William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Wikimedia Foundation’

The Top Ten Wikipedia Stories of 2016

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on January 3, 2017 at 1:30 pm

2016 was a hell of a year. In matters of war and peace, politics and governance, arts and celebrity culture—not to mention unexpected crossovers among them—it was a year that seemed to come off the swivel. Was this true on Wikipedia as well? In this post The Wikipedian will attempt, as it has done each year since 2010, to summarize the year in the Wikimedia movement by itemizing and ranking ten of the biggest trends and events.

The list this time may be noteworthy less for what is included than what is not: in 2016 there was no major sock puppet or COI scandal (hopefully that’s because there weren’t any, not just that they weren’t called out), no major milestone (Wikipedia turned 15 in 2016, but it felt less consequential than the 5 millionth article last year), no mention of perennial fears about a declining editor base (is it still actually declining?) and nothing about last year’s number one, the implementation of HTTPS (it’s a done deal, and China hasn’t changed its mind about unblocking Wikipedia on the mainland).

That said, in 2016 Wikipedia still had more than its share of turmoil, more ominous signs than one ever really wants to see, plus the occasional inspiring story that makes for much more pleasant anecdotes. In this post, we’ll attempt to do justice to them all, or at least the ten that made the biggest impressions on this blogger. Ready? Let’s go:

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10. Women Scientists Revolt

emily_temple-woodAmong Wikipedia’s more problematic systemic biases, the gender gap in participation and representation is one of the more frustrating. This year it was momentarily a bright spot, when Emily Temple-Wood, one of Wikipedia’s best known female editors, became a minor media sensation for a project with an irresistible hook: for every instance of online sexual harassment she experienced, she would create another Wikipedia article about a woman scientist. The story was picked up by the BBC, Washington Post, Guardian, New York, and Huffington Post, among many other outlets. The sudden micro-celebrity placed her in the unique category of Wikipedia editors with a Wikipedia biography earned as a result of their editing activities. Jimmy Wales also named her Wikipedian of the Year (along with Rosie Stephenson-Goodnight). And then she started med school.

9. Wikipedia Vandalism, Spectator Sport

lebron_jamesIf you’re the kind of person who searches Google News for “wikipedia” with any frequency, you have undoubtedly seen headlines like “Denver Broncos ‘own’ Carolina Panthers, according to Wikipedia edit”. Seriously, search “wikipedia sports owned” and you’ll find the same combination for Chase Utley and the Mets, LeBron James and the Bulls, Jürgen Klopp and Manchester City. And that’s just one gratingly common construction. Yes, sometimes it can actually be funny. Occasionally, even heartwarming. But no sport is safe, and the phenomenon is familiar enough for Fox Sports (a frequent offender) to have once created a list of “most entertaining” examples. In early 2016, former WSJ reporter and Wikimedia staffer Jeff Elder called out the trend, spotlighting the tedious extra work it creates for Wikipedia volunteers. VentureBeat followed up by making the argument it was time for sportswriters to move on. And so that put an end to it? Yeah, right. It’s not clear what will ever kill this “story”; there is almost certainly nothing within anyone’s actual control. While individual writers or readers may tire of it, the thing about sports is that every big win is a moment without precedent, that obliterates all reason, and naturally seeks a good, mean-spirited to laugh top it off. All things considered, better to vandalize Wikipedia than light a car on fire.

8. The Business of Wikipedia is Fundraising

wmf-fundraisingWikipedia is alone among the top 50 global websites (give or take) for the lack of advertising to be found on its pages. As a consequence, its funding model is the focus of fascination and frustration for both the editorial community and news media alike. And as you’re certainly well aware, every year the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) launches a fundraising drive featuring very prominent and slightly annoying banners—which look a lot like advertisements for Wikipedia itself—to raise money from its millions of readers. To be sure, Wikipedia also raises money via grants and gifts from wealthy donors, but the vast majority comes from the annual campaign.

