William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Visual editor’

A Modest Proposal for Wikimedia’s Future

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on March 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm

On February 25, Lila Tretikov, the embattled executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), finally tendered her resignation. Though an interim successor would not be named until March 10,[1]it is Katherine Maher, previously WMF’s head of communications the Wikimedia movement breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Tretikov’s twenty-two month tenure produced the greatest organizational crisis in Wikimedia’s history.[2]For background, see: an exhaustive timeline by Molly White (User:Gorilla Warfare) with, as she writes, “immense help from many other people”; The Wikipedia Signpost‘s examination of the key issues, “The WMF’s age of discontent” (January 6); and two posts on this blog, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street” (January 11) and “Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov” (February 19). The full story is still the subject of intense disagreement, which later I will argue should be the focus of an official outside audit. Her leadership will be remembered for poor communication, worse management, rapid and unannounced changes in strategy, and a lack of transparency that produced an atmosphere of mistrust and anxiety, one which finally overwhelmed and brought the Tretikov era to an acrimonious end.

Most of all, Lila Tretikov will be remembered for the precipitous decline in staff morale that sent more than two dozen key employees and executives for the exits. The loss of talent, relationships, and institutional memory is devastating, and it is not something the Wikimedia Foundation will recover from soon.

I suggest maybe the WMF should not recover and rebuild itself, at least not exactly like it was. Acknowledging this modest proposal stands to be controversial,[3]possibly just ignored I believe in this tragedy lies an opportunity for the Wikimedia Foundation to reconstitute itself in a way better suited for the challenges facing it at this point in its history.

This would be a WMF that recognizes its primary mission is educational, one that is willing to reconsider what responsibilities it keeps for itself vs. what works better distributed among its affiliates. I argue in this post that it should split its executive leadership into two roles and spin off certain core functions into standalone organizations. Doing so would allow for better transparency, create more opportunities for “WMF-Community” cooperation, and perhaps offer a chance for volunteers to seek a career path within the movement.

The Wikimedia Foundation does not need to do big things. It needs to create an environment for big things to happen.

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If the WMF is going to reconsider its organizational structure, this is certainly the time to do it. The forest fire of Tretikov’s tenure creates a unique and unexpected opportunity to plant anew. Other questions are already being explored: what will Wikimedia’s next five-year-plan say?[4]The current draft is available for review, and is mostly interesting for its differences from the last version: gone are mentions of “innovation” and “infrastructure”—two things the ill-fated Knowledge Engine could plausibly be accused of representing—while notions of growing the user base and improving quality have been downplayed. Should Jimmy Wales continue to hold his semi-permanent seat on the Board? Are the processes for selecting and vetting the three groups of Board trustees still adequate, the underlying assumptions still operative? How can the Board be induced to act transparently? The Wikimedia Conference coming up in April should be interesting, if not explosive.

All of these are very difficult and important questions, and yet I strongly suggest opening another conversation about the size and scope of WMF responsibilities going forward.[5]I also think five years is too narrow a scope to best plan for the Wikimedia movement’s future, although the current draft says nothing about time frames. Why should the WMF consider radically re-envisioning its organizational structure? Because the WMF as it exists was created to solve a different problem than the one we have now.

When the WMF was launched in 2003, two years after Wikipedia’s creation, “Wikimedia” was a retconned neologism coined to describe a wide-ranging movement not yet fully baked. The WMF was needed to create a backbone for these efforts and give its global volunteer base a strong sense of direction. Under Sue Gardner, the WMF was successful in fulfilling this role.

The present WMF has become, in the pithiest description possible, a fundraising organization in support of a nonprofit web development company and a small-grant issuing organization. To a lesser degree, it has also funded community outreach and the development of membership chapters around the world.

Wikipedia, in its many languages and numerous sister projects—the larger Wikimedia movement with which this post is really concerned—has succeeded in becoming the world’s free resource for knowledge, however imperfect it can be. Maintaining this is a different kind of challenge, and it is inherently a defensive one. Indeed, there is much to defend, and the threats are not imagined.

The first challenge is the changing Internet: Wikipedia’s software and culture came from an Internet dominated by desktop computers accessing the World Wide Web. Today, Internet activity has moved to mobile devices, increasingly inside of apps, which are of course closed platforms. Though WMF’s mobile efforts have come a long way, they are fighting upstream against several currents no one imagined in 2001. The idea of collaboration is as strong as ever, but its tools become weaker all the time.

The second challenge is WMF culture. The Tretikov disaster reveals weaknesses in two of the WMF’s most important functions: the raising of money[6]Knight Foundation and the allocating of money.[7]Knowledge Engine In addition, as described in varying degrees of detail by former staffers, under Tretikov the Foundation had become a toxic workplace environment—but the truth is it had structural issues even before that. Finally, the edifice of a nearly 300-person staff created a kind of intrigue—“Montgomerology”[8]hat tip: Liam Wyatt—that plays out daily on Wikimedia-l,[9]for the uninitiated: a semi-public mailing list populated by Wikimedians; lately the semi-private Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group has formed another locus of discussion and which this blog is frankly obsessed with. Which, I acknowledge, isn’t exactly healthy.

The third challenge, not unrelated, is Wikimedia culture. The English Wikipedia’s volunteer community, the movement’s largest and most influential bloc, is deeply set in its ways. Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s extraordinarily high profile contributes to a reluctance to tinker with, let alone radically rethink, how it conducts its business. And several bold initiatives developed within the WMF—including good ideas like the Visual Editor, debatable ideas like the Media Viewer, and bad ideas like the Knowledge Engine—have been received poorly by the community.

In all three cases, solving these problems are more than any one executive can handle alone.

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So what should happen? First, an apology from the Board of Trustees is definitely in order. Tretikov’s failure is entirely on them as Wikimedia’s ultimate corporate authority. Second, an audit / accounting of the failures of recent years. Wikimedia UK was required to do one following the Gibraltarpedia controversy; what’s good for the chapter is even better for the foundation.

Third, the Board of Trustees should split the role of executive director into two positions: a president and provost, like universities do.[10]Being an educational project, WMF should look to similar institutions for guidance. One becomes the “head of state”, handling the public and fundraising efforts, while the other handles administration and operations. Wikipedia’s high profile means that representing its value and values to the outside world is a full-time job. Regardless of whether Jimmy Wales remains a trustee, Wikipedia needs a new mascot, and it should identify a charismatic leader for this role, who may or may not come from the Wikimedia community. The provost position would be focused on grantmaking, community outreach, and long-term strategy. They must be a good manager and internal communicator, but need not be a big personality. And this person absolutely must come from the Wikimedia movement.

Fourth, and the really hard part, would be the voluntary dispossession of core Wikimedia movement functions from the central organization. The WMF should keep only what is mission critical—fundraising and grantmaking[11]legal and communications, too, of course—and spin off the rest.[12]It has done this once before: that’s the origin story of the Wiki Education Foundation. WMF grants should fund these newly independent foundations, encouraging a reinvigorated support for community-driven organizations.

What is the basis for considering smaller organization sizes? From a theoretical perspective, there’s Dunbar’s number. The larger an organization becomes, the harder it is for everyone to know everyone else and understand what they’re doing. In the business world, this has been seen in the arrested development of agglomeration, once large corporations realized they had become slow and bureaucracy-laden.[13]Anyone else remember The Onion‘s “Just Six Corporations Remain”? Critics of corporate consolidation were caught as flat-footed as the conglomerates they disdained when spin-offs became ever more popular. This is also an operating principle at Amazon, where they call it the “two-pizza rule”.[14]“Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group.”

