William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Board of Trustees’

Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov

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on February 19, 2016 at 11:00 am

The Wikimedia Foundation is in open revolt. While the day-to-day volunteer efforts of editing Wikipedia pages continue as ever, the non-profit Foundation, or WMF, is in the midst of a crisis it’s never seen before. In recent weeks, WMF staff departures have accelerated. And within just the past 48 hours, employees have begun speaking openly on the web about their lack of confidence in the leadership of its executive director, Lila Tretikov.

knowledge-engine-rocket

All in all, it’s been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad start to 2016. Controversy in the first weeks of the year focused on the unexplained dismissal from the WMF Board of Trustees of James Heilman, a popular representative of Wikipedia’s volunteer base, before shifting to the unpopular appointment to the WMF Board of Arnnon Geshuri, whose involvement in an anti-competitive scheme as a Google executive led him to resign the position amidst outcry from the staff and community.[1]The denouement of Geshuri’s time at WMF might have been a great post of its own, but I didn’t get to it, and, as usual, Signpost has you covered.

But other issues remained unresolved: WMF employee dissatisfaction with Tretikov was becoming better known beyond the walls of its San Francisco headquarters, while questions mounted about the origin, status and intent of a little-known initiative officially called Discovery, but previously (and more notoriously) known as the “Knowledge Engine”. What was it all about? How do all these things tie together? What on Earth is going on here?

Deep breath.

The strange thing about the Knowledge Engine is that, until very recently, basically nobody knew anything about it—including the vast majority of WMF staff. Not until Heilman identified it as a central issue surrounding his departure from the Board had anyone outside the WMF staff ever heard of it—though in May 2015, a well-placed volunteer visiting HQ[2]specifically, User:Risker, a widely respected former member of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee observed that a team called “Search and Discovery” was “extraordinarily well-staffed with a disproportionate number of engineers at the same time as other areas seem to be wanting for them”. This despite the fact that, as we know now, the WMF had sought funding from the Knight Foundation of many millions of dollars, receiving just $250,000 in a grant not disclosed until months later. As recently as this month, a well-considered but still in-the-dark Wikipedia Signpost article asked: “So, what’s a knowledge engine anyway?”

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After several months of not knowing anything was amiss, followed by weeks of painful acrimony, we think we have the answer: as of February 2016 the mysterious project is in fact a WMF staff-run project to improve Wikipedia’s on-site search with some modest outside funding, which sounds like a good idea, sure, Wikipedia’s on-site search engine isn’t maybe the best, but we also know at some point it was an ambitious project to create a brand new search engine as an alternative to Google. Sometime in 2015 the WMF submitted a proposal to the Knight Foundation asking for a substantial amount of money to fund this project. It is described in still-emerging documents from this grant request as a “search engine”, and several early mock-ups seemed to suggest this was in fact the idea (click through for higher resolution):

Knowledge Engine mid

Why would Wikipedia consider building a search engine, anyway? The most likely answer is fear of being too dependent on Google, which sends Wikipedia at least a third of its total traffic. In recent years, Google has started providing answers to queries directly on the search engine results page (SERPs), often powered by Wikipedia, thereby short-circuiting visits to Wikipedia itself. Tretikov herself, in a rambly January 29 comment on her Meta-Wiki[3]a wiki devoted to, well, meta-topics regarding Wikimedia projects account page, identified “readership decline” as Wikipedia’s most recent challenge.[4]“Our aim was to begin exploring new initiatives that could help address the challenges that Wikipedia is facing, especially as other sources and methods arise for people to acquire knowledge. If you haven’t yet, please have a look at the recent data and metrics which illustrate the downward trajectory our movement faces with readership decline (since 2013), editor decline (since 2007, which we stabilized for English Wikipedia in 2015), and our long standing struggle with conversion from reading to editing. These risks rank very high on my list of priorities, because they threaten the very core of our mission.”

It’s an understandable position: if you are the leader of an organization whose success has been largely described in terms of its overall traffic,[5]#6 in the U.S., #7 worldwide any decline in traffic may be equated with a decline in Wikimedia’s ability to fulfill its mission. I submit this is short-sighted: that Wikipedia has an educational mission whose impact cannot be measured solely in terms of traffic. That Google borrows information from Wikipedia—though they are not alone in this—in such a way that it answers people’s questions before they have to actually click through to en.wikipedia.org is still a win for Wikipedia, even if it reduces the (already low) probability that a reader will become a Wikipedia contributor.[6]See this comment from WMF’s Dario Taraborelli, who argues: “[T]raffic per se is not the goal, the question should be about how to drive back human attention to the source”.

The logic is twisted, but you can follow it: most readers find Wikipedia through a search engine, so if the search engine that helped make Wikipedia the success it is today changes its mind and starts pointing elsewhere, better to get ahead of things and create a new alternative that people will use. I guess? If we accept this reasoning, we still have to confront questions like: Is this actually something the WMF can accomplish? Is this within the WMF’s scope? Is this something that will help Wikipedia accomplish its mission? These are much harder questions for WMF to answer—in part because the answers are “no”, “no”, and “no”—and would absolutely have to be shared with the Wikimedia Board of Trustees ahead of time and, for political reasons, socialized within the Wikipedia community itself. The incident surrounding Heilman’s departure suggests the former was an issue, and the ongoing furor is because the latter obviously did not occur.