Beginning in mid-November, the WMF stepped up its annual efforts with a persistent email campaign fronted by Wikipedia’s founder-mascot Jimmy Wales, using sophisticated techniques—variation, highlighting, boldfacing, talky subject lines, and more. WMF fundraising has been A/B tested for awhile, but this was undoubtedly the slickest incarnation yet. And what do you know, it worked: this year Wikipedia reached its annual goal faster than ever before. Such success cannot come sans scrutiny. An op-ed in The Wikipedia Signpost called for greater transparency, The Register needled Wikipedia about this as it does about pretty much everything, and philanthropic publications have second-guessed the WMF’s fundraising strategy writ large.[1]Update: This link previously went to an article on a different subject; this one is from late 2015 but illustrates the same point.

All of which is fair, and one should be so lucky as to have to answer for this kind of success. As The Wikipedian sees it, the question of how much money WMF raises should be secondary to how it is spent, a topic historically less-well reported.

7. ArbCom and the Alt-Right

feels_good_manWikipedia’s Arbitration Committees (ArbComs) are elected panels of dedicated volunteer Wikipedia editors who agree to take up the often unpleasant and always time-consuming task of reviewing disputes involving the behavior of fellow editors. About a dozen of the most-active Wikipedia language editions have one, and it is by its nature the locus of controversy, year in and year out (said fundamental dysfunction last made this list in 2013). Lucky us, now we get to merge that with the rise of an international right-wing movement represented on last year’s list by Gamergate, and which in 2016 we learned to call the “alt-right”.

This is based on two separate incidents on the two most prominent Wikipedias. Worse between them, the German ArbCom saw eight of its ten members resign in the last third of the year. The reasons are too complicated to recite here, but it concerns a single member who IRL is actively involved with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party but had previously hidden his offline political activities from fellow editors. The decimated German ArbCom now lacks a quorum to act, and seems likely to remain inactive at least until new elections are held in May. Second was the near-election to the English ArbCom of a Canadian editor with a troubling Reddit history that included activity on the Gamergate-affiliated WikiInAction subreddit, dedicated to promoting alt-right views on Wikipedia. This candidacy was not successful, but it was a nail-biter, and close ArbCom observers are not reassured about future elections.

Wikipedia has always had obnoxious contributors with noxious views, but their dispersal across the vast expanse of topics meant the problem areas were fairly isolated, and usually avoidable. But ArbCom is one of the few places on Wikipedia where actual power is concentrated. In a U.S. presidential election year (about which more later) in which anti-semitic tropes were promoted by the winning candidate, has there also been a concurrent rise in such views on Wikipedia? Some think so. And will ArbCom face an organized assault like the one the Hugo Awards has faced in recent years? It seems unlikely—but it’s definitely not impossible.

6. Wikipedia Needs Better Critics

Wikipediocracy_logoOur 2013 installment listed the rise of Wikipediocracy, a website devoted to criticism of the Wikimedia movement. This time we’re here not to praise it, but to bury it. The site’s multi-contributor blog has published exactly once in the second half of the year, while its once-lively (and sometimes disreputable) discussion forum has slowed to a crawl. What happened? The biggest factor was the departure of its most serious contributor, Andreas Kolbe, who took his talents to The Signpost. Second was an apparent falling out between mainstays Greg Kohs and Eric Barbour. The latter went on to create an alternative site named, hysterically, Wikipedia Sucks! (And So Do Its Critics.).

The decline of Wikipediocracy highlights the dearth of effective Wikipedia criticism. What have we got? There’s the UK IT news site The Register, which harps on a few recurring themes of narrow appeal. There’s WikiInAction, affiliated with Gamergate, focused even more narrowly. Wikipedia Sucks is a joke, itself barely registering a pulse. For what it’s worth, The Wikipedian does not consider itself to be among their ranks. This site offers Wikipedia criticism, but will admit to being pro-Wikipedia in most ways; The Wikipedian is an apologist, if also a realist. And to drop the pretense for a moment, I don’t post often enough for it to matter but a few times a year.

There is something about Wikipedia criticism that attracts people with fringe views, who are not always the most stable personalities, and whose obsessions tend toward the arcane. Of course this is generally true of the gadfly profession, but when you consider that Wikipedia owes its very existence to freaks and geeks, it shouldn’t be any wonder that participants who hold themselves apart from mainstream Wikipedia may be stranger still.

As of late, the best criticism happens at The Signpost, especially under former editor Kolbe, and now under Pete Forsyth. Given the competition, however, that isn’t necessarily saying much.