From a practical perspective, the WMF’s behemoth status suits neither its day-to-day operations nor its perceptions by the wider community. As detailed by recently departed veteran staffer Oliver Keyes in The Wikipedia Signpost last month, systemic problems with hiring, promotions, and HR in general were an issue at the WMF well before Tretikov’s arrival. Meanwhile, the WMF itself seems unapproachable, simply too much for anyone to wrap their heads around. Indeed the WMF itself is a conglomerate, of a kind. Creating more community space around its current departments would make each more accessible, generating more “WMF-Community” interactions. This would help greatly with transparency, and make it far easier to start new initiatives.

It all sounds pretty radical—and I’m not saying it isn’t!—but there are good reasons to think a new organizational structure could work. The argument against ultimately relies on an appeal to familiarity, bolstered by inertia.

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With the caveat that I have never worked at the Wikimedia Foundation, nor in non-profit governance even for a minute, I won’t let that stop me from taking a crack at some specifics. What I write below is merely one way to go about it, and I encourage others—especially those with real WMF experience—to offer their view in the comments. Let’s go:

Among the WMF’s first major grants should be to the new Wikimedia Technology Foundation, containing the current Technology and Product teams. There is no critical reason why it needs to live in the same house as fundraising, and it would benefit from a strong leader with community ties—which it has not had for a long time. After all, even as we’re now sure Discovery is working not on a Google-killer but merely improved site search, it still ranks very low compared to other community-enumerated goals. Doing so would make its efforts more useful to everyday editors, and give it the latitude to develop for the next generation of Wikipedia editors. An early initiative of this spinoff should be to think about how to position Wikipedia for the mobile web and even to consider partnerships with today’s media orgs—not so much the New York Times and CNN, but Facebook and Snapchat.

More complex would be the evolution of Community Engagement, encompassing grantmaking and outreach. WMF grantmaking has nearly always been hampered by thinking too small and funding projects too dispersed and under-staffed to be effective. Through its chapters, user groups, and various grantmaking committees it funds projects for not quite enough money which are basically nights-and-weekends projects, from which very few can draw compensation, thereby limiting their ambitions and achievements.

So while the core function of grantmaking should stay with the provost at the slimmed down WMF, the bulk of its activity should happen outside its walls. And the way this would happen is by the creation of a more ambitious grantmaking operation whose mission is to nurture and develop mini-foundations modeled on GLAM-Wiki US, the Wiki Education Foundation, and WikiProject Med Foundation. Rather than there being one new foundation for community outreach, this needs to be a core capability of every mini-foundation that receives WMF funding.

Among the key projects necessary to a healthy and functioning Wikimedia movement that could benefit from a devolved organization and dedicated funding: The Wikipedia Signpost, which is heroically staffed entirely by volunteers; the Wikimania conference, the locus of numerous organizational failures in recent years; Wikimedia chapter management: the model of volunteer support currently practiced focuses too much on geographic concerns at the expense of thematic topics, with considerable overlap.

Another might be content development: if you look at Wikipedia’s complete list of featured articles, it is arguable the only article categories supported by existing foundations are “art and architecture”, “education” and “health and medicine”, served, respectively, by the three model organizations listed above. Adapting from the list, this leaves dozens of top-level categories unserved by a formal organization, and decreasingly supported as the informal “wikiproject” has withered in recent years.[15]Very few wikiprojects continue to thrive, and the ones that do—Military history and Video games—inadvertently perpetuate Wikipedia’s problems with systemic bias. By creating formal structures with specific outreach to associations and universities along these lines, Wikipedia can create more opportunities for outreach and collaboration.

What’s more, it would create opportunities for Wikimedians, particularly its younger cohort, to choose a career within the movement. Presently, there are too few jobs at libraries and museums to make use of all this talent. While conflict of interest (COI) issues will be justifiably considered, these fears are generally overblown. Nowhere in Wikipedia’s policies or guidelines—and certainly not in the Five Pillars—does it say that Wikipedia must be volunteer-only, and creating staff positions will actually reduce the likelihood editors will “sell out”. Wikimedia has long passed a point of diminishing returns on the volunteer-only model. And you know what? It isn’t entirely that now. We already live in a “mixed economy”, and we owe it to our community members to expand their opportunities. There’s no reason software programmers should be the only ones to earn a living working on Wikimedia projects.

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Can I summarize all this in a paragraph? I think so: a small constellation of well-funded Wikimedia Foundation spinoffs, each with a strong sense of mission, focused narrowly on the movement’s needs stands a better chance of working more efficiently among themselves and offers many more touch points for the community itself to be involved. Through that, transparency can be improved, both at the WMF parent org and within a reinvigorated movement organized around professionally staffed, standalone foundations doing what each does best. In the gaps between them and the WMF, new opportunities for community involvement would arise for the benefit of all.

Wikimedia is vast, with an incredible diversity of talents and resources. It contains multitudes, and its organizational structure should reflect that.

Notes   [ + ]

1. it is Katherine Maher, previously WMF’s head of communications
2. For background, see: an exhaustive timeline by Molly White (User:Gorilla Warfare) with, as she writes, “immense help from many other people”; The Wikipedia Signpost‘s examination of the key issues, “The WMF’s age of discontent” (January 6); and two posts on this blog, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street” (January 11) and “Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov” (February 19). The full story is still the subject of intense disagreement, which later I will argue should be the focus of an official outside audit.
3. possibly just ignored
4. The current draft is available for review, and is mostly interesting for its differences from the last version: gone are mentions of “innovation” and “infrastructure”—two things the ill-fated Knowledge Engine could plausibly be accused of representing—while notions of growing the user base and improving quality have been downplayed.
5. I also think five years is too narrow a scope to best plan for the Wikimedia movement’s future, although the current draft says nothing about time frames.
6. Knight Foundation
7. Knowledge Engine
8. hat tip: Liam Wyatt
9. for the uninitiated: a semi-public mailing list populated by Wikimedians; lately the semi-private Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group has formed another locus of discussion
10. Being an educational project, WMF should look to similar institutions for guidance.
11. legal and communications, too, of course
12. It has done this once before: that’s the origin story of the Wiki Education Foundation.
13. Anyone else remember The Onion‘s “Just Six Corporations Remain”?
14. “Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group.”
15. Very few wikiprojects continue to thrive, and the ones that do—Military history and Video games—inadvertently perpetuate Wikipedia’s problems with systemic bias.

Twitter and Wikipedia: Parallel Challenges

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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 Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2015

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on December 22, 2015 at 3:28 pm

Each year since 2010, The Wikipedian has looked back at the year on Wikipedia and taken a stab at determining which trends, milestones, and controversies most influenced the direction of Wikipedia in the twelve months preceding.

This is no easy task, considering the millions of articles, edits, and editors within the scope of Wikipedia and its sister projects, not to mention the off-wiki and even offline circumstances affecting them. The most important events may be overlooked, acknowledged major events can be misunderstood, and the significance of each can differ greatly depending on one’s viewpoint. No matter, The Wikipedian will make its best effort regardless.

This time around I’m pairing our retrospective with a post on the blog of my firm, Beutler Ink, called “Ten Predictions for Wikipedia in 2016”. I recommend reading this one first: as we learn from the Bard, what’s past is prologue.

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10. Wikidata Rising

When Wikidata, the collaborative structured database project, first launched in 2012, it was difficult to summarize with any confidence. The Wikipedian covered it by carefully outlining its stated goals and quoting the speculative news and blog coverage. At the end of 2015, it’s not much easier to describe to a layperson, and many of its goals remain just that, but Wikidata’s growth is undeniable and the passion it inspires in the Wikipedia community is unmistakable. At this year’s Wikimania conference, Wikidata’s presence was felt like never before.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 10.39.33One big reason: Wikidata is unexplored territory in a way that Wikipedia no longer is. The encyclopedia project feels mature at 5 million articles (more about that below), but the database at only 15 million items has a long road ahead of it. For editors who joined the larger Wikimedia movement for the joy of discovery, Wikidata is where it’s at. The project still has some very real challenges, some of which unsurprisingly mirror those of Wikipedia, but it’s possible now to imagine that Wikidata, not Wikipedia, may prove to be the real “sum of all human knowledge”.

