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

Opportunity knocks to rebuild Wikimedia Foundation board

Next month, Wikipedia writers and editors around the world will elect three of the 10 members of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Elections occur on a regular cycle. But in 2015, Wikipedia and the various Wikimedia projects are at a critical juncture. This year, the chance to bring new voices to the fore in the Foundation’s central body is especially momentous.

Wikimedia Foundation building a wiki wall in August 2014. Cartoon CC BY-SA, Don-kun.

Wikimedia Foundation building a wiki wall in August 2014. Cartoon CC BY-SA, Don-kun.

With three seats up for grabs, the board could emerge from the election a very different entity. The relationship between the foundation and the volunteer base suffers from chronic dysfunction. The events new executive director Lila Tretikov’s first year (many are summarized here) haven’t revealed a voice of accountability for the organization; public communication is simply not among her many talents. She and the current board received a petition signed by 1,000 volunteers, but let it pass by without response. And so, the foundation’s hasty deployment of the chilling “superprotect” software feature (with which foundation staff can now wrest control of editorial or configuration decisions from the volunteers) remains in place, warts and all. Many months later, the foundation has yet to define the conditions under which it will or won’t use superprotect.

The board desperately needs a new approach. The foundation should operate from the premise that much of the wisdom about Wikipedia’s needs resides among the 100,000 volunteers who have made the site what it is today — a crowd whose demographics are often criticized, but are in many ways more diverse than the tech-heavy foundation staff. The foundation should rebuild on a bedrock of social sensibility, and cultivate expertise in governance and constructive deliberation. But that’s not the current agenda: the 35 new employees it plans to hire will be engineers.

If social dynamics and governance constitute the central challenge for the Foundation and the movement, what can be done? As the field of board candidates grows, hopefully some bold new plans will emerge. One or more fresh faces on the board could help turn the tide, potentially sparking an interest in governance practices in large, distributed online communities, and pointing the way toward changes that could decrease the toxicity of large-scale decisions.

Thus far, seven Wikimedians have declared their candidacy. A couple have mentioned governance as an issue of importance, but none of the candidate statements goes beyond a few general statements. Of course, it is early; candidates will have many opportunities to build a case, answer questions, and rally consensus around their visions for the future of the organization and of the movement. And, who knows how many candidates there will ultimately be: nominations are open until May 5.

Posted in core, governance, wiki, Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia | Tagged | 4 Comments

Writing your first Wikipedia article

Back in 2008, I wrote up instructions on the WikiProject Oregon blog:

Writing your first Wikipedia article

I just looked it over and — amazingly — I see very little that I’d change in 2015. The only things I can think of:

  • Consider using the Visual Editor (which you can enable in your user preferences) for starting a new article; this will make many technical tasks easier (such as linking other articles, formatting citations, or illustrating the article)
  • To create a draft in your user space (as suggested in the original), there is now a much easier shortcut to create the page — simply click the “Sandbox” link at the top of the screen.
  • If you take that approach, DO NOT submit the article by means of the big blue “Submit your draft for review!” button. Seriously! If you have created a decent article, you will only hurt your chances if you go down that path. Instead, just find the “Move page” link when you think it’s ready to publish, and give it a new title.

Experienced Wikipedians: any other updates on how to create your first article — in 2015? The process is still a pain in the neck, but — at least it’s pretty consistent!

Posted in Beginner how-to, wiki, Wikipedia, Wikipedia and education | 5 Comments

Philip Roth’s lingering stain on Wikipedia’s reputation

Novelist Philip Roth in 1973

Philip Roth was feeling irked.

Wikipedia’s writeup (as of 2012) of his bestselling novel, The Human Stain, was (he contended) inaccurate; and despite Roth’s efforts to correct it through private correspondence, Wikipedia’s cadre of volunteer editors wouldn’t budge. At issue: over the years, writers for the Journal of Higher Education, the New York Times, The Nation, and several other publications had speculated that the book’s main character, Coleman Silk, was based on a man named Anatole Broyard. But according to Roth, that was completely untrue. In his open letter to Wikipedia, Roth went so far as to describe an “alleged allegation” — suggesting, preposterously and incorrectly, that nobody had even alleged that Silk and Broyard were connected.

So yes — Roth had a problem.

But despite his protestations to the contrary — which have proven surprisingly tenacious in the news media’s ongoing effort to make sense of Wikipedia — his problem was not a Wikipedia problem. Continue reading

Posted in journalism, systemic bias, wiki, Wikipedia | Tagged | 7 Comments

Wikipedia and education: How to get started?

I am moderating a panel for the Hewlett Foundation’s Open Educational Resources grantees meeting (2015): The Power of Reuse: Wikipedia in Action

Three panelists will join me as we explore the connections between Wikipedia and education:

  • Jeannette Lee, a high school teacher who has her students engage with Wikipedia
  • Dr. Amin Azzam, a medical school instructor whose students write high quality Wikipedia articles
  • Dan Cook, a journalist with expertise in the editorial processes of both journalism and Wikipedia

This blog post will collect points raised in the session; please visit again for updates, or add to the comments below.

Here are links to a guide to getting started with Wikipedia (available under the CC BY 4.0 license; attribution, Wiki Strategies):


Posted in Beginner how-to, Communicate OER, edit-a-thon, How-to, wiki, Wikipedia and education | Tagged | Leave a comment

Wikipedia program for Oregon universities

I left Oregon in 2009 to design a university outreach program for the Wikimedia Foundation. It was my first opportunity to put my knowledge of the inner workings of English language Wikipedia to use on a large scale. A couple years later, the $1.3 million pilot project I designed had introduced more than 800 students in 47 classes to the process of contributing to Wikipedia, and guided them in generating 5,800 pages of content.

LiAnna Davis presenting at WikiConference USA 2014. Photo by Frank Schulenburg, CC-0 (no copyright restrictions)

LiAnna Davis presenting at WikiConference USA 2014. Photo by Frank Schulenburg, CC-0 (no copyright restrictions)

Tomorrow morning, the fruits of that labor will come home to Oregon, when my colleague LiAnna Davis — a native of McMinnville, and now Director of Programs for the Wiki Education Foundation — presents at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University on the benefits of using Wikipedia as a teaching tool. Continue reading

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