5. The Brief, Less Than Wondrous Board Membership of Arnnon Geshuri

Arnnon_GeshuriWe now arrive at the first of a few related topics which dominated the early months of the year, a series of interrelated controversies far greater than this annual list has previously contemplated. The least-related among them was the early January appointment of Arnnon Geshuri to the WMF board of trustees. Geshuri received no public vetting, as most appointed board members do not. However, other board appointees also had not played a public role in one of Silicon Valley’s biggest recent scandals.

To wit: Apple, Google, Intel and others secretly agreed (until, of course, it was found out) not to recruit each others’ employees, thereby holding back the careers, and holding down the salaries, of thousands of employees. As a Google executive, Geshuri had taken the initiative to fire a recruiter after then-CEO Eric Schmidt received an unhappy email from Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs. In his note back to Schmidt, Geshuri added: “Please extend my apologies as appropriate to Steve Jobs.” The U.S. Department of Justice eventually forced the firms to pay $415 million to settle class action claims.

Geshuri’s membership on the Wikimedia board proved to be short-lived. Facing public criticism by former board members, a debate over what to say about it on his own Wikipedia entry, a no-confidence petition signed by more than 200 editors, and probably his own realization that this just wasn’t worth all the trouble, Geshuri stepped aside only two weeks after accepting the position. In another year, this could have been a top story. But 2016 had only just begun.

4. Wikimedia’s New Leader

katherine_maherAnother contender for top story in a less eventful year: the Wikimedia Foundation got a new leader. Katherine Maher was named interim executive director (ED for short) in March, and was made permanent in June. She is the third person to hold the title—the third woman, in fact—and brings experience in global governance, international institutions, and even the Arabic language.[2]Yes, I’m looking at her Wikipedia entry as I write this. Maher also brings something her predecessor lacked: a great deal of experience with Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement.

I am burying the lede, of course: she was previously the WMF’s chief communications officer, a position she had held since 2014. Oh yeah, and about that predecessor… as Wikimedians have already realized, I’m leaving out a lot of back story, and it’s because there is more coming further down this list. All that said, the advent of a new ED is big news in any year, and that’s true this year as well. The fact that Maher’s ascendancy falls outside the top three stories of 2016 owes as much to the public drama leading to her promotion as the absence of drama characterizing the start of her tenure.

3. Fake News and the U.S. Presidential Election

donald_trumpThe U.S. presidential election was literally the biggest story on Wikipedia this year, if we mean the topic that received the most edits across multiple entries. The biographical entry for president-elect Donald Trump, plus articles about Hillary Clinton’s endorsements, the general election, and GOP primary occupy four of the top five slots on the list of most-edited articles.[3]Number one was Deaths in 2016, but that’s pretty much always the case. But there’s a lot more to be said about Wikipedia’s relationship to the craziest and most surprising U.S. election in living memory.

A chief attribute of Trumpism is, well, bullshit—in the Harry Frankfurt sense of the word—and anti-intellectualism as a virtue. As it became clear Trump’s victory was owed in part to falsehoods propagated on social media, the phrase “fake news” gained widespread currency among news commentators. With the mainstream[4]OK, fine, liberal media casting about for a better model, what better exemplar of valuing real facts over imagined realities than Wikipedia? Even before the election, Wikipedia’s model of requiring verification of information and allowing anyone to question received wisdom had garnered positive press attention. Afterward, Wikipedia’s commitment to veracity was held up as a kind of antidote to Facebook’s hands-off attitude toward the truth or falsity of claims shared by its users.[5]Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was initially dismissive of “fake news” concerns, only to do an abrupt about-face and announce plans for a fact-checking feature. The Wikimedia comms team took something of a victory lap in an early December post, declaring:

We are not in a post-fact world. Facts matter, and we are committed to this now more than ever.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that Wikipedia is free of falsehoods. It is only as good as its contributors and the reliability of the news sources they rely upon. Long-persisting hoaxes are not unheard of. Therein lie the biggest threats to Wikipedia: it must maintain an editorial community to uphold its own standards, and the media must keep up its end of the bargain with good reporting. Not unlike democracy, eternal vigilance is the price of an encyclopedia anyone can edit.