9. Exodus from New Montgomery Street

Has Wikipedia’s parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), seen a year with more comings and goings from its headquarters on San Francisco’s New Montgomery Street than 2015? It seems unlikely. The organization has seen admired veterans and high-level executives depart under different circumstances, and some touted recruits from Silicon Valley firms arrived to fanfare, only to exit quickly, and without comment. The only reason this exodus of talent isn’t higher on this list is because it’s one of 2015’s least-reported stories.

Approximately 18 months since Lila Tretikov became executive director, the WMF has experienced almost 100% turnover. For some longtime staff, it was probably time to move on anyway. And any incoming leader can be expected to make new hires and rearrange reports to their liking. But the very short tenures of some key hires, and mysterious circumstances surrounding some departures, can’t help but raise questions about whether Tretikov is in command of her personnel—and perhaps even if she’s the leader Wikipedia needs.

8. Community Tensions Felt in Trustee Elections

The Wikimedia Board of Trustees is the “ultimate corporate authority” of the Wikimedia Foundation, and its number includes three members elected from the volunteer community. The most recent election, held in May, was also the first since a major fight between the foundation and community over software implementation (Media Viewer) and platform control (Superprotect) in 2014. Against this backdrop, disagreements over Wikipedia’s next big software initiative, Flow, became increasingly increasingly pronounced—and a few months later, the project was shelved.

Perhaps it’s unfair to assume a direct cause-and-effect, but the result seemed to be a “throw the bums out” election. Ousted were Phoebe Ayers, Samuel Klein, and María Sefidari (in fairness, none were “bums”, nor particularly responsible for the problem). In are three respected veterans with the good fortune of non-incumbency: James Heilman, Dariusz Jemielniak, and Denny Vrandečić.

Oddly, the two women ousted received the first and third most votes in favor, but Wikimedia accounts for “oppose” votes, and they had too many of those. Today, just two Board members are women, the lowest representation in Wikipedia’s history.

7. “Wikipedia Hates Women”—or Maybe Just Lightbreather

Wikipedia’s alarmingly low female participation rate is decidedly not a new problem. The issue first came to attention in the late 2000s, as editor surveys confirmed suspicions that Wikipedia was a total brodown. Today, the gender gap remains a frequent topic of debate, including a much-discussed Cracked.com article whence this entry takes part of its name.

The other half of the title comes from what’s called the “Lightbreather” case, focusing on a female editor with this username, and her interactions with, among others, a (male) editor named Eric Corbett. A disinterested appraisal of the case would find plenty of fault with both, although there is not one person in the world who possesses the powers of concentration necessary to follow all of the rabbit holes leading from this single case. Notwithstanding the particulars, it became the subject of a provocative, error-ridden, five-times corrected but nevertheless widely read article in The Atlantic, held up as one example of Wikipedia’s “hostility” to women.

The myriad possible explanations for this problem only open doors to more complicated issues. How much of the gender balance can be attributed to Wikipedia’s rules? Its community? Where is the line between heated disagreements and harassment? How much can be explained by how the web influences behavior? How much is this reflective of the tech industry’s gender gap? Will understanding this question help to explain why other marginalized identities, from Latinos to Africans, contribute to Wikipedia in small numbers? The answers to these questions seem within the reach of comprehension, but beyond the grasp of consensus.

6. A Clockwork Orangemoody

OrangeMoody-BubbleGraphCombined-NolabelsAnother perennial topic on Wikipedia is conflict of interest (COI), usually playing out as someone inside Wikipedia or outside writing a self-serving autobiography, a low-rent marketing firm getting in trouble for editing clients’ pages, or sometimes more favorably, a group of PR firms coming together to try to make a good impression. This year, however, brought us something we never quite imagined: a massive extortion plot inverting the typical model of paid editing: rather than helping paying customers create Wikipedia entries, non-paying “customers” could simply be threatened with unflattering articles.

Orangemoody, as it was named for its “ringleader” account, was called the largest of its kind, but that merely counted the number of involved user accounts (nearly 400). The truth is, there has never been anything quite like it. Previous cases revolved around unscrupulous firms like Wiki-PR and WikiExperts who at least professed to be offering their clients a service. Orangemoody was a shakedown involving pages held for ransom, impersonation of Wikipedia administrators, and no real-world entity to absorb the blame. Orangemoody is so threatening because it suggests that Wikipedia’s open-editing model opens the door not just to unethical, if conceivable shenanigans, but also to transgressions that are much more horrifying.

5. The Luck of Grant Shapps

Next to Orangemoody, there’s something almost comforting about the familiar narrative of alleged self-interested editing of Wikipedia by Tory MP Grant Shapps and the plot twist that brought his accuser to (relative) ignominy and ruin.

Amid the UK parliamentary elections this spring, a report emerged in the left-leaning Guardian, prompted by an allegation by a Wikimedia UK administrator, that Shapps had used a pseudonymous account to massage his own Wikipedia profile while giving a drubbing to others. It seemed plausible: Shapps had admitted to editing his own biography years ago, and using assumed names in other circumstances, and his side career as an Internet executive aided the narrative.

But the tables soon turned: the right-leaning Telegraph revealed that there was no smoking gun connecting Shapps to the suspicious edits, that the Wikipedia administrator, Richard Symonds, was in fact a Lib Dem activist who had communicated with the Guardian prior to taking action, and Wikipedians soon became concerned that Symonds may have abused his administrative privileges in blocking the suspicious account.

In the end, Symonds lost his adminship, and Shapps exited a succession of positions within the Conservative Party and government. All that’s missing is Keyzer Soze shrugging off his limp and lighting a cigarette.

4. Wikipedia’s Big Picture Trends in Flux

editors-risingAfter a long period of sustained narratives about Wikipedia’s traffic and editing trends, this year things got a little interesting. Following unabated growth in global traffic to Wikipedia, given a boost in recent years by the proliferation of web-enabled mobile devices, overall traffic actually fell for the first time. Meanwhile, after almost a decade of resignation to Wikipedia’s ever-dwindling editor base—a decline perhaps also attributable to the adoption of mobile devices—the numbers ticked upward.

An August report from an SEO analysis firm showed that Wikipedia’s search referrals from Google fell by up to 20% since the beginning of the year. Most speculation focused on Google’s ever-advancing practice of answering search queries on the results page, obviating the need to click through to non-Google websites. This has bedeviled companies like Yelp, which compete with Google to serve up reviews while also depending upon it for traffic. For Wikipedia, the situation is more complicated, and perhaps less of an issue. After all, a significant portion of Google’s answers are powered by Wikimedia projects. In fact, beginning in late 2014, Google wound down its own open knowledge database, Freebase, in favor of Wikidata. And Google still recommends more Wikimedia sites than it recommends Google sites.

Also in August, the first hard data emerged to show that the long, slow decline of active (and “very active”) Wikipedia editors had been arrested—and is now trending the other way, if ever so slightly. As close Wikipedia observers know too well, Wikipedia attained its zenith participation rate in 2007, arguably the high point for the project’s activity and excitement overall, after which the lowering tide revealed consternation and even alarm, with nobody knowing where it would end. Well, maybe here? The number of very active editors—with at least 100 edits monthly—Wikipedia’s most valuable contributors, stabilized in 2014 and actually grew in 2015. The decline of administrators, coupled with the difficulty in admitting new ones in recent years, however, remains an issue.

In both cases, more data is surely needed before we can say what it really means.

