Superprotect removed: A milestone, and what it means

Wikimedia Executive Director Lila Tretikov and Trustee Jimmy Wales presented yesterday on the strategic direction for the organization. Screenshot from video licensed CC BY-SA, Wikimedia Foundation.

Wikimedia Executive Director Lila Tretikov and Trustee Jimmy Wales presented yesterday on the strategic direction for the organization. Screenshot from video licensed CC BY-SA, Wikimedia Foundation.

Yesterday the Superprotect user right, which I have long opposed, was removed from Wikimedia’s servers. In announcing the removal, the Wikimedia Foundation characterized Superprotect  — accurately and appropriately, I would say — as having “set up a precedent of mistrust” among Wikimedia volunteers and Foundation personnel.

This action is striking and significant. The written announcement says it resolves “a symbolic point of tension,” and sets the stage for addressing underlying problems.

While this is unequivocally good news — and the reception in the Wikimedia-L  and Wiki Tech email lists has been unanimously positive — there are two notable aspects to the announcement, which may provide insight into the underlying issues referenced.

Here is Executive Director Lila Tretikov’s statement. (I emphasize the parts relevant to my commentary below):

We wanted to remove Superprotect. Superprotect set up a precedent of mistrust, and this is something it was really important for us to remove, to at least come back to the baseline of a relationship where we’re working together, we’re one community, to create a better process. To make sure we can move together faster, and to make sure everybody is part of that process, everybody is part of that conversation, and not just us at the Wikimedia Foundation.
(from the monthly Metrics & Activities meeting; video footage)

Two notable things revealed in this announcement:

1. The simple solution to a “really important” problem took a very long time

Once again, the news is good. But the costs of Superprotect were tremendous. Most strikingly, in a New York Times op-ed column, Wikipedia expert Andrew Lih attributed the losing campaigns of the only three popularly-elected Wikimedia Trustees last summer to Superprotect.

And the benefits of Superprotect were nonexistent.

Even so, from August 2014 until November 2015, Foundation leadership was conspicuously silent on the removal of Superprotect. It made no formal statement even after receiving a letter requesting that it be disabled, signed by 1,000 people (which I wrote). The closest thing to a formal statement — a series of comments in August 2014 from Wikipedia founder and Wikimedia trustee Jimmy Wales — falsely (and oddly) claimed that Superprotect was removed at that time.

It’s possible this will be the first and last formal statement from the organization about the removal of Superprotect; so we may never know for sure why a “really important” and really simple action took a more than a year to implement. My best guess is that the whole thing is regarded as an embarrassment, and that the removal came about only when it finally became clear that ignoring the issue and declining to use the feature wouldn’t make the acrimony go away.

It might or might not be significant that the announcement came a day before a quarterly Board meeting — the second attended by the three Trustees who won on platforms that were critical of Superprotect. I have heard from a number of staff that internal discussions about Superprotect have been intense and ongoing, so it’s probably safe to assume that the organization has undergone some valuable growth behind the scenes.

2. Foundation leadership (still) gets the power dynamics backwards

The final phrase in Tretikov’s announcement, above, repeats a fundamental misunderstanding of the Foundation’s mandate (which I have called out before): she aims to ensure that “everybody is [included in decision-making], and not just us at the Wikimedia Foundation.” The phrasing evokes the words of former Board chair Jan-Bart de Vreede, whose justification for the initial launch of Superprotect included the following:

I hope that all of you will be a part of this next step in our evolution. But I understand that if you decide to take a wiki-break, that might be the way things have to be. Even so, you have to let the Foundation do its work and allow us all to take that next step when needed.

While the Foundation undeniably has — and should have — the ability to make certain decisions unilaterally, the Wikimedia Foundation would not exist — and would not have the ability to raise more than $60 million a year in individual donations — if not for the efforts of hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Those volunteers are making decisions every day, about how to collaboratively assemble the world’s knowledge. The volunteer community makes so many decisions, in so many venues and in so many languages, that the Foundation (and, truly, everyone) has difficulty even keeping track of them all, much less participating in them.

The bottom line is, the Wikimedia Foundation must continually prove its own worthiness to participate in a much bigger culture of decision-making. This is something all of us who want to contribute to the Wikimedia ecosystem must do; every individual Wikipedian, and every organization that aims to participate in our shared vision. (Including, of course, me and Wiki Strategies.)

The Wikimedia Foundation does indeed have some special responsibilities, and there are some special privileges that should go along with them. Those privileges include the ability to take unilateral action in a variety of (insufficiently defined) areas. But the conceptual slip from “entity with special responsibilities” to “entity which dictates who gets to participate and how” is a bad one, and one Foundation leadership has made too often.

Focusing on the relatively small decisions about launching software features (which is what prompted Superprotect to begin with) misses the bigger picture by a mile. The bigger point: the Wikimedia world exists only by virtue of the collective efforts of hundreds of thousands of volunteers, and could not exist in a recognizable form without it. Any organization that aims to support the Wikimedia vision loses sight of that reality at its own peril, and with inherent risks to the ecosystem around it.

Note: Final three paragraphs were expanded and edited a few hours after initial publication. -PF

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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