Meanwhile, the extreme unwillingness of Lila Tretikov and even Jimmy Wales to talk about it is, in fact, tearing the Wikimedia Foundation apart. Tretikov has lost all remaining credibility with Wikimedia staff and close community observers, not that she had much to begin with. As this week comes to an end, more staffers are quitting, remaining ones are complaining in public, and it seems impossible to imagine Lila Tretikov remaining in charge much longer.

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If you’ve come to expect a detailed timeline of events from The Wikipedian, I am pleased to say you’ll find just what you’re looking for below, although I’m afraid this whole thing is too large and multifaceted to do proper justice within the space of this already very long post. A full accounting may go back[7]as James Heilman does in his own timeline of events to the mid-2000s, when Jimmy Wales harbored ambitions of building his own search engine—Wikiasari in 2006 and Wikia Search in 2008. It certainly would include a full accounting of the many high-profile WMF staffers to leave since late 2014, and the role Tretikov played in each. It would include a careful examination of what the WMF can and should do in Wikipedia’s name, and an evaluation of how the evolving app-focused Internet raises questions about Wikipedia’s own future.

I think that’s more than I can accomplish in this post.

Instead I want to focus on what’s happening this week. But first we have to fill in some of the blanks. To do so, you’ll want to wind back the clock a few weeks:

  • Let’s start on January 25, when Jimmy Wales called Heilman’s claims that transparency issues were at the core of his dismissal “utter fucking bullshit”. Jimmy Wales is known for occasionally lashing out at pestering editors on his Talk page, and this certainly seems to be one of those times.
  • Jimmy Wales, 2013

  • On January 29, Tretikov made her first public, community-facing statement about the Knight Foundation grant, which was welcomed for showing some self-reflection[8]“It was my mistake to not initiate this ideation on-wiki. Quite honestly, I really wish I could start this discussion over in a more collaborative way, knowing what I know today.” but also raised more questions than it answered.
  • On February 1 WMF developer Frances Hocutt stated[9]on Tretikov’s discussion page, no less that employees were being “censured for speaking in ways that I have found sharply critical but still fundamentally honest and civil”.
  • Don’t skip the aforementioned “So, what’s a knowledge engine anyway?” investigation by Andreas Kolbe for The Signpost, published February 8, still the most comprehensive evaluation of this multifaceted controversy.
  • We then jump ahead to February 11, when Wales was still doing his “Baghdad Bob” routine, publicly insisting to Wikipedia editors that any suggestion WMF had ever considered building a search engine was “a total lie”.[10]Full quote: “To make this very clear: no one in top positions has proposed or is proposing that WMF should get into the general “searching” or to try to “be google”. It’s an interesting hypothetical which has not been part of any serious strategy proposal, nor even discussed at the board level, nor proposed to the board by staff, nor a part of any grant, etc. It’s a total lie.”
  • Just hours later, WMF comms uploaded the Knight Foundation grant agreement itself to the WMF’s own wiki, confirming for the first time, in public, that WMF was describing the project as “the Internet’s first transparent search engine”. The Signpost has the most detailed breakdown not only of the grant agreement, but also three supplemental documents which were leaked to the Signpost but have not been made public at this time.
  • Also read this powerfully-argued blog post by Wikipedia veteran Liam Wyatt about the poor strategic decision-making that led to the current controversy.[11]“It seems to me extremely damaging that Lila has approached an external organisation for funding a new search engine (however you want to define it), without first having a strategic plan in place. Either the Board knew about this and didn’t see a problem, or they were incorrectly informed about the grant’s purpose. Either is very bad.”
  • You might then have a look at The Register, always snarky, but with a decent summary of where things stood last week, just before it became newsworthy. I definitely recommend this February 15 story by Vice’s Motherboard about the fiasco (and this follow-up)[12]Both of which quote yours truly, so take that into consideration. but skip this Newsweek story except to see how the media was, for a brief moment, cluelessly reporting that Wikipedia was taking on Google.[13]This story has since been corrected, albeit on an insignificant, unrelated point.
  • However incomplete, I think this upshot from The Verge is a good enough summary, at least for public purposes:
    • Whether Wikimedia’s plans just naturally evolved [away from the search engine project] or whether it was responding to the community’s response is difficult to say, but the organization is now, at least, claiming it does not want to square up to Google, but just improve its own product.

  • As all this was unfolding, the exodus of key WMF staff was accelerating. On February 8, Tretikov announced on Wikimedia-l that Luis Villa, head of the Community Engagement department and previously a member of the WMF’s legal team, would be leaving.
  • At least Tretikov seemed to be in control of that one. Because the next day Anna Koval, a manager of the education program, announced her own departure on the mailing list.
  • And then on Friday, February 12, a very big resignation letter dropped on the Wikimedia-l: that of Siko Bouterse, another veteran leader who had long provided a crucial link between the Wikipedia volunteer community and the professional WMF staff. Careful with her words, Bouterse wrote:
    • Transparency, integrity, community and free knowledge remain deeply important to me, and I believe I will be better placed to represent those values in a volunteer capacity at this time.

  • Messing up my timeline a bit, but still worth noting: Hocutt, the developer who had made public internal fears about silencing dissent, announced her own (albeit temporary) departure in yet another Wikimedia-l post on February 17, noting her leave was “due in part to stress caused by the recent uncertainty and organizational departures.”