2. Lila Tretikov Resigns as Wikimedia ED

Right, so about Katherine Maher’s predecessor as executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation…

Lila_TretikovLast year, The Wikipedian included “Exodus from New Montgomery Street” at number nine in the top-stories list—i.e., the large number of staff departures from the organization since the appointment of Lila Tretikov in 2014. In retrospect, this should have been higher, but in my defense the whispers were rather quiet until the emergence of a matter that we’ll explain better in the next entry.[6]Yes, this year was largely dominated by one very big story at the beginning of the year which had enough distinct elements to be treated separately, making for a confusing narrative. Alas. Tretikov, whose tenure got off to a rocky start for reasons not entirely her own fault and not worth going into again here,[7]if you must, you can go here was eventually forced to resign after losing the confidence of Foundation staff. Morale fell to such depths, and management became so unresponsive that, once the dam burst, virtually the whole thing played out in public, online.

Low-level staffers came out of the woodwork to say what managers would or could not, and community observers filled in the gaps. Most persuasively, ArbCom member Molly White created a detailed timeline of Tretikov’s WMF leadership that presented the sequence of events without commentary—selectively perhaps, but damningly for sure. This very blog took the highly unusual step of actually calling for her ouster, a position this blogger never imagined when launching this site late last decade. Nobody wanted things to arrive at this dire situation, but once they had, Tretikov could no longer effectively lead the organization, and resign is what she did.

Anyway, we’re not quite done with this topic.

1. The Knowledge Engine and its Discontents

Dr._James_HeilmanThe biggest story of 2016 actually began unfolding in the waning days of 2015, when just-elected community board trustee James Heilman announced his resignation with a cryptic message on a community email list. Subsequent comments from other board members failed to resolve the ambiguity. Thus began the most tumultuous period in recent Wikimedia history, ultimately leading to Lila Tretikov’s jumped-before-she-could-be-pushed departure and the elevation of Katherine Maher to the executive director role.

Honestly, I’m kind of dreading the idea of recapping it all here. This blog expended 7,000 words[8]a conservative estimate on the topic earlier this year, and it’s a chore just to summarize. But let’s give it a try:

Heilman’s departure owed to a disagreement about how to handle sensitive information related to the secretive development (and eventual abandonment) of a misbegotten “Manhattan Project” to create a search engine intended to preserve Wikipedia’s prominence if Google ever stopped sending it traffic on its historically massive level. In its most ambitious form, it was called the Knowledge Engine, and Tretikov’s WMF sought a grant for it from the Knight Foundation, with which it previously had enjoyed a good relationship, without disclosing the precise nature of the project. When scaled back, it was called Discovery and was limited to Wikipedia’s on-site search, which isn’t a bad idea by itself but wasn’t clearly a top priority for the volunteer community at large, let alone the foundation staff. The lack of public discussion was echoed in the catastrophic appointment of Geshuri to the board, establishing a pattern that could no longer be overlooked.

knowledge-engine-rocketThe seriousness of the Knowledge Engine fiasco itself may have been overstated in terms of time and money allocated to it (and away from other projects) but it became emblematic of Tretikov’s ineffective leadership. More important probably was the botched Knight request, which contradicted good sense, and was seen to have damaged an important outside relationship. It wasn’t a crime, but it was covered up nonetheless, and Tretikov’s failure to communicate effectively—with external stakeholders, internal managers, staff throughout the organization—was what really did her in.

If you really must have the whole story, and you have a few hours to spare, I recommend the following links:

The regrettable history of the Knowledge Engine, the wasteful exit of Heilman from the board of trustees, the ill-advised appointment of Geshuri to same, the calamitous leadership of Lila Tretikov, the unfortunate departure of so many valuable foundation staffers, were separately and collectively the biggest story on Wikipedia this past year. Here’s hoping 2017 is just a bit less eventful.

All images via Wikipedia, and the copyrights held by their respective contributors.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Update: This link previously went to an article on a different subject; this one is from late 2015 but illustrates the same point.
2. Yes, I’m looking at her Wikipedia entry as I write this.
3. Number one was Deaths in 2016, but that’s pretty much always the case.
4. OK, fine, liberal
5. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was initially dismissive of “fake news” concerns, only to do an abrupt about-face and announce plans for a fact-checking feature.
6. Yes, this year was largely dominated by one very big story at the beginning of the year which had enough distinct elements to be treated separately, making for a confusing narrative. Alas.
7. if you must, you can go here
8. a conservative estimate

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.