3. English Wikipedia Hits 5 Million Articles

Wikipedia_5m_ArticlesAdmittedly, most of these top stories are unhappy ones, and the one just above is arguably mixed, but this one is unambiguously celebratory: on November 1, Wikipedia’s English language edition—by far its most popular, and synonymous with “Wikipedia” for most readers—notched its 5 millionth article.

Wikipedia has been the largest encyclopedia by any reasonable measure for a long while, so nothing has really changed. And it took seven years for Wikipedia to double in size, so if growth trends continue holding steady for now, we might not have a similar milestone to celebrate until sometime the next decade. Meanwhile, sheer heft is easier to measure than other important characteristics, like accuracy or completeness, so this benchmark will remain Wikipedia’s equivalent of McDonald’s “Billions Served” for the foreseeable future. It may be an arbitrary measurement, but it’s a damned impressive one.

Number 5,000,000 itself: Persoonia terminalis, a rare shrub native to eastern Australia. Oh, and if you haven’t seen the RfC debating which temporary logo Wikipedia should display on the joyous day, I very much recommend taking a look at the near misses. Perhaps it will instill some faith in Wikipedia’s community processes if you agree the best logo won (and you should).

2. It’s About Ethics in Gamergate Opposition

In late 2014 and into the start of this year, the loosely-affiliated right-wing counterpart to the left-ish Anonymous expanded its focus from video game journalists to include the Wikipedia entries where said journalists’ critical takes had accumulated. Organizing on Reddit and other forums, the ‘gaters created numerous throwaway Wikipedia accounts to first try swinging Wikipedia’s coverage of their movement and a few of their top targets around to their liking and, when that failed, they took on Wikipedia editors directly.

gamergatelogoWikipedians fought back hard—too hard, in some cases—and when Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee got around to handing out punishments, the only ones with anything to lose were the Wikipedia editors who cared. It also fed into the above-discussed ongoing trouble over Wikipedia’s treatment of gender issues, and was by far the year’s biggest blow-up along such lines, far greater than the argument over how to handle Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition, which still lay ahead.

It’s hard to say if Gamergate is a 100-year-flood (although on the Internet, the time frame may be more like 100 months) or a sign of things to come. Wikipedia has faced trolls before, but few have been as dedicated or as destructive as the ones beneath the Gamergate bridge. The best defense is a strong base of committed Wikipedians, and perhaps this year shows us they’ll probably still be around to carry the sand bags and shore up the levees.

1. China, Russia, and Completing the HTTPS Transition

One aspect of Wikipedia’s global prominence that the foundation and movement alike have struggled to fully grasp is the role it can, should, and does play on the international stage. This year, the Wikimedia Foundation joined forces with the ACLU to sue the National Security Agency over its mass surveillance practices, only for the case to be thrown out by a federal court. As important as that fight may be, it is but one jurisdiction of many where Wikipedia has become a proxy for privacy and free speech battles, not to mention authoritarian power grabs.

In 2015, Wikipedia’s multi-year plan to convert all traffic moving through Wikimedia servers to the HTTPS encryption protocol was finally completed. HTTPS was first enabled for WMF sites in 2011, then became the default for logged in users in 2013, and this year was finally made the default for all traffic, including readers without a Wikipedia account. This is a good thing for Internet users who wish to access Wikipedia without their governments knowing about it. But it’s complicated when governments decide to shut off access altogether.

Indeed, the full implementation of HTTPS prevents governments like China from blocking access to specific entries—such as Tiananmen Square protests of 1989—and instead they have to choose between allowing all traffic, or blocking the site entirely. China opted for the latter. To be sure, Wikipedia wasn’t the biggest collaborative online encyclopedia in the PRC—it wasn’t even the second—and China’s Communist Party seems to be perfectly TankMancontent promoting its homegrown versions of Google, Facebook and Twitter. In December, Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, traveled to China to participate in an Internet conference, where his comments about the limitations of the state’s ability to control the Internet were intentionally lost in translation, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

A similar issue is ongoing in Russia, where the government’s media authority, Roskomnadzor, has weighed blocking access to the Russian-language Wikipedia based on its entries about illegal drugs, temporarily blocking reader access. In addition, it may also be attempting to co-opt Russian-language editors, presenting further challenges to the independence of the Wikimedia project among Russian language contributors.

It’s unclear what Russia will decide to do, but it seems safe to assume that China will hold the line for the foreseeable future. In both countries, and under still more repressive regimes—like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan—independent websites and even independent political parties and religious movements are allowed to operate only at these governments’ discretion. Why should Wikipedia be any different?

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And this seems like a perfectly good place to leave it. More often than not, Wikipedia’s issues reflect issues that animate and plague society and the Internet writ large. Open knowledge and digital discourse create incredible opportunities for research and innovation, but also bestow tremendous power to the platforms and communities that effectively control the gates. The problems on Wikipedia aren’t that different from those on Reddit or Twitter, they just feel more significant given the site’s mandate and perceived authority. To understand Wikipedia’s successes and failures, we have to look to ourselves for the answer.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to check out its companion piece at The Ink Tank: “Ten Predictions for Wikipedia in 2016”.

All images via Wikimedia Commons except Gamergate logo, source unknown.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2014

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on January 5, 2015 at 1:54 pm

Every twelve months the Gregorian calendar resets itself, and I pull together a roundup of the most important events, happenings and newsworthy items that marked the previous year on Wikipedia. I’ve done this each year since 2010 and, the last two times, I went so long that I split the post into two. This time, I tried to keep it short. In the end, I just kept it to one post. Which I guess counts as short for The Wikipedian. So let’s get started!

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10. The Ballad of Wil Sinclair

Look, I don’t like it any more than you do that we’re beginning here, but we can’t pretend this didn’t happen. What happened? Soon after the Wikimedia Foundation picked its new executive director, Lila Tretikov, and before she actually took over from Sue Gardner, Tretikov’s spouse showed up on the foundation’s email list, and in other forums, and made his presence known. Wil came across as a decent fellow at first, then a bit obsessive, and then he made common cause with critics of the Wikimedia project at Wikipediocracy, and it threatened to overwhelm Tretikov’s tenure before it really got underway. By the summer, however, Wil Sinclair largely withdrew from online commentary about Wikipedia, and the controversy appears to have died with it.

9. Oh yeah, that Belfer Center thing…

320px-Belfer_CenterOne of Wikipedia’s eternal themes involves conflict of interest. As a public good, Wikipedia has significant potential to affect private fortunes, for good or ill, and this is not the last time you’ll hear about it in this list. One of the more unusual (and alarming) manifestations of the conundrum involved the Wikimedia Foundation working with the Stanton Foundation and Belfer Center at Harvard University to create a paid position, funded by mega-donor Stanton, coordinated by WMF, which had the effect of boosting the professional reputation of Belfer’s president. Oh, did you know the principals at Stanton and Belfer are husband and wife? Yeah, that kind of changes things. Blame seemed to follow Gardner out the door, but Wikipedia’s difficulty in forming partnerships with other non-profits continues.

8. Wikipedia gets a facelift

Nearly four years after Wikipedia updated its default look from the Monobook skin[1]Does anyone else find this term creepy, or is it just me? to the current Vector, the site got another new look, albeit a more subtle one. Specifically, article titles and headings within pages were updated from a sans-serif typeface to a serif typeface. Goodbye Helvetica, hello Georgia! (At least in the headings.) You can never really underestimate Wikipedians’ resistance to change, and so a debate naturally ensued. Following the usual expected gripes, holdouts presumably switched their personal preferences to the old style, and the new look has become the accepted standard.

