William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Silicon Valley’

Twitter and Wikipedia: Parallel Challenges

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , ,
on February 8, 2016 at 12:44 pm


Twitter has had an almost unprecedented run of bad press lately. Its stock is down, its executives are out, and uncertainty reigns. In recent weeks, Twitter has announced (or had leaked) plans to change the platform’s famous 140-character limit, its reverse-chronological order of messages, and the site’s most vocal users are fearing, and saying, the worst.

The more I read of it, the more I think about the bad press Wikipedia has received over the past few years, and I see some striking parallels.

To be sure, they are very different entities. Most importantly, Twitter Inc. is a publicly traded company, while the Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit organization. But both are important platforms in the online information ecosystem facing significant questions about not just its future but even its present. Both have much in common in their history and structure, and in the challenges they now face:

  • Wikipedia and Twitter both started out as side projects of other projects that weren’t going anywhere: Wikipedia of traditionally-edited online encyclopedia Nupedia, and Twitter of possibly-before-its-time podcast directory Odeo.
  • Both are basically monopolies in their particular corner of the information ecosystem: Wikipedia has no competitor in collating the “sum of all human knowledge” into readable text; Twitter is the only public, real-time conversation network (in perhaps this alone it has bested Facebook). Both have been described as a “utility” at one time or another.
  • Both are among the most-recognized, heavily-visited destinations on the web. Google pretty much points searchers to Wikipedia by default, and recently re-upped a deal to provide Twitter results in searches. Both are top 10 global websites: according to Alexa, Wikipedia is 7th and Twitter is 10th. In the U.S., Wikipedia is currently 6th and Twitter 8th.
  • Both are open publishing platforms, inviting its readers to be contributors. Even so, the vast majority of participants (broadly defined) choose only to consume. Wikipedia’s reader base has always vastly exceeded its editors, which isn’t a huge surprise. But Twitter has been trending this way for a number of years. (See also: the Pareto principle, the Internet’s 1% rule).
  • One possible reason why both have so few active contributors is that they are both notoriously difficult to use. This is rather obviously true for Wikipedia. It is, after all, an encyclopedia, and making beneficial contributions to it requires time, knowledge and inclination (not to mention persistence and thick skin). Twitter’s 140-character simplicity belies its true complexity, as Walt Mossberg has argued recently.
  • Both are organized as democratic, non-hierarchical platforms where everyone theoretically has an equal chance to be seen and heard. But of course invisible hierarchies emerge, as certain power users self-identify through the strength of social ties or canny dexterity with the platform. Twitter at least makes follower counts public, while Wikipedia is considerably more opaque.
  • For each, active users grew dramatically (even exponentially) until hitting a peak and then declining. This happened for Wikipedia in 2007, which happened to be the same year Twitter first started gaining traction. However, this growth ran out by 2009, making for a very similar looking user growth-and-decline charts:
  • Growth and decline: Wikipedia editors at left; Twitter audience at right.

    Growth and decline: Wikipedia editors at left; Twitter audience at right.

  • Both allow users anonymity—or, more accurately, pseudonymity—which arguably fosters a community culture suffering from a lack of responsibility and accountability. Relatedly, both have had significant trouble with the so-called Gamergate movement, and female users of both platforms have reported serious harassment issues.
  • Fallings out among top leadership have been the norm since the beginning. At Wikipedia, co-founder Larry Sanger became disillusioned with the project, leaving Jimmy Wales free to bask in the glory of being a “digital god” as the Evening Standard actually called him last week. As Nick Bilton described in his book, Hatching Twitter, Twitter’s most contentious co-founders, Jack Dorsey and Ev Williams, were at each other’s throats almost constantly. Multiple defenestrations later, Dorsey once again leads the company as CEO.
  • Besides the personal squabbles among its founders, both have experienced very recent and very concerning internal confusion at the company / parent organization, riven with conflicts about the future of the organization, and a revolving door of high-level executives. For Twitter, this has been in the tech press almost constantly. For Wikipedia, this has been covered most extensively by only The Wikipedia Signpost and a handful of blogs, including this one.
  • The direction of each has caused immense consternation in the community of power users who are conflicted about revisions to the platform, both rumored and launched. Impending changes to Twitter’s character limit and algorithmic order of tweets can be compared to community revolts over several recent software initiatives, especially the Visual Editor debacle, which sought to fundamentally change the nature of editors’ interaction with the site. At present, Wikipedians are anxious to know if this “Knowledge Engine” project is another.
  • For both, the silver lining is that their position is secure so long as arguments are being had there: that people care about what is being said on each website. No matter what ails each one, no competitor is likely to displace them, and their core function is likely to be relevant for the foreseeable future.

Are there lessons for one or the other? I’m not so sure. One conclusion that does occur to me as a longtime Wikipedia editor, observer and fan: how fortunate is Wikipedia to be a non-profit foundation right now! Whatever complaints one may have about Jimmy Wales, and there are many valid ones, his decision to forsake the chance to become “an Internet billionaire” on the back of Wikipedia, as The New York Times once put it, infelicitously, owes significantly to its central role on the Internet today. Had, for example, Wales insisted on monetizing Wikipedia with advertising (something Twitter once, long ago, promised it would never do, and only recently has begun turning off ads for power users) the rest of Wikipedia’s contributors might have walked out the door along with the 2002 “Spanish fork”.

Twitter, on the other hand, was founded by startup veterans who probably never seriously considered doing anything but become Internet billionaires. (For what it’s worth, Dorsey and Williams both achieved this goal.) I come here not to criticize the ambition, but to observe that it hasn’t worked out so well for the platform. In its attempts to generate revenue to match their brand recognition, Twitter has experimented with several different strategies and business models. Unfortunately, these often ran at cross-purposes to what Twitter was good at, as observers from Ben Thompson to Twitter investor Chris Sacca have both written. That it is now publicly traded is a worse headache, and places on it a burden of expectations that may ultimately spell its doom as an independent company.

Fortunately for Wikipedia, it has a clearer notion of what it should be. It is an encyclopedia. Its recent struggles may owe something to the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation doesn’t always seem to recognize that. Twitter may have largely succeed at becoming “the pulse of the planet” but, for a company whose shareholders expect continuing growth, that isn’t enough.

The Crisis at New Montgomery Street

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.


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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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:

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.