William Beutler on Wikipedia

Meet Lila Tretikov, Wikimedia’s New Leader… and Her Uninvited Plus-One

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on May 30, 2014 at 11:58 am by William Beutler

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.]

Lila TretikovBut 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.

  1. Hi, your link is about *very* active editors (100+ edits a month). Lila mentions active editors (5+ edits a month). And to be precise: she talks about Wikimedians, not Wikipedians. Based on this table http://stats.wikimedia.org/EN/TablesWikimediaAllProjects.htm she actually is spot on.

  2. Great blog post, but there are a few inaccuracies here:

    * Lila didn’t know Sue before she entered the interview process. I was under the impression that m/Oppenheimer did reach out to Lila, but I don’t know for sure.
    * I brought up the issue of Child Protection Policy before we began to discuss my participating in Wikipediocracy. I consider the content and users on Commons part of that subject, although I did ask a few follow-up questions once it had been suggested that I didn’t have enough experience.
    * I believe wholeheartedly in what I said about Greg.
    * I didn’t ask the community to vote on my “going.” The proposal to block me was already under discussion, so I simply started a thread with an accurate title.
    * Lila didn’t ask me to “can it.” She didn’t ask me to stop at all, in fact.
    * You seem to have missed the part in which some people on the list were suggesting I created an “unsafe” environment. I didn’t feel comfortable posting to the list after that, so I unsubscribed.
    * You can talk all you want about Lila already, and so can everyone else, for that matter.

    Best.
    ,Wil

  3. Ah, I forgot one thing: I was warmly invited to take part in the community by everyone I talked to before the discussion on this list. Honestly, now I don’t know whether I’m welcome or not, but I haven’t done anything wrong, so I’ll keep participating anyways. :)

    ,Wil

  4. Thanks for the clarifying comments, Erik and Wil. I’ve made some further annotations to the post and added a short update to the end.

  5. I’m not sure that I would describe Wil as mentally ill (I’m no psychiatrist), but his conduct was clearly inappropriate and totally undermined Lila. I can only imagine what would happen to me if I went to my wife’s workplace and started telling the rest of the staff they were doing it wrong and screaming that I was being censored as Security were gently trying to shove me out the door.

  6. I can’t believe I’m reading comments like this here? Declaring the man mentally ill, and on a level with Elliot Rodgers?? Good grief already. Were these posted on Wikipedia, I can assure you they would have been removed as being potentially libelous.

    Even if there’s any grain of truth to these ‘diagnoses’ (disclaimers are useless), posting speculation like this in public is not okay. It’s a smear on the man’s name.

  7. The comments above, while superficially “civil”, are, frankly, vile and say most about the Wikimedians (?) making them. I’m slightly surprised they are allowed to stand here.

    The Wikimedia movement describes itself as an “open community” that relies on attracting and welcoming volunteers. Comparing that movement’s mailing list, which is open to all, to a brick-and-mortar workplace with security guards (!) is very strange indeed. If some true colours are being shown here, they are none too flattering.

  8. William, have you lost your mind?

    “While it would be unethical to diagnose anyone online”, and you proceeded to do so.

  9. Hi Alison and Andreas. I don’t really have a firm site policy on comments—I don’t get that many—and so I didn’t think deeply about them. However, upon reflection I agree, and have hidden them from view.

    Eric, you’re referring to an anonymous “William K” whose comment I’ve now hidden; that certainly isn’t anything I would say.

  10. I think Eric was talking about William K., somehow. And yes, thank you for doing the right thing and removing those comments. They were a pretty nasty attack upon the guy.

  11. I am diagnosed with a mental condition. I have moderate-to-severe ADHD + the most common co-morbidities. I say that loud and proud; some of the things I like best about myself are ADHD-related. And, since I’ve gotten the diagnosis and I’m treating it, I get the best of both worlds.

    I didn’t see the comment that was deleted. It doubt it would bother me, however. If you think it might help me understand more about Wikipedia, feel free to forward it to me at wllm@wllm.com.

    People don’t know me yet; they’ll be much more comfortable with me- although I can’t guarantee they’ll like me- with time. AFAICT, the Wikipediocrats are getting there faster, because I have spent more time on their forums than on-wiki. That’s changing quickly, however.

    Thanks for getting your take on it heard and correcting the small bits, although PHP programming isn’t really what I do professionally. I think this is a pretty good post, aside from some relatively minor false assumptions.
    ,Wil

  12. Oh, this is worrying. Especially after an incident in Silicon Valley recently at Github where a spouse of a founder was coming into the office and giving employees unwanted advice. Eventually, the founder stepped down and the spouse was no longer welcome at the company.

    I’m not saying that this is what will happen here but it’s not a good start. Some of the most heavily criticized editors on Wikipediocracy are exactly the ones who do most of the thankless admin tasks which make them targets of editors unhappy with their actions. I’m not saying that there aren’t some valid criticisms raised at WO but it seems like it’s similar to learning about drinking alcohol by going to an AA meeting instead of becoming a bartender. Of course, one will be hearing all about what is wrong with WP and nothing about what it has contributed. By it’s own self-identification, it is biased against WP.

    It’s natural to think that a spouse/partner will influence their significant other and right now, Wil is a newbie and knows nothing about the 13 year history of the development of Wikipedia, its highs and lows, what has been tried and worked (or failed), how contentious it has been to set necessary working boundaries. I have immersed myself in Wikipedia over the past year, reading most of the old ARBCOM cases, going into noticeboard archives, asking a ton of questions and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

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