7. Jimbo’s UAE prize money

This is the most recent item on the list; in fact, I wrote about it just last week. In short, Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, accepted a $500,000 cash prize from the government of the UAE, which has a dismal human rights record. Wales received criticism from members of the Wikipedia community and questions from at least one news outlet. Wales then announced he was going to give the money to charity, or maybe start a foundation, and claimed this was his plan all along, denying what seemed to everyone else like a simple matter of cause-and-effect. Even if Wales does start a new organization, there’s not much evidence to suggest it will go anywhere.

6. Wikipedia’s education program grows up

Wiki_Education_Foundation_logoIf there’s a happier balance to the unfortunate Belfer situation, let’s say it’s the maturation of the Wiki Education Foundation. Beginning as an in-house program in 2010, the organization spun off on its own in February 2014 under the leadership of WMF veteran Frank Schulenburg. In my 2010 list, “Wikipedia in education” was the fourth item, remarking that the two communities appeared to be at a turning point: back then, teachers’ attitude toward Wikipedia had until then been one of fear and loathing, but nowadays more and more universities are offering course credit for improving Wikipedia articles. While the WEF and its predecessor program can’t take all of the credit—and sure, student plagiarism is still an issue—it does go to show that the Wikipedia community can solve at least some of its problems, and well-considered partnerships can play an important role.

5. Who doesn’t love some CongressEdits?

It’s almost hard to believe it took until summer 2014 for someone to realize you could attach an RSS feed of changes to Wikipedia articles coming from IP addresses belonging to the U.S. Congress to a Twitter account, thereby publishing an obscure list in a very public way, but that’s exactly what happened. Actually, the UK-focused @ParliamentEdits account was first, and accounts focused on other countries’ legislatures soon followed, but @CongressEdits made the biggest splash. In each case, journalists latched on to amusing nonsense and legitimately concerning changes both, and the U.S. Congressional IP was blocked for a time. It wasn’t the first time this has happened; it wasn’t even a new revelation that congressional staffers edit Wikipedia for ill (and good!) but this was too much fun to ignore.

4. Can PR and Wikipedia just get along?

Full disclosure: I have a huge conflict of interest with this topic; as readers of this site are surely aware, this was a big project for me last year. Last February, I brought together an ad hoc group of digital PR executives, Wikipedia veterans, and interested academics (some folks fell into more than one category) for an all-day roundtable discussion in Washington, DC, to talk about the differences and commonalities between the Wikipedia community and communications industry. Out of that emerged a multi-agency statement spelling out a set of principles that participating firms would adopt, a sort of open letter to Wikipedia stating their intention to follow its rules and help their colleagues and clients do the same. We started with about 10 agencies signed, and the list more than tripled by late summer. It was a good start—but a significantly better situation is still a long way off.

3. New (and improved?) Terms of Use

240px-Wikimedia_Foundation_RGB_logo_with_textRelated to number 4, but developing separately, was the Wikimedia Foundation’s announcement—mere days after the multi-agency statement was published—that the non-profit was amending its Terms of Use for the first time since anyone could remember (give or take) in order to require anyone paid for their contributions to disclose their affiliations. The decision grew out of legal uncertainties revealed by the Wiki-PR controversy (covered in this list last year) and was not unanticipated. Like all other seemingly minor changes, it was challenged by community veterans who believed it would have negative consequences for non-marketers compensated for involvement in Wikipedia, among other complaints. But if that’s happened, it hasn’t been visible. Chilling effects are not to be discounted, but there’s no evidence yet that any worst case scenarios have come to pass. Instead, it merely codified best practices that have been around for years: it used to be, if you have a conflict of interest, you were best advised to disclose it. Now you must.

2. The Media Viewer controversy

It seems like every year now I have to reserve a prominent spot for a major argument between the Wikipedia community and the San Francisco-based software-development and outreach-focused non-profit created to support it (the WMF). Last year, my top story focused on the divisive internal battles over the Visual Editor—a big change that did not remain the default for long. The year before, it was a somewhat different argument over whether to take a stand on SOPA / PIPA legislation. This summer, the Visual Editor argument essentially repeated itself. This time the debate centered on the Media Viewer and whether it should be default for logged-in and non-logged-in users—that is, whether readers who clicked on an image should see it come up on a page with metadata readily visible, as it always had been, or whether they should see it in a lightbox, and if site editors and mere readers should see the same thing. No sense getting into the details, because I lack the six hours necessary to produce a worthwhile summary. However, let’s observe that consensus in July seemed to be that it should be turned off by default. But I just checked, and indeed it’s the default, logged-in or not. In other words: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

1. Lila Tretikov and Wikipedia’s uncertain future

It seems like you can’t so much as create a piped wikilink disambiguation redirect these days without running into another media think piece about the state of Wikipedia. MIT Technology Review was ahead of the curve with an October 2013 story on the “decline of Wikipeda”. In March, The Economist jumped in with the tortured coinage “WikiPeaks” (although they quoted me, so I nonetheless approve). Slate has gone in for this kind of coverage at least twice, first in June with a contribution by longtime Wikipedian Dariusz Jemielniak, and then from staff writer David Auerbach in December. In late 2014, former Reason editor Virginia Postrel turned it into a whodunnit: “Who Killed Wikipedia?

Lila_Tretikov_16_April_2014Am I missing any? Probably, but they mostly tell the same story: Wikipedia is too bureaucratic; its editors are rude to each other and more so to outsiders; that might have something to do with the fact that it’s pretty much all white guys; old editors are choosing to quit; new editors aren’t replacing them fast enough; the community and the foundation are at each others’ throats; Wikipedia has too much money and too little direction. Without further ado, let me say, welcome to your first year as Wikimedia Executive Director, Lila Tretikov!

Pretty much all of the questions that I asked upon Sue Gardner’s announced departure nearly two years ago are still in play, only more so. I summed up a lot of this in a post from November 2013, “Wikipedia on the Brink?” If there’s any good news, it’s that Wikipedia is still, well, on the brink. It hasn’t fallen off a cliff, certainly. In some ways it’s more successful than ever. But ask a longtime veteran of either the volunteer community or its San Francisco non-profit how things are going—catch them on their way out the door, if necessary—and you’ll find any number of concerns, including some I either haven’t heard or am simply forgetting.

It’s not entirely up to Lila Tretikov what Wikipedia’s future will be, however she has more power than anyone—including even Uncle Jimbo—to steer a new direction. Will the foundation keep making grants and developing software that its community doesn’t seem to like? Will she keep trying to grow the community as it currently exists, or seek to expand it in unexpected ways? Wikipedia is no longer a hot new (not-for-profit) startup, but a maturing organization stuck in comfortable old ways that may be holding it back. Here’s hoping some answers to these questions will start to emerge in 2015.

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Previous years’ top ten Wikipedia stories can be found here:

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Belfer Center image by Bostonian13; Wiki Education Foundation logo and Wikimedia Foundation logo courtesy the respective organization; Lila Tretikov photo by Lane Hartwell; all images via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Does anyone else find this term creepy, or is it just me?

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 2)

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on January 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

On Tuesday, this blog published the first half of our annual roundup of the biggest Wikipedia events over the past 12 months. In that post, we covered the untimely passing of Aaron Swartz, the launch of Wikivoyage, the rise of Wikipediocracy, battles at Wikimedia Commons, and problems that have followed Wikipedia’s impressive fundraising. Today we finish the job:

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5. Basically ArbCom will never get its act together

Fair warning: I am not an ArbCom insider, I rarely follow its various dramas, and so I am not going to even going to attempt a satisfactory summary of everything that happened with ArbCom this past year. But let’s start with some background: ArbCom is short for Arbitration Committee, a group which I’ve just discovered has its own Wikipedia article. It’s an elected volunteer panel of (generally) respected Wikipedians who weigh in on tough issues and make binding decisions. The comparison to a national Supreme Court is glib but not entirely wrong, especially as they can (and often do) refuse to take certain cases, not to mention set precedents affecting future decisions.