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Finally, on February 16, Lila Tretikov published an open letter[14]Co-authored by Vice President of Product Wes Moran on the Wikimedia blog titled “Clarity on the future of Wikimedia search”. Alas, it wasn’t terribly clarifying: it seemed aimed at the clueless mainstream journalists like the one at Newsweek, and not at the Wikipedia community who knew which information gaps actually needed to be filled in. It began:

Over the past few weeks, the Wikimedia community has engaged in a discussion of the Wikimedia Foundation’s plans for search and discovery on the Wikimedia projects.

Lila_Tretikov_16_April_2014Well, that is certainly one way to put it! Put another way, you have been backed into a corner defending the untenable proposition that Wikipedia has never considered building a search engine, and now that the mainstream press is reporting, based on your own documents, that you are building a search engine, one certainly has to say something about it.

After much boilerplate about the growth of Wikipedia and its many achievements, Tretikov and Moran finally get around to the point:

What are we not doing? We’re not building a global crawler search engine. We’re not building another, separate Wikimedia project. … Despite headlines, we are not trying to compete with other platforms, including Google.

This seems to be true, insofar as there is no search project currently. However, Wales had previously locked himself into the position that there was never a search project originating from WMF, and by now we know that is obviously false. Without any acknowledgement in this letter, it is useless. But it’s worse than that:

Community feedback was planned as part of the Knowledge Engine grant, and is essential to identifying the opportunities for improvement in our existing search capacity.

We are 10 months past the initial plans for this far-reaching, mission statement-busting project, six months past the award of a grant to pursue this quixotic effort, and not two months removed from the violent ejection of a Board trustee over the matter… and all you can say is “feedback was planned”?

Finally, the closest thing to acknowledging the Knowledge Engine was, at some point, actually a search engine:

It is true that our path to this point has not always been smooth, especially through the ideation phase.

And nothing more.

The first comment on the post was brutal, bordering on uncivil, from a retired editor. It concluded:

You are either:
a. Flat out lying, and hoping we don’t actually read the grant,
b. Have misled the Knight Foundation as to your intentions for their grant money, or
c. Seriously incompetent and should never be put in charge of writing a grant application
None of these options look good for the WMF.

A few hours later, a member of WMF’s Discovery team gamely stepped forward and tried to offer a plausible explanation for how the grant request did not necessarily imply a Google-competitive search engine project—damage control, essentially—but still had to concede the wording of the grant did not make Tretikov or WMF look good: “It is ambiguous. I can’t speak to the intent of the authors and while there are current WMF staff listed, they are not the sole authors of the document.”

Finally, a day later, a true hero emerged in Max Semenik, another Discovery team engineer, mostly unknown to the community, and who was willing to take off his PR hat to say what everyone pretty much knew:

Yes, there were plans of making an internet search engine. I don’t understand why we’re still trying to avoid giving a direct answer about it. …

The whole project didn’t live long and was ditched soon after the Search team was created, after FY15/16 budget was finalized, and it did not have the money allocated for such work … However, ideas and wording from that search engine plan made their way to numerous discovery team documents and were never fully expelled. …

In the hindsight, I think our continued use of Knowledge Engine name is misleading and should have ended when internet search engine plans were ditched. No, we’re really not working on internet search engine.

Now that sounds like a real answer! What’s more, it also provides the outlines of a believable story as to why the Knight Foundation grant included language about the search engine, even if it wasn’t then the plan. This is transparency of a sort! But it’s transparency of the last-ditch kind. That it had to come from a low-level engineer indicates there is a major problem, and speaks to the fact that the WMF simply cannot go on this way.

At a time when Wikipedia has already-existing problems, the WMF was asking for money to basically create a whole new set of problems. That is the mark of an organization, if not a movement, adrift. Clearly, they pitched a search engine to Knight, and they asked for millions—I have heard the number placed at $100 million over 5 years—later reduced to $12 million, of which Knight provided $250K to build a plan—essentially a pat on the head: ‘since we like you, here’s a few bucks to come up with a better idea’.

knowledge-engineMysteries remain: where did the idea come from, who championed it, when did it die—or when did it recede and what happened afterward? One answer is supplied in another comment on this public thread (!) from yet another WMF team member (!) pointing a finger at former VP of Engineering Damon Sicore as having “secretly shopped around grandiose ideas about a free knowledge search engine, which eventually evolved into the reorg creating the Discovery team.” Sicore left in July 2015. A big remaining question, for which there is no answer at this time: when the actual grant was submitted to the Knight Foundation.

An argument I have heard in recent days is that it’s common in grant-making to try for everything you can and see what actually sticks. This may be true, but if so, it doesn’t seem to have been worth it. That WMF leadership felt they had to hide the fact later on also underlines the mistake they knew they were making.

Another big question: how does this affect Wikipedia’s public reputation, particularly among donors, most especially among foundations? You have to think the answer is a lot. The WMF looks like the Keystone Kops. Why would you give it money? And right now, the Knight Foundation specifically must be asking what it’s got itself into.

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Within the last 24 hours, the trickle of public criticism about Tretikov has become a widening stream. Some of it is taking place in the above comment thread, plenty is still happening at Wikimedia-l, but a lot of it has moved to a semi-private Facebook group called Wikipedia Weekly, where staffers previously not known for voicing internal dissent have been speaking quite frankly about how bad things are at 149 New Montgomery Street.[15]Example: “Dozens of staff formally warned the Board and Leadership months ago that this would happen. Sadly, we were right. But it was entirely predictable, and preventable.”

