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.


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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