On Tuesday, this blog published the first half of our annual roundup of the biggest Wikipedia events over the past 12 months. In that post, we covered the untimely passing of Aaron Swartz, the launch of Wikivoyage, the rise of Wikipediocracy, battles at Wikimedia Commons, and problems that have followed Wikipedia’s impressive fundraising. Today we finish the job:
5. Basically ArbCom will never get its act together
Fair warning: I am not an ArbCom insider, I rarely follow its various dramas, and so I am not going to even going to attempt a satisfactory summary of everything that happened with ArbCom this past year. But let’s start with some background: ArbCom is short for Arbitration Committee, a group which I’ve just discovered has its own Wikipedia article. It’s an elected volunteer panel of (generally) respected Wikipedians who weigh in on tough issues and make binding decisions. The comparison to a national Supreme Court is glib but not entirely wrong, especially as they can (and often do) refuse to take certain cases, not to mention set precedents affecting future decisions.
The problem with ArbCom, if I can describe it generally, is that the organization has long been characterized by turnover and chaos. Nothing that happened this year was especially new, but that’s also part of the problem. Back when Wikipedia was just an experimental project, it was plausible enough that ArbCom’s dysfunction was something Wikipedia could grow out of. But the opposite has proved to be the case—as far as I can tell, no one thinks it’s ever getting better.
Two major incidents were big enough to merit rate a mention in episodes later in this post. Among others which didn’t, one more or less started off the tone for the year when, in March, an ArbCom veteran resigned his position while excoriating his fellow members for “stonewalling, filibustering, and downright ‘bullying’” when they weren’t “getting their way”. And then 2013 ended with another bang, as the top vote-getter in the latest ArbCom election, conducted just weeks ago, resigned his position after admitting to maintaining a secret account on—wait for it—Wikipediocracy.
4. Wikipedia has more than a gender problem…
It won’t take us too long to get back to ArbCom, but first let’s observe that Wikipedia is well known to have a “gender problem”; as The Wikipedian (and many more mainstream publications) have written extensively, Wikipedia’s editorship is overwhelmingly male, and it doesn’t cover certain topics (like women scientists, for example) very well. But this year an ugly row exposed what seems to be a more localized but still serious problem with transgender issues.
In August, Private Bradley Manning was convicted under the Espionage Act, and subsequently announced a public transition from male to female and the intention to be known as Chelsea Manning. (As I’ve written before, Manning’s transgender status was known, but until this point unconfirmed by Manning herself.) Wikipedia is generally considered a more progressive community than most, and references on Wikipedia were changed more quickly than at most news organizations. In fact, some of those same mainstream news publications praised Wikipedia for being quick to act. As it turned out, they should have been slower to praise.
The move was challenged, and the article was even changed back to Bradley, where it stayed as the debate heated up. Some objections were made in good faith and based on interpretations of guidelines, but some people were just being assholes. And then some of some of Chelsea Manning’s defenders crossed the line as well, and of course it ended up at ArbCom, which could seem to make no one happy in its various conclusions. First, ArbCom decided that yes, “Chelsea Manning” would indeed be the article’s name going forward. But among the punishments handed out, a pro-Chelsea editor was banned over an issue many considered a technicality—specifically for writing this blog post. During the fracas, the media was still watching, and some of the headings stung. Indeed, a newspaper may be slower to change, but when it makes a decision, it usually sticks with it.
3. What happens when the COI guideline is contested in court?
Some of the problems involving the Wikipedia community have to do with the unusual compensation-based class system that has evolved around its community and “conflict of interest” rules. The more important Wikipedia has become, the more reputational impact it has shown to have, and the more it has been seen as both an opportunity and problem for celebrities, semi-public figures, professionals, companies, brands, bands, campaigns and non-profits. Since this first became an issue in 2006, Wikipedia has never quite figured out what to do about it. At the risk of oversimplifying things, mostly it has done nothing.
This year the worst nightmare of many came true when it turned out that a little-known but ever-expanding investigation into a network of secretly connected “sock puppet” user accounts traced back to an obscure but apparently quite successful startup called Wiki-PR. The name was familiar to some Wikipedians, but no definitive link had been established between the company and these accounts, owing something to the community’s (inconsistently applied) hang-ups about identifying editors’ public identities.
The revelation prompted the Wikimedia Foundation to issue a strongly-worded cease-and-desist letter to the company, although the impact was blunted when it emerged that someone from the Foundation’s own law firm had once anonymously edited the company’s article, violating the same rules it was supposedly defending. One can almost start to understand why the issue has been allowed to slide for so long.
Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s volunteer community banned the company’s known accounts, and then Arbcom angered some editors when it ordered one of the volunteer investigators to back off for reasons it said it couldn’t explain. Legal action from the Wikimedia Foundation is still possible, which could put the Foundation on an uncertain path just as its longtime leader is about to leave (see next).
2. Sue Gardner’s departure and the uncertain new era
Sue Gardner is not exactly the only leader Wikipedia has ever known. After all, Jimmy Wales is still its most widely-recognized figure, and there was that guy who called the FBI on them, once, too. But Sue Gardner is (with one interim exception) the only executive director the Wikimedia Foundation has ever known.
In 2007 she left a position running the CBC’s web operations in Toronto to join the Wikimedia Foundation. By the end of that year she was in charge of the whole thing, at a time of significant growth and staff turmoil (does anyone remember Danny Wool? Carolyn Doran? no?). In the years since, it has grown considerably more (150+ staffers now vs. a handful at the beginning), and she has led the Foundation about as well as anyone could be imagined to do. Now she’s announced that she is leaving on an as-yet-unspecified date to pursue as-yet-unspecified plans. An decision about her replacement is expected by March 2014, though a presumptive favorite hasn’t publicly emerged.
Whomever gets the job in the end has a very difficult task ahead. In fact, asking how much the leader of this San Francisco non-profit is really in control of Wikipedia is really asking the wrong question. The executive director leads the Foundation’s staff, but that’s entirely different than saying she leads the Wikipedia community. Which, as a matter of fact, brings us to the biggest Wikipedia story of 2013…
1. The Visual Editor debacle is also a potent metaphor for Wikipedia’s chief organizational dilemma
To conclude the thought above: the Wikipedia community does not always agree with the Wikimedia Foundation. Some Foundation initiatives have been met with a indifference at best (see last year’s #9, which is arguably the real predecessor entry to this one). Others have been rejected like antibodies to a transplanted organ.
Into this latter category falls the Visual Editor, a long-in-development software initiative which was rolled out this summer to mixed reviews (hey, I thought it was fun) followed by a backlash that grew and grew until a volunteer editor’s uncontested edit of the source code summarily immobilized the whole expensive project.
Maybe I’m overdoing it to place this at number one. Maybe the underlying issue is less than the existential struggle between those two classes of community members than I think; perhaps the issue was simply one of a botched deployment and avoidable toe-stepping that only temporarily poisoned the well.
But I believe no single event in the past year encapsulated the biggest challenge facing Wikipedia today: it seems no better able to organize itself now than when it was a freewheeling experiment stumbling into greater and greater success in its first seven years of its life. Seven years further on, Wikipedia is a different kind of community, one struggling to cope with its fantastic success, but which hasn’t yet learned to adapt.
Whether the Visual Editor itself ever finds its way into everyday usage—and I think it will, after a long “eventually”—it spotlights Wikipedia’s most critical challenges more than any other story, and that’s why it’s the most important Wikipedia story of 2013.
Photo credits: U.S. Army, Chelsea Manning, Wikimedia Foundation.