Yesterday afternoon on the mailing list, a developer named Ori Livneh replied to a plea for calm by community Board trustee Dariusz Jemielniak by explaining why they could not remain silent:

My peers in the Technology department work incredibly hard to provide value for readers and editors, and we have very good results to show for it. Less than two years ago it took an average of six seconds to save an edit to an article; it is about one second now. (MediaWiki deployments are currently halted over a 200-300ms regression!). Page load times improved by 30-40% in the past year, which earned us plaudits in the press and in professional circles. …

This is happening in spite of — not thanks to — dysfunction at the top. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is wait: an exodus of people from Engineering won’t be long now. Our initial astonishment at the Board’s unwillingness to acknowledge and address this dysfunction is wearing off. The slips and failures are not generalized and diffuse. They are local and specific, and their location has been indicated to you repeatedly.

Shortly thereafter Asaf Bartov—one of WMF’s more outspoken staffers, even prior to the last 48 hours—voiced his agreement and turned his comments back to Jemielniak:

Thank you, Ori. +1 to everything you said. We have been laboring under significant dysfunction for more than a year now, and are now in crisis. We are losing precious colleagues, time, money, *even more* community trust than we had previously squandered, and health (literally; the board HR committee has been sent some details). Please act. If for some reason the board cannot act, please state that reason. Signal to us, community and staff, by concrete words if not by deeds, that you understand the magnitude of the problem.

And then, about 10 minutes later, Lila Tretikov posted to this very conversation thread, and this is all she had to say:

For a few 2015 accomplishments by the product/technical teams you can see them listed here:

https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/2015_Wikimedia_Foundation_Product_and_Technology_Highlights

That is the complete text of her emailed post. That is really all she had to say, in a public thread specifically criticizing her leadership and all but explicitly calling for her removal. One gets the feeling, at this point, even Lila Tretikov just wants it to be over.

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In the early morning hours of February 19, a WMF software engineer named Kunal Mehta wrote an impassioned, rather forlorn post on his personal blog, titled: “Why am I still here?”:

Honestly, I don’t understand why the current leadership hasn’t left yet. Why would you want to work at a place where 93% of your employees don’t believe you’re doing a good job, and others have called you a liar (with proof to back it up) to your face, in front of the entire staff? I don’t know everything that’s going on right now, but we’re sick right now and desperately need to move on. …

I love, and will always love Wikimedia, but I can’t say the same about the current state of the Wikimedia Foundation. I’ve been around for nearly nine years now (nearly half my life), and it feels like that world is slowly crumbling away and I’m powerless to stop it.

240px-Wikimedia_Foundation_RGB_logo_with_textAnd that’s why there is really just no way Lila Tretikov can continue to lead the WMF. A week ago, the thinking was: the Board of Trustees chose her over James Heilman, so they’re really sticking with her. At the time it also seemed like the Knowledge Engine was a going concern, and their support for her owed to their insistence on moving ahead with the project above community and staff objections. Knowing what we do now, it’s inexplicable. The thinking now is: she obviously has to go, and the only reason the Board might have for not acting on it would be legal considerations.

For the sake of Wikipedia’s future, the Wikimedia Foundation needs new leadership. Lila Tretikov must resign, or she must be replaced. This is the most challenging blog post I’ve ever had to write at The Wikipedian. The next one, I hope, will be about the start of the turnaround.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The denouement of Geshuri’s time at WMF might have been a great post of its own, but I didn’t get to it, and, as usual, Signpost has you covered.
2. specifically, User:Risker, a widely respected former member of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee
3. a wiki devoted to, well, meta-topics regarding Wikimedia projects
4. “Our aim was to begin exploring new initiatives that could help address the challenges that Wikipedia is facing, especially as other sources and methods arise for people to acquire knowledge. If you haven’t yet, please have a look at the recent data and metrics which illustrate the downward trajectory our movement faces with readership decline (since 2013), editor decline (since 2007, which we stabilized for English Wikipedia in 2015), and our long standing struggle with conversion from reading to editing. These risks rank very high on my list of priorities, because they threaten the very core of our mission.”
5. #6 in the U.S., #7 worldwide
6. See this comment from WMF’s Dario Taraborelli, who argues: “[T]raffic per se is not the goal, the question should be about how to drive back human attention to the source”.
7. as James Heilman does in his own timeline of events
8. “It was my mistake to not initiate this ideation on-wiki. Quite honestly, I really wish I could start this discussion over in a more collaborative way, knowing what I know today.”
9. on Tretikov’s discussion page, no less
10. Full quote: “To make this very clear: no one in top positions has proposed or is proposing that WMF should get into the general “searching” or to try to “be google”. It’s an interesting hypothetical which has not been part of any serious strategy proposal, nor even discussed at the board level, nor proposed to the board by staff, nor a part of any grant, etc. It’s a total lie.”
11. “It seems to me extremely damaging that Lila has approached an external organisation for funding a new search engine (however you want to define it), without first having a strategic plan in place. Either the Board knew about this and didn’t see a problem, or they were incorrectly informed about the grant’s purpose. Either is very bad.”
12. Both of which quote yours truly, so take that into consideration.
13. This story has since been corrected, albeit on an insignificant, unrelated point.
14. Co-authored by Vice President of Product Wes Moran
15. Example: “Dozens of staff formally warned the Board and Leadership months ago that this would happen. Sadly, we were right. But it was entirely predictable, and preventable.”