The problem with ArbCom, if I can describe it generally, is that the organization has long been characterized by turnover and chaos. Nothing that happened this year was especially new, but that’s also part of the problem. Back when Wikipedia was just an experimental project, it was plausible enough that ArbCom’s dysfunction was something Wikipedia could grow out of. But the opposite has proved to be the case—as far as I can tell, no one thinks it’s ever getting better.

Two major incidents were big enough to merit rate a mention in episodes later in this post. Among others which didn’t, one more or less started off the tone for the year when, in March, an ArbCom veteran resigned his position while excoriating his fellow members for “stonewalling, filibustering, and downright ‘bullying’” when they weren’t “getting their way”. And then 2013 ended with another bang, as the top vote-getter in the latest ArbCom election, conducted just weeks ago, resigned his position after admitting to maintaining a secret account on—wait for it—Wikipediocracy.

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4. Wikipedia has more than a gender problem…

Bradley_ManningIt won’t take us too long to get back to ArbCom, but first let’s observe that Wikipedia is well known to have a “gender problem”; as The Wikipedian (and many more mainstream publications) have written extensively, Wikipedia’s editorship is overwhelmingly male, and it doesn’t cover certain topics (like women scientists, for example) very well. But this year an ugly row exposed what seems to be a more localized but still serious problem with transgender issues.

In August, Private Bradley Manning was convicted under the Espionage Act, and subsequently announced a public transition from male to female and the intention to be known as Chelsea Manning. (As I’ve written before, Manning’s transgender status was known, but until this point unconfirmed by Manning herself.) Wikipedia is generally considered a more progressive community than most, and references on Wikipedia were changed more quickly than at most news organizations. In fact, some of those same mainstream news publications praised Wikipedia for being quick to act. As it turned out, they should have been slower to praise.

Chelsea_ManningThe move was challenged, and the article was even changed back to Bradley, where it stayed as the debate heated up. Some objections were made in good faith and based on interpretations of guidelines, but some people were just being assholes. And then some of some of Chelsea Manning’s defenders crossed the line as well, and of course it ended up at ArbCom, which could seem to make no one happy in its various conclusions. First, ArbCom decided that yes, “Chelsea Manning” would indeed be the article’s name going forward. But among the punishments handed out, a pro-Chelsea editor was banned over an issue many considered a technicality—specifically for writing this blog post. During the fracas, the media was still watching, and some of the headings stung. Indeed, a newspaper may be slower to change, but when it makes a decision, it usually sticks with it.

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3. What happens when the COI guideline is contested in court?

Some of the problems involving the Wikipedia community have to do with the unusual compensation-based class system that has evolved around its community and “conflict of interest” rules. The more important Wikipedia has become, the more reputational impact it has shown to have, and the more it has been seen as both an opportunity and problem for celebrities, semi-public figures, professionals, companies, brands, bands, campaigns and non-profits. Since this first became an issue in 2006, Wikipedia has never quite figured out what to do about it. At the risk of oversimplifying things, mostly it has done nothing.

This year the worst nightmare of many came true when it turned out that a little-known but ever-expanding investigation into a network of secretly connected “sock puppet” user accounts traced back to an obscure but apparently quite successful startup called Wiki-PR. The name was familiar to some Wikipedians, but no definitive link had been established between the company and these accounts, owing something to the community’s (inconsistently applied) hang-ups about identifying editors’ public identities.

The revelation prompted the Wikimedia Foundation to issue a strongly-worded cease-and-desist letter to the company, although the impact was blunted when it emerged that someone from the Foundation’s own law firm had once anonymously edited the company’s article, violating the same rules it was supposedly defending. One can almost start to understand why the issue has been allowed to slide for so long.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s volunteer community banned the company’s known accounts, and then Arbcom angered some editors when it ordered one of the volunteer investigators to back off for reasons it said it couldn’t explain. Legal action from the Wikimedia Foundation is still possible, which could put the Foundation on an uncertain path just as its longtime leader is about to leave (see next).

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2. Sue Gardner’s departure and the uncertain new era

Sue_GardnerSue Gardner is not exactly the only leader Wikipedia has ever known. After all, Jimmy Wales is still its most widely-recognized figure, and there was that guy who called the FBI on them, once, too. But Sue Gardner is (with one interim exception) the only executive director the Wikimedia Foundation has ever known.

In 2007 she left a position running the CBC’s web operations in Toronto to join the Wikimedia Foundation. By the end of that year she was in charge of the whole thing, at a time of significant growth and staff turmoil (does anyone remember Danny Wool? Carolyn Doran? no?). In the years since, it has grown considerably more (150+ staffers now vs. a handful at the beginning), and she has led the Foundation about as well as anyone could be imagined to do. Now she’s announced that she is leaving on an as-yet-unspecified date to pursue as-yet-unspecified plans. An decision about her replacement is expected by March 2014, though a presumptive favorite hasn’t publicly emerged.

Whomever gets the job in the end has a very difficult task ahead. In fact, asking how much the leader of this San Francisco non-profit is really in control of Wikipedia is really asking the wrong question. The executive director leads the Foundation’s staff, but that’s entirely different than saying she leads the Wikipedia community. Which, as a matter of fact, brings us to the biggest Wikipedia story of 2013…

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1. The Visual Editor debacle is also a potent metaphor for Wikipedia’s chief organizational dilemma

To conclude the thought above: the Wikipedia community does not always agree with the Wikimedia Foundation. Some Foundation initiatives have been met with a indifference at best (see last year’s #9, which is arguably the real predecessor entry to this one). Others have been rejected like antibodies to a transplanted organ.

Into this latter category falls the Visual Editor, a long-in-development software initiative which was rolled out this summer to mixed reviews (hey, I thought it was fun) followed by a backlash that grew and grew until a volunteer editor’s uncontested edit of the source code summarily immobilized the whole expensive project.

Maybe I’m overdoing it to place this at number one. Maybe the underlying issue is less than the existential struggle between those two classes of community members than I think; perhaps the issue was simply one of a botched deployment and avoidable toe-stepping that only temporarily poisoned the well.

But I believe no single event in the past year encapsulated the biggest challenge facing Wikipedia today: it seems no better able to organize itself now than when it was a freewheeling experiment stumbling into greater and greater success in its first seven years of its life. Seven years further on, Wikipedia is a different kind of community, one struggling to cope with its fantastic success, but which hasn’t yet learned to adapt.

Whether the Visual Editor itself ever finds its way into everyday usage—and I think it will, after a long “eventually”—it spotlights Wikipedia’s most critical challenges more than any other story, and that’s why it’s the most important Wikipedia story of 2013.

Photo credits: U.S. Army, Chelsea Manning, Wikimedia Foundation.

Wikipedia on the Brink?

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on November 18, 2013 at 9:36 am

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a writer for a big magazine, asking for my take on the much-discussed MIT Technology Review article “The Decline of Wikipeda” by Tom Simonite. As far as I’ve seen, no article has yet appeared, so: I figured I would repurpose my comments for a blog post here, rewriting enough that my remarks remain exclusive, but my views are known. (If that article ever comes out, I’ll update this post.) Some of these topics I’ve previously discussed on Wikipedia Weekly, but a more comprehensive take is long overdue. So here it is.

mit_tech_review_logoFor those who haven’t read it, the Technology Review piece outlines a few reasons for concern about the long-term health of the Wikipedia community. The central points are not at all new: fewer new contributors are joining the site, many veterans are drifting away, the site’s culture and bureaucracy can be stifling, and a startlingly low percentage of contributors are women. All worthy topics, of course. Meanwhile, the piece does a good job of synthesizing these concerns, and explores some recent research that tries to make sense of them.

