’s elect three new people who can bring its focus back home.


Posted in governance, wiki, Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia | Tagged | 1 Comment

When “experimentation” is no such thing

When widespread problems take hold, it’s worthwhile to seek out what “innovations” have worked to combat them. Take, for instance, gender imbalance and general incivility in the comment sections of online news outlets:

Researcher Fiona Martin dug into the issue in her April 2015 study Getting my two cents worth in: Access, interaction, participation and social inclusion in online news commenting. She found, among other things, that the Texas Tribune, which had the highest rate of female participation of the sites she studied, credited several specific tactics. She also found promise in the Orange County Register’s “concerted public attempt to tackle incivility in commenting,” which correlates with the second-highest female participation of those studied. (See also her summary of her research in the Guardian.)

This idea of innovation was one of the five “movement priorities” of the 2010 Strategic Plan for Wikimedia. And yet, even though gender imbalance is one of the greatest areas of concern in the Wikimedia movement, there has been no dedicated effort along the lines of what the Texas Tribune has done, and only cursory efforts to study the various discussion venues in the Wikimedia landscape analogous to Martin’s research.

Terms like “experiment” and “innovation” are popular these days; the benefits of each are readily apparent. But it’s important to keep in mind that experiment is a term from science, and it means more than just “trying stuff out.” Continue reading

Posted in Administrator, core, gender, governance, wiki, Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia | Tagged | 6 Comments