The Crisis at New Montgomery Street

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on January 11, 2016 at 12:12 pm

Wikipedia officially turns 15 years old at the end of the week.[1]Friday, January 15 to be specific. The tone of the TV news segments, newspaper op-eds, and other media spotlights will be celebratory. However, the mood among Wikipedia insiders is anything but: the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), its Board of Trustees, and close observers within the community are entering the third week of a crisis that’s arguably more public and pointed than similar issues in years past.

The major events and themes seem to be as follows:

  1. In late December the Board of Trustees dismissed a well-liked community-elected trustee, Dr. James Heilman, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious
  2. WMF staff complaints about the performance of executive director Lila Tretikov, long simmering but never on-record, have now boiled over into public discussion
  3. Revelations about newly-appointed Board trustee Arnnon Geshuri’s involvement in an illegal anti-poaching scheme while at Google has drawn community outcry
  4. Besides failing to vet Geshuri, the WMF’s increasing tilt toward the Silicon Valley and focus on (perhaps) the wrong technology projects has come into sharper relief

Woven into each strand is a theme that The Wikipedian has covered since 2012 at least, each time with a few more data points and a little more urgency: that the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community it supposedly exists to serve have become increasingly at odds with one another. A deep exploration of why is beyond the remit of this post—for now, we just need to put everything that’s going on in one place.

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The Sacking of Doc James

On December 28, well-respected community leader Heilman announced via email to the Wikimedia-l public mailing list[2]The Wikimedia-l mailing list is an often tedious, intermittently fascinating semi-public discussion group where self-selected Wikipedians may opine. They include current and former Wikipedia editors, current and former WMF employees, and occasionally Board trustees. The frequency with which Wikimedians post to Wikimedia-l seems to have an inverse relationship with their power inside the Wikimedia Foundation. that he had been “removed” from the board. Heilman gave no initial reason for the announcement, guaranteeing a flurry of speculation and general disarray, not to mention the revelation came during that weird “office dead zone” week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Within the hour, Board chair Patricio Lorente confirmed the news in a follow-up email, providing scarcely any more context, and WMF’s legal department posted the full text of the resolution “James Heilman Removal” on the web:

Resolved, James Heilman is removed from the Board of Trustees, fully ending his term in office and appointment as a member or liaison for any Board committees.

Eight trustees voted to approve; only two voted against: fellow community representative Dariusz Jemielniak and Heilman himself.

Dr._James_HeilmanInto the contextual void spilled hundreds of replies even before the turn of the calendar three days later. Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, the longest-serving trustee, was the first to add a smidge of information. In response to the growing concern of commenters on his user page, Wales simply stated that Heilman’s removal was “for cause”.

On January 1, while the community was still searching for answers, Heilman posted a somewhat cryptic statement giving his side of the story, suggesting that the Board had sacked him for “[r]eleasing private board information”—even though, according to Heilman, he had only “pushed for greater transparency”. This view was largely adopted by other Wikimedia-l participants, who were already predisposed to side with him.[3]In later comments on Jimmy Wales’ Talk page, Heilman added more details about what he wanted to see made public (see: the fourth segment of this blog post). In their view, Heilman’s mysterious dismissal looked like the canonical example of the Board’s troubling lack of transparency.

On January 5, the Board published a FAQ explaining their rationale, although it’s doubtful that it satisfied many. It seemed to agree that some form of this “confidence vs. transparency” question was at the core:

Over time, his fellow Trustees came to the opinion that they lacked sufficient confidence in his discretion, judgment, and ability to maintain confidential Board information about the Wikimedia Foundation governance activities.

Later still, community-elected trustee Denny Vrandečić posted his own take on the dismissal, reinforcing this consensus. Even so, the underlying disagreement remained a mystery. To solve it, the first clue may be found in Heilman’s January 1 post, making a point that went unremarked-upon by the Board. Heilman wrote he had been “accused”—though not publicly to this point—of:

Giving staff unrealistic expectations regarding potential board decisions. I have always stated to staff that I only represented 10% of the board and have never given assurances that I could convince other trustees.

Well, now what does that mean? Convince them of what, exactly? Careful observers on the list had some idea:

For whatever reason James ended being ground zero for complaints by WMF
employees. … James handled these complaints in a way that the WMF management felt was undermining their authority/ability to lead and complained to the board. The board sided with management and removed James.

As far as I have seen, no Board member has disputed this. Then again, none has yet commented upon it in any way. Perhaps frustrated by this fact, last Friday[4]January 7 Heilman made public his final pre-removal letter to the Board—in which he admitted acting “out of process” and asked for a second chance:

Our board made the decision to give Lila a second chance in the face of staff mistrust. In the long road ahead to improve our movement, I would like to have the same opportunity to continue working together with you as well.

Ten days later, his request was denied and the whole thing broke wide open.

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The Trouble With Tretikov

The tenure of Lila Tretikov, the second major leader of the Wikimedia Foundation, got off to a rocky start even before she assumed the title of Executive Director in mid-2014: as The Wikipedian reluctantly chronicled at the time, her (rather eccentric) significant other had inserted himself, unbidden, into the Wikimedia-l mailing list and other forums for Wikipedia discussion, depriving her of the chance to set the tone of her own arrival.