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

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on February 19, 2016 at 11:00 am

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


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

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

Deep breath.

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

Knowledge Engine mid

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And nothing more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

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

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

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

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

Notes   [ + ]

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

The Crisis at New Montgomery Street

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on January 11, 2016 at 12:12 pm

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

The major events and themes seem to be as follows:

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

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Arnnon Geshuri Agonistes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Silicon Wiki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes   [ + ]

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

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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?

Jimmy Wales and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Prize Money

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on December 26, 2014 at 4:18 pm

“Jimmy Wales is Not an Internet Billionaire”

So went the tongue-in-cheek headline from a New York Times Magazine cover story about Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales in 2013—ill-treatment this blog mostly defended him from at the time. The profile included a (likely decontextualized) quote from then-Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner: “Everyone makes fun of Jimmy for leaving the money on the table.”

Eighteen months later, one has to think Wales would prefer the sort of light-hearted mockery received at the time to the kinds of questions being asked, albeit not too loudly at this point in time, about his current financial situation.

Jimmy Wales, 2013We pick up the story with this month’s comparatively under-reported news that Jimbo would split, with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a $1 million cash prize from the United Arab Emirates, pegged to a technology award named for the country’s monarch. One only has to skim the Wikipedia article “Human rights in the United Arab Emirates” to get an idea why some people, especially the idealistic sort who make up Wikipedia’s volunteer base, would find this so alarming.

On Jimmy Wales’ user page, the now-archived discussion ran to some 8,600 words, and the way it began—under the heading “Congratulations”, followed by cheery exhortations—differed greatly from how it ended—a contentious argument leading to the resurrection of old charges about Wales’ supposed ties to the government of Kazakhstan, which was eventually “closed” to further participation and “hatted”, i.e. hidden from view by default.

Soon after the well-wishes began piling up, the conversation abruptly shifted. An anonymous contributor claiming to be a student at the American University of Sharjah (with an IP address to match) chastised Wales for squandering an opportunity

to speak out for all Emiratis, and also those non-nationals who are forced into slave labour and have no rights. I am at risk by posting this very message. This is not how it should be Mr Wales. Instead, it appears you were bought for $500,000. You sold us out Mr Wales.

On December 11, below but not directly in reply, Wales wrote:

Every penny of the money will be used to combat human rights abuses worldwide with a specific focus on the Middle East and with a specific focus on freedom of speech / access to knowledge issues. Of course.

The first thing that I did upon returning to London was hire a human rights lawyer full-time to work for me for the next month on these issues. That may turn into a longer term thing, or it may not. As I say, I’m only at the beginning of figuring out the optimal strategic approach.

The mini-controversy was reported in The Daily Dot, a news publication focusing on the social Internet:

Wales made his intentions for the prize money public after pressure from Wikipedians who expressed dismay … In an email to the Daily Dot, Wales specifies that he never planned to keep the money and will use the funds to start his own foundation dedicated to furthering human rights.

But Wales objected to this description of events. Back on his own discussion page, Wales wrote on December 17:

I’ve written to [The Daily Dot] to correct the core error in the story – the false claim that this was done in response to pressure from Wikipedians. I started the process from the moment I was told about the prize, including hiring someone full-time to work on the question of how to best accomplish my goals.

As of this writing, the story has not been “corrected”, and there’s no reason to think one is warranted. If in fact there is no causal relationship, and Wales wants to be believed, he should produce some kind of evidence to substantiate his charges. With or without that, The Daily Dot’s story—that Wales announced his intentions after community pressure—would still have correlation going for it. After all, Wales’ first reply on his own discussion page was:

Thank you all. It’s pretty amazing. It’s actually split with Sir Tim Berners-Lee so not $1 million to me but still it’s impressive.

Does that sound like somebody who has hired a lawyer to help him start non-profit focused on human rights, or somebody contemplating the enjoyment of a sudden and unexpected windfall?

Of course.

