The Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) is inviting commentary on how to recognize and encourage informal leadership in the volunteer community. (The consultation runs from September 20 through October 16, 2016.) This is a welcome initiative; the Wikimedia movement has not done well, over the years, at capturing stories of volunteers who successfully focus attention on important areas, and who do good work building consensus and forging and executing plans.
There are exceptions. The announcement linked above hails achievements by Liam Wyatt and Vassia Atanassova; and the WMF has consistently highlighted successful volunteer-driven projects on its blog and elsewhere. Still, many who have taken on big challenges and risks to advance our shared values and vision go unheralded.
Below, I consider an important 2011 initiative and conflict, known informally as ACTRIAL (short for “Article Creation Trial”). I learned of it many months after it took place; I had to jump through jargon-filled discussions in multiple venues before I began to understand what had happened. It’s an important story, though. In recent years, WMF staff have often asserted that Wikipedia’s volunteers are “change averse,” and incapable of generating or agreeing on new ideas. But the characterization is neither fair nor accurate, and is typically asserted out of mere political convenience.
ACTRIAL, however, provides a clear and valuable counterexample, in which Wikipedians self-organized to advocate for change, and WMF staff blocked the effort. This post highlights an important piece of Wikimedia history, and offers a little recognition to unsung heroes.
The Blade of the Northern Lights, a Wikipedia volunteer, wanted to address a persistent problem that irks many regular Wikipedians: brand new Wikipedia volunteers who write articles that are far from meeting Wikipedia’s content standards.
The Blade proposed that the creation of new articles be restricted to users with a bit of experience (“autoconfirmed”: 4 days, 10 edits), and then guided more than 500 English Wikipedia volunteers in considering and ultimately approving the proposal.
ACTRIAL was designed as a six-month experiment rather than a definitive policy change. That point is an important one; the WMF often encourages volunteers and affiliate organizations to test hypotheses before making long-term commitments. Volunteer Rich Farmbrough, in spite of his skepticism about the proposed change, praised ACTRIAL’s design as an experiment in 2014, and explained the significance:
I am against preventing article creation by IPs let alone non-autoconfirmed users. But this trial might well have provided compelling evidence one way or the other.
Once the English Wikipedia community had agreed to move forward with ACTRIAL, Scottywong, another Wikipedia volunteer, formally requested a necessary technical change. In a haphazard discussion driven by WMF staffers, the request was denied. Apparently ignoring the extensive deliberation that had involved hundreds of volunteers, one WMF employee stated: “this entire idea doesn’t appear to have been thought through.” Several seemed to agree that the proposal was at odds with the strategic goal of improving editor retention, though no clear argument supporting that position was advanced.
To date, the WMF has not explained this extraordinary rejection of a good-faith, volunteer-driven initiative. The closest approximation to an explanation was a mailing list discussion in 2014. In that discussion, then-WMF staffer Philippe Beaudette asserted that the WMF had ultimately solved the underlying problem in another way:
What I remember was that a pretty good number (~500) of [English Wikipedia] community members came together and agreed on a problem, and one plan for how to fix it and asked the WMF to implement it. The WMF evaluated it, and saw a threat to a basic project value. WMF then asked “what’s the problem you’re actually trying to solve?”, and proposed and built a set of tools to directly address that problem without compromising the core value of openness. And it seems to have worked out pretty well because I haven’t heard a ton of complaints about that problem since.
However, Beaudette’s statement had several problems (edited: see note below):
- If there was indeed an evaluation, it was never made public.
- While several individuals argued that a “basic project value” was at risk, no decisive case was made, nor any formal conclusion presented. Others disagreed, and the matter was never resolved decisively.
- If the WMF had asked “what’s the problem you’re actually trying to solve?”, the question was not (as far as I can tell) posed in a public venue.
- It’s unclear what “set of tools” were developed; but regardless of what that was referring to, any claim that it “worked out pretty well” should have been evaluated by a more robust process than listening for complaints. As volunteer Todd Allen said: “You haven’t heard more complaints, because the complaint was pointless the first time and took a massive effort to produce.”
When I requested clarification, Beaudette did not respond; but James Alexander, another WMF staff member, did step in. Alexander speculated that the software inspired by ACTRIAL was the Page Curation tool. He may have been correct, but no other staff member confirmed it in that email thread; and neither the page on Page Curation nor its parent page on the Article Creation Workflow make any mention of the discussion of the 500+ volunteers that may or may not have have inspired them.
The sequence of events around ACTRIAL has not been publicly documented by the Foundation – and accordingly, five years later, the leadership shown by the volunteers who guided the discussion remains unrecognized. The initial reactions of WMF staff, therefore, loom large in volunteers’ memory. As Rich Farmbrough opined: “The dismissal as a ‘we know better’ was a bad thing.”
Now that the Foundation seeks to explore stories of leadership in the Wikimedia movement, it would do well to look into the story of The Blade of the Northern Lights and Scottywong. These two played important roles in guiding the English Wikipedia community to define a problem, and to map out a viable (if unimplemented) way to explore a solution. Moreover, if any Wikimedia Foundation staff worked with the volunteer community to make something worthwhile out of those deliberations, their leadership merits recognition as well.
Note: This blog post does not cover the role of Erik Moeller, then the Deputy Director of the WMF. He made a couple of substantive comments in the discussion. Some of them speak to Beaudette’s points, and the extent to which the WMF engaged with the problem surfaced in the volunteer community. I will update this post or follow it up with more detail when I have time. -Pete