Lila_TretikovBut everyone wanted her to succeed, she made good impressions, seemed to have the resume for the job, and so was given time to prove herself. However, as I wrote in my year-in-review last month, that honeymoon period is long over: very high turnover in top management, questionable hires, and emerging details of a staff revolt at the Foundation’s New Montgomery Street office have brought her leadership under close scrutiny.

Although staff discontent has been mostly the stuff of rumors over the past six months (at least), if you knew what to look for, you could find it in certain corners of the web. There was that one Quora thread, although it didn’t say very much. Somewhat more voluble is the Foundation’s entry on Glassdoor[5]Like Yelp but for workplaces., where reviews by anonymous current and former staffers provide clearer evidence of dissatisfaction among WMF employees. Of note, Tretikov holds just a 15% approval, and reviews have grown steadily more negative in recent months:

Unfortunately, the foundation is going through management turmoil. There is no strategy — or worse, a new strategic plan is rolled out every couple of months with no follow-through or accountability. … Please hire better executives and directors.

And:

The Executive Director unveils a new strategy every three months or so. She completely abandons the previous strategy and then does nothing to actually follow through on the strategy. … We need a new Executive Director. Most C-Level executives have fled. We will not be able to attract top talent until there is new leadership at the very top.

Although Glassdoor may present a skewed sample, this doesn’t appear to be the case. As Wikipedia Signpost contributor Andreas Kolbe points out, comparable non-profit organizations[6]NPR, for instance have much, much better employee ratings. And last week the Signpost reported on the existence of a yet-unreleased internal WMF survey from 2015 that found approximately 90% employee dissatisfaction. Yet when the turnover issue came up on the mailing list, Boryana Dineva, WMF’s new HR director, replied that everything was well within normal limits for the industry. This seems hard to believe.

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Arnnon Geshuri Agonistes

Amidst all this, the Board announced on January 6 the naming of two new appointed trustees: Kelly Battles and Arnnon Geshuri. Following some initial confusion as to whether either was a replacement for Heilman—they were not, but replacements for Jan Bart de Vreede and Stu West, whose terms had ended in December 2015—there came the usual round of congratulatory notices.

Arnnon_GeshuriBut the following day a regular list contributor raised a new issue: Geshuri had, in a previous role as Google’s Senior Staffing Strategist, actively participated in a rather infamous episode of recent Silicon Valley history: an illegal, collusive agreement among several leading firms—Adobe, Apple, Google, Intel, eBay and others—to avoid recruiting each others’ employees. The overall effect was to restrain the career advancement (and hold down salaries) of thousands of tech workers, and the participating firms eventually agreed to pay $415 million to settle the class action lawsuit.

Geshuri’s role in all this? According to email from the unsealed case, as reported by Pando Daily, Geshuri acted decisively to fire a Google recruiter who had been reaching out to Apple employees—which would be, you know, par for the course. Apple’s Steve Jobs complained to Google’s Eric Schmidt, who passed it along to Geshuri. His reply back:

Eric,
On this specific case, the sourcer who contacted this Apple employee should not have and will be terminated within the hour. We are scrubbing the sourcer’s records to ensure she did not contact anyone else. …
Please extend my apologies as appropriate to Steve Jobs. This was an isolated incident and we will be very careful to make sure this does not happen again.

For more details, see this detailed summary by Wikipedian Jim Heaphy, whose Wikipedia article-styled summary ends with a call for Geshuri’s removal from the Board.

On the mailing list, criticism of Geshuri’s appointment came from none other than two former Board chairs: Florence Devouard (in a short comment) and Kat Walsh (in a longer one). Considering how slow current and former Board members were to chime in regarding Heilman’s dismissal[7]And when former members, like SJ Klein, did so, it was in support of Heilman. the swift and strong rejection of Geshuri by Devouard and Walsh underlines how seriously the Board screwed up.

In fact, Dariusz Jemielniak, who had first posted news of the appointment to the list, indicated in a subsequent comment that the Board had not discussed this aspect of Geshuri’s career at all. Wales, for his part, confirmed that he was aware at least of the broad outlines, which of course can be easily found—where else?—in Geshuri’s Google search results.[8]Where another gossipy Quora thread appears. Curiously, as of this writing, the anti-poaching scandal exists on Geshuri’s entry only as a single, carefully-phrased sentence.

At the time of this writing, no announcement about Geshuri’s continued trusteeship has been made, but it seems his tenure will be very short. Considering the nature of the scandal, and the strident opposition, it’s very difficult to see how he can remain. And if Geshuri somehow survives where Heilman did not, the chasm between the Foundation and community will become considerably wider.

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The Silicon Wiki

Besides Geshuri, the Wikipedia Signpost observed last week that at least five Board trustees have significant relationships with Google.[9]Possibly unnecessary but probably advisable disclosure: Google is a client of my firm, Beutler Ink, although I have not personally been involved with these projects and none of our work for Google relates in any way to Wikipedia. Likewise the WMF has some Board connections to Tesla, and somewhat weaker ties to Facebook. What of it? A few big issues come to mind.

The first is simply the question of diversity and representation: Wikipedia may have been founded in and is still operating out of the United States, but its reach is global and its underlying ethic is inclusive. This is rather hard to do, and gets into extraordinarily thorny questions of identity politics which even those who raise them are unprepared to answer. But until such a time as there is consensus that the WMF is sufficiently representative of its global audience, it will at least be mentioned.