Besides Burj Khalifathe Kazakhstan situation, which has always struck me like a misstep on the part of the Wikimedia Foundation and Wales both—seemingly a partnership entered into without a clear understanding of the situation—a few patterns are visible here.

Most superficially, Wales and The Daily Dot have a bit of history. While Wikipediocracy and The Register[1]Which at least thought to ask Sir Tim Berners-Lee how he planned to use the money, so give them credit for that. have self-identified themselves as Wikipedia critics and can therefore be dismissed more easily, The Daily Dot’s Wikipedia coverage has always struck me as skeptical and responsible, as a good news outlet should be.

That history involves The Daily Dot reporting, ironically, that Wales had not paid out prize money he had pledged to winners of his own “Wikipedian of the Year” award in years before. Based on my reading, it sounds like Wales, realizing he was called out, promised to correct the oversight without admitting he was doing so, choosing instead to insult the reporter as “not a real journalist”.[2]One of the award-winners was a Kazakh national, so the plot thickens, or maybe just congeals.

Similar to the above, I still remember at Wikimania 2013 in Hong Kong where, as I wrote in the days after:

    Wales called for a new “hybrid model” of journalism, encouraging collaboration between professionals and amateurs. It sounds interesting, maybe, but he didn’t have an actual model in mind: he called on the Wikipedia and Wikimedia community to help him think it up. I guess we’ll see.

Indeed, we’ve seen that Jimmy Wales has a way of letting things drop, and also his habit of handling criticism poorly. To be fair, I expect Jimmy Wales sees a ton of criticism almost every time he logs in to his Wikipedia account. Sometimes it’s justified, but plenty of it is nonsense. Putting up with irate Wikipedians for more than a decade must result in some kind of negative psychological build-up. On the other hand, it’s not a particularly good look for someone who is the public face of a globally-important non-profit.

While that hybrid journalism project never came to fruition, if I’m being honest, I doubt anyone really thought it would. Anyone who didn’t attend that Wikimania probably has no idea what I’m talking about. But hey, how about this human rights organization he’s talking about? No doubt, Wales has left himself an escape hatch, as he says the “full-time” (!) lawyer “may turn into a longer term thing, or it may not.” But if he is going to escape through it, let’s make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed.

And this non-profit, it has a chance, maybe? We don’t know what it would focus on, how it would go about doing so, or whether it could possibly be effective. But we can say this much: it has a famous spokesman, and it has a budget.

Jimmy Wales photo by Niccolò Caranti; Burj Khalifa photo by Nicolas Lannuzel; both via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Which at least thought to ask Sir Tim Berners-Lee how he planned to use the money, so give them credit for that.
2. One of the award-winners was a Kazakh national, so the plot thickens, or maybe just congeals.

The Unbearable Lightness of Jimbo

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on June 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Is it time for another lengthy profile of Jimmy Wales already? The New York Times Magazine says yes, and so this Sunday’s edition will carry a story now already out on the web under the snarky headline “Jimmy Wales Is Not an Internet Billionaire”.

It’s mostly a catch-up with Wales—a.k.a. Jimbo—now that he’s moved to London, married (for the third time it is noted) to a former Tony Blair aide, and living the jetset life, even if he is not mega-rich. Some of it seems a bit unfair:

His income is a topic of constant fascination. Type “Jimmy Wales” into Google and “net worth” is the first pre-emptive search to pop up. “Everyone makes fun of Jimmy for leaving the money on the table,” says Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia.

I don’t know, I can’t say that I’ve thought that much about Jimmy Wales’ net worth. Wikipedia is unique among the top 10 global sites in that it’s a foundation-backed non-profit, and if you’re telling me the founder of such a website does not have Rockefeller money, I am not going to puzzle about why.

But some have wondered if Wales, who couldn’t figure out a way to become rich off his innovation, was cynically making a play to cash in on being a great humanitarian.

Are the two mutually exclusive? Is there anything less noble about stumbling into a calling that one never sought, but following it where it leads? (Which itself is a much better story, by the way.) Nor is any evidence presented that Wales’ efforts on behalf of Internet freedom is insincere. His libertarian leanings are well-known and pre-dated the establishment of Wikipedia, so why would his interest in this cause be a surprise?

