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.” As Rebecca Petzel argued in a blog post last week (Boldly going where no one has gone before), the important part of an effort to innovate is its “scientific heart.” She highlights three important components of an experiment:

Clear goals (find ways to overcome said challenge, learn something new about x), Clear assumptions about how to achieve those goals (a hypothesis, an idea, etc.), and a process to test those assumptions rapidly, collecting feedback to see how much closer we’ve moved to our goal.

This is the culture the 2010 strategic plan called for; and the Wikimedia Foundation has taken important steps in that direction, such as  establishing a framework for researchers investigating Wikipedia, and running the recent “Inspire” campaign to surface innovative ideas to take on the gender gap. And yet, Wikimedia’s discussion fora — including  chat rooms on IRC, email lists, and a variety of discussion pages on Wikipedia and related sites — are as “rough and tumble” as ever. The things that Texas Tribune editorial administrator John Jordan did to reform an “awful space, full of free range trolls” do not sound complicated; perhaps the credit he deserves is less as an “innovator,” than as a relentless, dedicated, empathetic community manager, who presumably tracks his progress, and is presumably accountable for the outcomes in some way. His big “innovations?” He “patrolled it like a street cop with a stick and when regulars complained about being banned he would explain how they needed to behave.” And, the site used Facebook’s “like” feature, but changed the word to “respect.”

Such interventions are, of course, difficult to graft onto Wikipedia’s processes, since there is an ingrained culture that tends to resist efforts to “manage” discussion and deliberation. But difficult is not the same as impossible. Two Wikimedia email lists I view from time to time — the general Wikimedia-L list and the Gender Gap list — do involve moderation; but neither has clear lines of accountability for moderators. If there have been efforts to undertake experimental approaches with moderation of email lists, chat rooms, or other discussion venues, they have not been widely publicized.

Why haven’t such processes been tried more deliberately? Simple: the Wikimedia Foundation explicitly views itself as a technical entity akin to Google or Microsoft, at the expense of putting expertise in social dynamics as a central, defining aspect of the organization. The organization is not led by people interested in exploring the social interventions between “difficult” and “impossible”, but rather the technical interventions in that space.

But social dynamics have always been at the core of Wikipedia and Wikimedia. Social dynamics are what differentiate it from all other major web sites. The longer this basic fact goes neglected by the leaders of the Wikimedia Foundation, the more the organization will miss opportunities to maximize Wikipedia’s potential.

Wikimedians should keep this in mind as they vote for members of the Board of Trustees next month.

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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