The second is the always-present question of conflicts of interest. Not just the perennial “COI” question about Wikipedia content and publicity-motivated editing, but the big picture version of same: whether this public good, this collaborative, free-in-all-senses online knowledge repository is being manipulated by powerful insiders for private gain—especially in a way that steers Wikipedia and its sister projects in a direction that deprives others from making the most of their Wikipedia experience.

Downtown_San_FranciscoThis specific harm hasn’t been shown to be the case, but if anyone is going to do that, well, it’s entirely plausible[10]if not exactly obvious this may come from the Silicon Valley firms who are close to Wikipedia both in physical proximity (WMF is based in downtown San Francisco) and focus area (WMF all but owns the tech side of Wikipedia). Indeed, there have been calls for Board members to disclose their own conflicts and recuse themselves when relevant interests intersect.

Then again, there are now fears that something like this might be happening with an embryonic project called Search and Discovery. Last week the Wikimedia Foundation and Knight Foundation jointly announced a new partnership examining the search habits of Wikipedia users with an eye toward a later project that may eventually replace Wikipedia’s current internal search.[11]Formerly described as a “knowledge engine” in a semi-official FAQ, the project has in fact been developing in something like stealth mode in WMF’s Discovery department for several months now. It might even incorporate other databases—not just Wikidata, but non-Wikimedia data resources as well. (Big Data is the future, lest we forget.) It sounds like a plausible direction for WMF, but as Signpost reports, the staff morale problem is at least in part tied to concerns about the resources allocated to the project. And this, too, intersects with Heilman’s dismissal from the board: in recent days he has made comments suggesting that the grant—which was actually decided in September 2015—should have been announced earlier.

Other criticisms have come from former staffer Pete Forsyth, who has questioned the process whereby WMF accepted the “restricted grant” from Knight—a practice once opposed by Sue Gardner, Tretikov’s predecessor. And a highly thought-provoking argument comes from longtime Wikipedia veteran Liam Wyatt, who made this compelling observation in his own blog post about the controversial last few weeks:

[A] portion of the Board of Trustees and the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation believe that it should be treated as a technology organisation in the style of a dot-com company, out of step with the staff and without the awareness of the community. By contrast, it’s always been my belief that the Wikimedia Foundation is an education charity that happens to exist primarily in a technology field. Of course software engineering is crucial to the work we do and should represent the major proportion of staff and budget, but that is the means, not the end.

The contrary view is that the Wikimedia Foundation has long been heavy on technology—under Gardner, the WMF identified itself as a “grant-making and technology” organization—as these are roles the foundation can undertake without overstepping its charter, and for which of course it has sufficient funds. That said, there has been little clamor for this particular project, especially as the community has made different technology recommendations to the Foundation, such as better integration with the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine and improved UI in editor tools, which are arguably clearer and more achievable.

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As I post this on Monday, January 11, it’s entirely possible that new information about any or all of the above related controversies could appear and change the picture dramatically. Given the fact, I’d better post this before anything else happens that would require a massive rewrite. I’ll aim to save those for a subsequent update, whether below this inadequate summary or in a separate blog post. Either way, stay tuned. And if I’ve missed anything important, please add them in the comments.

N.B. This post marks the introduction of a new post category at The Wikipedian, named for a term whose coinage appears to have occurred this past July, by the above-mentioned Wyatt, in a tweet directed to yours truly.

All images via Wikimedia Commons; image credits in order: Victor Grigas, Lane Hartnell, Myleen Hollero, Tim Adams.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Friday, January 15 to be specific.
2. The Wikimedia-l mailing list is an often tedious, intermittently fascinating semi-public discussion group where self-selected Wikipedians may opine. They include current and former Wikipedia editors, current and former WMF employees, and occasionally Board trustees. The frequency with which Wikimedians post to Wikimedia-l seems to have an inverse relationship with their power inside the Wikimedia Foundation.
3. In later comments on Jimmy Wales’ Talk page, Heilman added more details about what he wanted to see made public (see: the fourth segment of this blog post).
4. January 7
5. Like Yelp but for workplaces.
6. NPR, for instance
7. And when former members, like SJ Klein, did so, it was in support of Heilman.
8. Where another gossipy Quora thread appears.
9. Possibly unnecessary but probably advisable disclosure: Google is a client of my firm, Beutler Ink, although I have not personally been involved with these projects and none of our work for Google relates in any way to Wikipedia.
10. if not exactly obvious
11. Formerly described as a “knowledge engine” in a semi-official FAQ, the project has in fact been developing in something like stealth mode in WMF’s Discovery department for several months now.

Edit the Vote: It’s Election Season at Wikipedia

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on June 13, 2013 at 4:58 pm

I had dinner last night with some friends, and the question arose: So, do you donate to Wikipedia during the fundraising drives? That was an easy answer—I do, and have for at least three years running. My friends were split: whether they did or not seemed to correlate roughly to how much they use it (and specifically how much they use it at work).

How much money Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation behind it has and how it spends that money is not necessarily as well understood. (I consider myself a Wikipedian, and I found myself doing plenty of research for this post.) And the question of Wikimedia’s future is especially interesting, since long-serving executive director Sue Gardner announced she’ll be leaving the post sometime this year.