Anyway, the story touches on a number of minor Wikipedia controversies, but gets the closest to saying something interesting about Wales’ actual role on the site when it addresses how Wales’ (not that new) proximity to the rich and famous has occasionally impacted his role at Wikipedia.

Several contributors protested that Wales had used a firsthand, unsourced experience to change Will.i.am’s entry. A user called Fram said Wales had violated Wikipedia protocol, which requires factual information be attributed to published materials. … The same rule applied when Wales tried to get his own birthday changed, from Aug. 8, 1966 (as his passport and driver’s license used to read) to his actual birthday, Aug. 7. “This is unverifiable information, I’m sorry to say,” he wrote on his entry’s talk page. “Maybe I’ll have to upload a signed note from my mom as documentary evidence.”

This scratches at the surface of one of Wikipedia’s thorniest philosophical questions—the Ouroboros nature of verifiability on Wikipedia—but going any further would probably be too much for the Times’ audience.

Meanwhile, the more localized question of Jimbo’s access to power—or maybe that’s power’s access to Jimbo—came up again this past week, when he posed a question on his own user page about whether evidence existed that former NSA contractor turned leaker turned fugitive Edward Snowden had edited Wikipedia under one of his known screen names. Although this was the extent of his asking, some editors (including Fram again) took the issue up as a possible violation of the site’s well-intentioned but oft-excepted policy against “outing” the identities of Wikipedia’s pseudonymous editors. None of this went anywhere, but editors could be forgiven for wondering: who was really asking?

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

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on March 28, 2013 at 9:35 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Women’s Day

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on March 8, 2013 at 9:24 am

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone! As it has in previous years, the Wikipedia community has organized a number of events to celebrate both today and the rest of Women’s History Month, through the WikiWomen’s History Month. Women and feminism-focused edit-a-thons are taking place in countries including Brazil, Poland, Spain, and Sweden. Meanwhile, Wikimedia UK will be giving a talk at the Southbank Center in London, as part of the Women of the World Festival, to encourage women to become Wikipedia editors. Across the U.S. a variety of events are taking place, from edit-a-thons led by THATCamp Feminisms in Claremont, California and Atlanta, Georgia, to a Women in the Arts meet-up at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

If you’ve ever thought about editing but haven’t yet dived in, now is a great time to start. Wikipedia needs more ladies, so please consider getting involved!

The full list of events is available here.

All The Women Who Edit Wiki, Throw Your Hands Up At Me

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on November 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Editor’s note: The author of this post is Rhiannon Ruff (User:Grisette) who last wrote “Public Lives: Jim Hawkins and Wikipedia’s Privacy Dilemma” for The Wikipedian in April 2012.

It’s no secret that the majority of those editing Wikipedia on a regular basis are men. It’s one of the best-known facts about the Wikipedia community and a situation that doesn’t appear to be changing over time. In fact, from 2010 to 2011, the proportion of women editors actually dropped, from 13% to just 9%, according to an independent survey by Wikipedian Sarah Stierch. And it does seem, at least from the media coverage, that this contributes to some bias in content. This issue not taken lightly by the Wikimedia Foundation, which has set a goal of “doubling the percentage of female editors to 25 percent” by 2015, as part of its Strategic Plan.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing here about content bias and what women are actually editing on Wikipedia, and the issues involved in encouraging more women into such a male-dominated space. First, though, let’s round up recent efforts to get more women involved with Wikipedia.

  1. The Wikipedia gender gap mailing list: Founded back in January 2011, subscribers to the list offer up ideas, share experiences, discuss issues and help to develop events and programs. Among recent updates, the list shared news of the latest Wikipedia Editor Survey and the launch of the new WikiProject Women scientists. 295 people are subscribed to the list.
  2. WikiWomen Camp: The inaugural camp was held in Argentina in May 2012. While not focusing on the gender gap, the conference was for female Wikipedia editors to network and discuss projects. A total of twenty women from around the world attended.
  3. WikiWomen’s History Month: March 2012 was the first WikiWomen’s History Month, where editors were encouraged to improve articles related to women in history. During the month 119 new women’s history articles were created and 58 existing articles were expanded.
  4. Workshop for Women in Wikipedia: This project to create in-person workshops encouraging women to edit Wikipedia was started in 2011 and is ongoing. So far, workshops sharing technical tips and discussing women’s participation have been held as part of the WikiConferences in Mumbai (2011) and Washington, D.C. (2012), as well as individual workshops held in D.C., Pune and Mumbai.
  5. The WikiWomens Collaborative: Launched at the end of September 2012, the Collaborative is a Wikimedia community project with its own Facebook page and Twitter account, designed to create a collaborative (hence the name) and supportive working space for women. Participants share ideas for projects, knowledge about Wikipedia and particularly support efforts to improve content related to women. Projects promoted by the Collaborative include Ada Lovelace Day, when participants were encouraged to improve articles related to women in math and science, including via an edit-a-thon organized by Wikimedia UK and hosted by The Royal Society in London. So far, the Collaborative has over 500 Twitter followers and 414 Likes on Facebook.

