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.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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