It also comes at a particularly apt time. In August, when I posted a summary of Wikimania Hong Kong, including Jimmy Wales’ keynote, the event projected something like satisfied aimlessness. Wikipedia was bigger and better than ever, such that the big question was: what would it do next? Wales had some vague ideas about saving journalism, but that’s been about all we’ve heard of it since.

Yet even at that time, and especially in the few months since, the community has experienced several controversies producing animosity and discord not seen since… OK, there is animosity and discord at Wikipedia every single day, especially if you follow the “drama boards”—but these incidents have been very high-profile, in some cases making news (like this Technology Review article), calling into question the community’s ability to reconcile its philosophical differences, spotlighting a rift between the Wikimedia Foundation and the community it serves, and raising doubts about the ability of Wikipedia’s highest judicial authority (the Arbitration Committee, or ArbCom) to make sound decisions. And while most participants would agree that these incidents represent legitimate issues, it’s also fair to say that there is disagreement about much else: how to prioritize issues, how to respond to each, and even what should be a desired outcome in each case. I owe you some details:

  • Visual Editor Debacle—in a post for this blog earlier in the summer, I offered early praise for the Visual Editor, a big initiative from the Foundation, a WYSIWYG version of the Wikipedia editing interface. The big idea was to make editing easier—the standard Wikipedia “markup” is more like computer programming than not—and that doing so might create a path for new people to get involved.

    Wikipedia_Visual_EditorBut this was an untested proposition, and anyway who was to say whether it would attract more helpful or unhelpful edits? Alas, my praise arrived too soon. Scratching a little deeper, the new software had bugs—lots of them. Besides which, existing contributors were unhappy to find that this new system was also the default, a huge change that hadn’t been clearly explained to them ahead of time. Following an extensive debate among the site’s core editors, and after a few strategic retreats by the Foundation’s developers, a single community member changed the code and disabled the Visual Editor for everyone. The Visual Editor is back in beta once again, and its near-term future is uncertain.

    While there were undeniable errors in the launch of this initiative, the Visual Editor’s misfire is less the disease and more the symptom of it. Of late, I’ve been telling anyone who cares to listen that major tensions between the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community pose serious doubts about Wikipedia’s ability to grow into the future. The former group comprises mostly paid professionals who may or may not have originated from the community, while the latter is composed of a vast, disparate, passionate, sometimes disagreeable group of not-quite-like-minded individuals. The formalized former has a greater ability to act in a concerted effort, yet its charter states that it must follow the lead of the leaderless community.

    While Wikipedia was still growing and expanding, rapid growth seemed to solve all problems. Now that the community is contracting and entrenching, it looks like a serious roadblock. How can Wikipedia and its community of editors take on big initiatives—such as revolutionizing journalism—when they can’t agree on something like this? Is consensus still working for Wikipedia at this point?

  • Chelsea / Bradley Manning—Following a high-profile conviction under the Espionage Act in a U.S. military court, the infamous Army Private Manning announced her transgender status (confirmed, really, for those paying close attention) and with it sought public acknowledgment for a name change from Bradley to Chelsea. Although transgender acceptance is rocky still in 2013, it wasn’t too long before most media outlets had adopted the feminine pronoun. Likewise, the Wikipedia entry for Pvt. Manning was updated to /Chelsea—and then it was rolled back to /Bradley—and then the fighting began.

    Manning_US_ArmyI’m not even going to get into the details, except to say that I’m still fairly stunned that the Wikipedia community had to argue about it at all, let alone that it got so ugly. After some debate, ArbCom stepped in. Eventually the entry was moved back to /Chelsea_Manning, and sanctions were imposed on some debate participants. Surprisingly, the heavier penalties were levied on pro-Chelsea editors over technical matters, while some more hostile pro-Bradley editors were let off more easily. A veteran editor named Phil Sandifer complained about this on his personal blog. Soon after, ArbCom returned to say Sandifer had revealed personal information about another participant in violation of Wikipedia’s policies, and he was subsequently banned from Wikipedia. This was a shocking outcome (and I hope I’m not risking my own standing on Wikipedia merely by linking to his post). Assuming ArbCom is correct in their reasoning, I see why they took the position they did—but the punishment seems much harsher than it should be.

    Given the above, it can be very easy to forget that one of Wikipedia’s “five pillars”—the most important organizing principles of the entire project—states: “Editors should treat each other with respect and civility”. Technology Review points out that acrimony among editors and complaints about the increasingly unpleasant and bureaucratic nature of Wikipedia is a reason editors are leaving. Given the above, it’s not difficult to see why.

  • Pets_com_sockPR Sock puppet scandal—This fall a long-running, low-profile, on-wiki investigation into a network of sock puppet Wikipedia accounts broke wide when several news outlets connected the anonymous accounts to a rogue PR company I’ll decline to give further publicity here (no, it’s not Pets.com, but wouldn’t that be great?). This company was not unknown to editors, but the specifics of their activity had been. All accounts known to be associated with the company were blocked, and while this one was not a tough call, much else in this topic area is. Wikipedia’s official guidelines say one thing, although Jimmy Wales has promoted stricter guidance.

    The terminology is a challenge, too: “conflict of interest editing”; “paid editing”; “paid advocacy” and “paid advocacy editing” are all similar terms often used to discuss this issue, although they are not identical and the widely different conclusions one may draw can be strongly influenced by unspoken assumptions related to each.

    A number of policy proposals were offered up, but at this time none has attained substantial support, and some are clearly dead in the water. The Wikipedia community has tried more than once in the past five years to draw up some rules to regulate this kind of activity, but nothing much has come of it. Meanwhile, individual editors have set up the occasional effort to assist PR representatives (and offer an alternative to direct edits), but these have always been understaffed. While not a new debate, it doesn’t seem like any new epiphanies will come of it this time.

    (Note: I have already written about this for the blog, and I have a greater involvement in this subject compared to the others.)

The above are all specific incidents with their own unique circumstances and complicated outcomes, but it’s not difficult to see how they point toward larger issues with the direction of Wikipedia. As it happens, the direction of Wikipedia is very much at issue right now. Sue Gardner, the first (and so far only*) executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, is leaving at the end of the year. She prepares to depart with significant respect and goodwill among a wide range of community members—and yet there’s also significant concern that Sue_Gardnerher successor is in for a really difficult time. Meanwhile, the Foundation is narrowing down its search, and a decision is expected soon. The name of this leader-to-be and his or her vision for Wikipedia is still a mystery.

One evening last week, I ran my views past another longtime member and leader (such as they are) of the Wikipedia community. While this person acknowledged the issues I raised, there was another aspect I had been overlooking. Is Wikipedia at a crisis moment? Not exactly—it’s been in crisis for awhile now. The problem is not that the disagreements are any worse than they were previously, but the difference is that these disagreements are now much higher profile than they were before.

Wikipedia was once able to grow its way out of its problems, but that hasn’t been an option for awhile: these issues have loomed larger ever since the growth of new editors slowed and turned into decline, and since Wikipedia found that it couldn’t avoid the public spotlight. Remember, the Technology Review article is literally called “The Decline of Wikipedia”. As I said at the beginning: there’s not much that’s new in the article. But it might just summarize the problem better than it realizes.

*It’s been pointed out to me that WMF had an interim executive director at one point, however this individual was basically a caretaker in the position. But the point stands: Sue Gardner is still—please forgive the forthcoming play on words—sue generis.

Images courtesy, respectively: MIT Technology Review, Wikimedia Foundation, U.S. Army, Jacob Bøtter, and Paula Wilson via Wikimedia Foundation.