Wikimedia_Elections_2013

Some answers about specific outlays can be found in the 2011-12 Annual Report (PDF) and the 2012-13 Annual Plan (PDF), but the “how” depends a lot on who is actually making the decisions. Well, decisions about who is making those decisions are being made right now. Voting in a community-wide election began on June 8, and is not quite half-over, continuing until June 22. Do you want to vote? If you’re an editor in good standing with at least 300 edits before April 15, and at least 20 edits since December 15 (good criteria, I think) then you can.

Interestingly, three seats on the Board of Trustees are reserved for members of the Wikipedia community, joining others selected by the Wikimedia Foundation—and one set aside, of course, is Jimbo Wales himself. And starting this year, there’s a new advisory committee, of which a majority will be composed of community-elected volunteers. This is called the Funds Dissemination Committee. Finally, there’s an FDC Ombudsperson, whose role will be monitoring the new committee. Considering how the backstage area at Wikipedia is prone to drama, it could always get interesting.

Plus, it’s not Monopoly money: the money you throw at Jimmy Wales’ face every November has been increasing: from the last period to the current, both revenue and expenses are expected to make a big jump: $42 million expenditures on $46 million revenue, with almost $32 million banked.

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So that’s the background. Here’s a rundown of the community candidates for positions on Wikimedia Foundation committees:

Board of Trustees

Funds Dissemination Committee & Ombudsperson

  • Here are the 7 Candidates for the FDC board. Being a more advisory committee, they don’t necessarily have to provide their full names, though some have. But their usernames are: Smallbones, CristianCantoro, notafish, ImperfectlyInformed, Abbasjnr, MikyM and Aegis Maelstrom.
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, the FDC members have not been subject to as extensive a list of Questions. At this time, the formatting of the list is a bit wonky, and one of the two questions is simply: “Why do you want to be on the FDC”.
  • So far, Discussion of the FDC candidates has been somewhat limited.
  • The FDC Ombudsperson role has received even less attention: there are just two Candidates—MBisanz and Lusitana—so far answering just one Question(s), and no Discussion of the Ombudsperson candidates yet.
  • On May 27, The Signpost also published a less wide-ranging Interview with the Committee and Ombudsperson candidates.

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So there you have it. If you plan to voite, begin here. Voting closes June 22, and and results will be announced sometime between June 25 and June 28, 2013. Happy campaigning!

P.S. Lots of details above, so if I’ve missed anything, please leave a comment or email me!

The Wikimedia Foundation is Losing its Chief. What Happens Next?

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on March 28, 2013 at 9:35 am

Big news in the world of Wikipedia, yesterday: Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit behind Wikipedia and other wiki-based projects) announced she will be stepping down from the role, which she has held since June 2007. Gardner, in a post on the Wikimedia blog:

I feel that although [Wikipedia is] in good shape, with a promising future, the same is not true for the internet itself. (This is thing number two.) Increasingly, I’m finding myself uncomfortable about how the internet’s developing, who’s influencing its development, and who is not. Last year we at Wikimedia raised an alarm about SOPA/PIPA, and now CISPA is back. Wikipedia has experienced censorship at the hands of industry groups and governments, and we are –increasingly, I think– seeing important decisions made by unaccountable, non-transparent corporate players, a shift fromSue Gardner at Wikimania the open web to mobile walled gardens, and a shift from the production-based internet to one that’s consumption-based. There are many organizations and individuals advocating for the public interest online — what’s good for ordinary people — but other interests are more numerous and powerful than they are. I want that to change. And that’s what I want to do next.

In January 2012, you may remember that Wikipedia went into “blackout” mode for 24 hours in protest of legislation before the U.S. Congress (SOPA/PIPA), so this explains that much. The rest of the statement is a little harder to puzzle out; the “non-transparent corporate players” in those circumstances were opposed by other corporate players, and both were fighting over government regulations. The line about “mobile walled gardens” sounds like Facebook, and a “consumption-based” Internet sounds like a jab at tablets, of all things, but I suppose we’ll have to see. These are obviously broad statements, and Gardner hasn’t actually announced her next move.

The move won’t be happening too soon, yet: Gardner will be in the position for (at least) another six months, while she works with Wikipedia’s Board of Trustees to find a successor, she writes in the post.

Whether Wikipedia is really “in good shape” is a matter for debate, especially considering Gardner had made a personal cause of trying to fix Wikipedia’s absurd gender imbalance, not to mention the overall downward drift in editor retention and activity.

She also leaves with some organizational questions unresolved: just last October, the board approved her plan to shift and “narrow” the non-profit organization’s focus to primarily software development; whereas the foundation once had “fellows” focused on community-building, the Foundation has shifted to a grant-making process, which is still making a first go of it.

Speaking of development, the great white whale continues to be what’s called the VisualEditor, an editing interface intended to be much easier for users than the current system, which is fairly similar to coding HTML. (It’s not as difficult as real programming, but still too much effort for most.) It’s been nearly two years in the making, and has finally rolled out into testing just this year.

Speaking of whales, Sue was the first leader to follow the much better-known Jimmy Wales, who still sits on the Board of Trustees*. Gardner came from the CBC in Canada, and was not an original part of “the movement,” but she came to identify with it and become quite popular with the overall Wikimedia community. It’s not at all clear who should or will succeed her, but it is clear that a lot rides on the decision.

Photo licensed under Creative Commons by Ariel Kanterewicz, via Wikimedia Commons.

*This post originally stated that Wales rotates off the Board later this year; it’s since been pointed out to me that, while all members’ terms are limited, reappointments are allowed, which it is expected to do in Wales’ case again next time.