On May 1, the Wikimedia Foundation named a successor to Sue Gardner as executive director: Lila Tretikov, a “Russian-born technologist specialising in enterprise software”, as her newly-minted Wikipedia article begins. This followed a search that lasted more than a year, since Gardner announced her intention to move on in March 2013. What followed was a sigh of relief, at least at first.
Tretikov comes to the foundation from SugarCRM, a would-be competitor to Salesforce, where she’s held CIO and VP positions. She started her career as an engineer at Sun Microsystems, holds several patents, previously founded a company, is photogenic and just 36 years old. Not a bad resume at all. And her statement released to Re/code hit the right notes:
When I got the news, I thought, ‘This is big in every way: A big website — the fifth most popular in the world. A big community — 80,000 active Wikimedians from around the globe. And a big mission — nothing less than making the sum of all human knowledge freely available to all.’
It quotes Jimmy Wales’ most famous line, Wikipedia’s easiest to remember data point, and it cheerily overestimates the effective participation rate (in the latest official figures, the number of very active Wikipedians on the most active project, the English Wikipedia, dipped below 3,000 for the first time in nine years). [Edit: Lila’s figures are accurate for “active editors”; fair enough, although, pace Vilfredo Pareto, I would argue “very active” editors have far more impact than “active” editors.]
But the slow erosion of Wikipedia’s user base is just one reason why Wikipedians are apprehensive about their future and how the Foundation’s new leader fits into it. To get my Walter Winchell on, for one thing, word is that Tretikov’s appointment did not come out of the official executive search process. Although the firm Wikimedia retained, m/Oppenheim, proudly joined in the announcement fun earlier this month, do note that it doesn’t actually take credit for it. Apparently the Board was unhappy with the results, tapped their own personal networks instead, and Tretikov came out of Gardner’s own rolodex. [Edit: I’ve now been told that she came in from another referral, not Sue, serves me right I suppose.] All of which at least underscores how difficult the search proved to be.
Meanwhile, Tretikov arrives with a solid resume in open source projects, but exactly zero with the open-source project that matters most: Wikipedia. This lack of experience was not exactly unexpected—the Foundation purposefully, and smartly, wanted a new leader from outside the movement—but it made people awfully anxious to hear from her.
Instead, they heard from someone else first.
That someone is a Bay Area PHP programmer named Wil Sinclair, also Tretikov’s partner (“boyfriend” in flyover country-speak). Most notoriously (at least in the beginning) about a week to go before she officially took the helm, Sinclair took it upon himself to join Wikipediocracy, a website dedicated to criticism of Wikipedia, both responsible and otherwise. It’s a website that many Wikipedians loathe, although some grudgingly respect, and where a few even actively participate. Getting involved there requires a certain degree of care. And while Sinclair comes across as bright, articulate and polite in his postings, to a veteran observer he also comes across a bit clueless. It’s like entering a snake pit with only a textbook familiarity with the concept of a snakebite.
This didn’t sit well with many longtime Wikipedians and community observers, especially those who participate in wikimedia-l, a public mailing list also dedicated to Wikipedia discussion. Unlike Wikipediocracy, it’s hosted on a Wikimedia website, although it is likewise open to participation and is not infrequently the site of drama itself. Various “dramuh” from the week concluding:
- Wil Sinclair and conversation about him completely dominated the email list for several days, initially regarding the propriety of his Wikipediocracy participation, but eventually moving on to other subjects, with several editors advising Wil in strong but even terms that he was setting himself up for trouble. After being advised he was well in excess of posting volume norms, of course he kept right on going.
- Behind the scenes, much of the discussion focused on whether this would negatively impact the beginning of Lila’s tenure. Sometimes it wasn’t entirely behind the scenes… one veteran editor accidentally sent a private email to the whole list, comparing the chaos to an episode of The West Wing and suggesting Tretikov was an “amateur” ostensibly unfit to run the Foundation.
- Pressing on, Sinclair raised questions about how some content on Wikimedia Commons is inappropriate for children and how some editors feel harassed by others, as if no one was aware of or willing to discuss these things, even though they are among the most frequently cited issues on Wikimedia projects, as was quickly pointed out.
- He was also called out for once offering unguarded praise of Wikipedia’s least liked, most persistent critic—many would say troll—Greg Kohs, naturally a Wikipediocracy mainstay. Wil confirmed he’d said it and meant it, and if you can’t imagine how poorly this was received, then you don’t know a thing about Wikipedia. Obviously, this includes Wil Sinclair.
- Eventually Wil decided the community should vote on whether he should stay or go, and started a thread dedicated to the topic. It was short-lived, however, as he later posted a simple statement that he would in fact cease communications on the list. It stands to reason Lila finally told him to can it, although I don’t have any way of knowing this for sure. [Edit: And in the comments here, Wil says she did not.]
- In the midst of it all, Lila Tretikov finally made her first unofficial public communication to the Wikimedia community in the form of a message disclaiming any responsibility for Wil’s activity and promising: “I make my decisions using my own professional judgement in conjunction with input from the community and staff. I don’t consult Wil on these matters, ask him to do anything on my behalf or monitor his engagements with the community.” Later, after Wil stood down, she started a new thread announcing she had made her first-ever edits to Wikipedia, and wanted to hear from others newbies about their editing experiences. Sort of nothingburger of a project, but at least it might start to bring things back on-topic.
So, that may or may not be a good summary of events, but it’s already pushing the limits of how much space this whole thing really deserves. Lila Tretikov takes over the Wikimedia Foundation beginning June 1, and one hopes the next time we’re talking about her, we’re talking about her.
Update: Be sure to check the comments, where Wikipedia statistician Erik Zachte points out that Lila’s figures for “active” editors is correct (I’ve amended the post above to clarify my view) and where none other than Wil Sinclair offers some corrections and clarifying information, which readers of this post should see for full context.