Bloggingheads.tv: “Wikipedia’s Newbie Problem”

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on September 11, 2013 at 2:37 pm

In the past few weeks, I’ve begun hosting a new maybe-series on Bloggingheads.tv covering technology, tech policy, business and media. For my second installment, I decided to ask Andrew “Fuzheado” Lih—a longtime Wikimedian and author of the first book-length treatment of Wikipedia’s origins—to join me.

He graciously accepted, and we discussed the Wikipedia community’s reaction to the Visual Editor, whether Wikipedia might be “disrupted”, and how to add more video to the site. You can watch it here, and it’s about 54 minutes:

Adventures in Visual Editing

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on July 2, 2013 at 5:30 pm


It’s a big week for Wikipedia, and maybe a bigger one for its developers. Starting Monday (although I only noticed today, EST) the long-in-the-works Visual Editor rolled out to all registered editors. On the Wikimedia Foundation blog, Philippe Beaudette explains the big deal:

There are various reasons that lead existing and prospective contributors not to edit; among them, the complexity of wiki markup is a major issue. One of VisualEditor’s goals is to empower knowledgeable and good-faith users to edit and become valuable members of the community, even if they’re not wiki markup experts. We also hope that, with time, experienced editors will find VisualEditor useful for some of their editing tasks.

In the past I’ve been a bit of a Visual Editor skeptic—the Wikimedia Foundation’s own research shows that not knowing how to edit is seventh among readers’ answers for why they don’t edit Wikipedia, cited by only 18% of respondents to the 2011 reader survey. Moreover, one still has to know to click on the “Edit” button to get started. And then there’s a question for which we currently have no empirical evidence: does making it theoretically easier to edit invite more productive contributors, or more troublemakers? We may well get an answer—though it will take time and, of course, more study.

All that said, I’ll be perfectly happy if my misgivings turn out to be misplaced. And today I finally took the thing out for a test drive. The Featured article today is Alec Douglas-Home, the United Kingdom’s prime minister for almost exactly one year in the early 1960s. At first I noticed some double-spaces after periods (or, given the subject matter, full stops) and went to change it. As soon as I clicked “Edit” button (and disappeared the notification pop-up seen at the top of this post) I saw this:


Yeah, OK, that’s an edit page, all right. Upon first impression, I have to say I was wrong about one thing: I was expecting a WYSIWYG editor that was a half-step up from editing code, but was still confined to an undersized edit box. Nope, this is editing right on the page. (Yes, I could have turned on the Visual Editor for awhile yet, but I’ve also become the sort of person who still waits for an album release even once it’s been leaked.)

So I removed the superfluous double-space, and went to hit “Save page”. So here’s my edit summary:


But hey, I came back awhile later, and noticed some joker had changed Douglas-Home’s honorific prefix from “The Right Honourable” to “The Right Bhuval” (?) as pictured here:


So I went to edit again, but this time I got the same old edit window:


What happened? I didn’t realize until later that I’d actually hit “Edit source”, which brings you to the same code-based editing window that Wikipedians have known for more than a decade—and which will surely be the choice of power editors for a long time to come. Alas, I didn’t realize that his first name had also been changed to “Bhuval”, but someone else did step in to fix that before long.

And… that’s my experience with the Visual Editor so far! It’s not much to go on. But I still have a few early takeaways:

  • I’ve been editing Wikipedia for the better part of a decade now, and I still had a bit of trouble. Also, pictured at the top of this post is the new pop-up alerting editors that they have entered the visual editor, which didn’t include a little x-box to close. I wasn’t stymied long, but it’s the experience that counts, right?
  • The Visual Editor really slows down the loading of the edit page. This isn’t any huge surprise, but the length of page loads is a matter of concern, especially considering the Wikimedia Foundation’s conscious push to improve participation in the developing world, where Internet speeds may be slower.
  • It doesn’t seem to work on Talk pages, which is a mixed blessing. As something of a Wikipedia elitist, I think the uninitiated may offer the best help by pointing things out on discussion pages. Then again, Wikipedia discussion pages being “broken” is a whole ‘nother topic.
  • Here’s my optimistic prediction for the Visual Editor: while I don’t see it encouraging significant contributions of quality new material from previous non-editors, I do think it can encourage more edits by those who already edit occasionally, but maybe can’t be bothered to hunt through markup to move a comma.

If the Visual Editor is not for you, here’s what you do: go to “Preferences” in the top right corner, select the “Gadgets” tab, look under the “Editing” header, and check the box which reads: “Remove VisualEditor from the user interface”. Then hit “Save”, and you’re good to go. But I think I’ll let it stand. It’s not a panacea for Wikipedia’s ills, and for complex edits the source code is always only a click away. Besides, I’m always looking for that comma—or superfluous double-space.

Can UI Changes Transform Wikipedia from Call Center to Community?

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on December 1, 2011 at 2:29 pm

The following post was written by my friend, former colleague and fellow Wikipedia editor Jeff Taylor (Jeff Bedford). His opinions are his own, but they are also good ones.

Danny Sullivan made waves on the web last week with a blog post titled The Closed, Unfriendly World of Wikipedia.

Sullivan made a few honest mistakes in the way he approached the Wikipedia community.  Instead of easing his way into the community and learning its culture and norms, Sullivan moved quickly – perhaps a bit too quickly.  Yes, Wikipedia encouraged him to be WP:BOLD; however his approach at times came across as accusatory and unfriendly.  He inadvertently began treating other editors as if they had done great wrongs, expecting everyone to drop what they were doing to answer his requests.

Though not his (nor Wikipedia’s) intention, Sullivan’s experience with the Wikipedia community resembled that of dialing in to a tech support call center, with Wikipedia’s volunteer editors relegated to the unwanted role of customer service representative.  Sullivan even alludes to this call center vibe in his blog post, with section headings such as “At The Tone (If You Can Find It), Please Leave A Detailed Message” and “To Contact an Editor, Please Contact An Editor.” Much like a call center, he got the run-around, and this is not his fault.  It is the product of Wikipedia’s user interface and overall structure, which is truly showing its age in late 2011.

The Wikimedia Foundation has a very academic/university-like mindset, which has its benefits, but has also stifled change — including design updates — when change is absolutely necessary.  To be fair, the foundation is quite self-aware, as evident in their product whitepaper:

  • “Wikimedia’s editing environment, which fundamentally is based on 1995 technology, represents a highly complex and intimidating way for users to engage with content online. In usability studies, users themselves call out the editing environment as unusual, and ask why a rich-text editing environment as used in tools like Blogger or Google Docs is not present.”

The current discussion system is detached from the norms of the rest of the web, hindering the ability of otherwise intelligent users to collaborate productively:

  • “Usability issues mean that especially for new users, the interaction with advanced users is seriously impaired by their lack of a mental model of the discussion system. Paradigms that the user may be familiar with (forums, inboxes, social media feeds) do not apply. Indeed, it is challenging to find any discussion system that is willfully designed to resemble Wikimedia’s.”

The web is moving forward and Wikipedia is not moving forward at the same pace:

  • “User expectations have changed drastically as a result of the innovations that became mainstream during 2005-2007 and continue today. The studies conducted during the Usability Initiative provide evidence that the editing interface is confusing and does not match user expectations.”

A redesigned user interface will be critical for Wikipedia to pivot from call center back to productive and thriving community, and while the public at large may not be aware, a new design is already under construction.  If done right and deployed swiftly, this change – along with an update to the discussion interface – will ensure that users like Danny Sullivan encounter a community, not a call center, when shifting from reader to potential long-term contributor.

According to the Wikimedia Foundation’s annual plan, a target has been set for the “first opt-in user-facing production (to be in) usage by December 2011.” Today is December 1.  To the development team that is clearly hard at work, I ask, will we see a sneak preview, a screenshot, or an option to test this out before December 31st?  After all, this may be the catalyst to reversing Wikipedia’s editor decline.