With all this activity, it’ll be interesting to see the results of the 2012 Wikipedia Editor Survey to see whether there has been any positive shift in the numbers of female editors. Look for those results early next year. Meanwhile, stay tuned here for my next post discussing gendered patterns of editing and Wikipedia’s knowledge gaps.

They Send You a Cease and Desist Letter, You Send One of Theirs to the Morgue

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on August 4, 2010 at 6:46 am

Apparently the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the nation’s top cops, the G-Men, the public enemies of all public enemies, have found a new target: Wikipedia! The New York Times ran a short article yesterday about a funny-if-it-wasn’t-serious situation whereby the FBI recently sent a letter to the San Francisco offices of the Wikimedia Foundation

demanding that it take down an image of the F.B.I. seal accompanying an article on the bureau, and threatened litigation: “Failure to comply may result in further legal action. We appreciate your timely attention to this matter.”

But the Foundation won’t budge:

The problem, those at Wikipedia say, is that the law cited in the F.B.I.’s letter is largely about keeping people from flashing fake badges or profiting from the use of the seal, and not about posting images on noncommercial Web sites. Many sites, including the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, display the seal.

Other organizations might simply back down. But Wikipedia sent back a politely feisty response, stating that the bureau’s lawyers had misquoted the law. “While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version” that the F.B.I. had provided.

The relevant statute, helpfully linked by the New York Times, states:

§ 701. Official badges, identification cards, other insignia

Whoever manufactures, sells, or possesses any badge, identification card, or other insignia, of the design prescribed by the head of any department or agency of the United States for use by any officer or employee thereof, or any colorable imitation thereof, or photographs, prints, or in any other manner makes or executes any engraving, photograph, print, or impression in the likeness of any such badge, identification card, or other insignia, or any colorable imitation thereof, except as authorized under regulations made pursuant to law, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

I do find it ironic, considering that Wikipedia and other projects administered by its parent organization are among the most scrupulous on the whole of the Internet about respecting copyright law.

In most circumstances, Wikipedia requires that images used on the site be in the public domain or released under a free license explicitly permitting such use. Only in circumstances where there is no hope a suitable alternative may be available does the site allow copyrighted images, and only then under very limited circumstances. If you want to use the Nike swoosh on your user page or the article about Michael Jordan, no such luck but you will certainly find it on the company’s corporate profile.

The FBI seal, as a work of the United States government, falls under the first category — it is considered public domain — but its use is nevertheless limited to pages about certain FBI-specific subjects. And the photo’s page on the Wikipedia server even includes this helpful advisory:


With no sources inside The House J. Edgar Hoover Built, I’m puzzled as to why they would do this. Perhaps they got the site confused with WikiLeaks?

Google’s Gift to Wikipedia Probably Not Evil

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on March 3, 2010 at 11:29 pm

This is a few days old now, but if you haven’t already heard, Google gave Wikipedia $2 million dollars to help with its never-sated appetite for bandwidth and “increasing … multimedia needs.” Here are two of the Internet’s most important websites getting together, and I’d have thought it would’ve been worth more than a small roundup on Techmeme.

Reported the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 18:

Google Inc., the Internet’s most profitable company, is giving $2 million to support Wikipedia, a volunteer-driven reference tool that has emerged as one of the Web’s most-read sites.


Wikimedia Foundation, owner of Wikipedia, said Wednesday that Google has donated $2 million to further develop the popular encyclopedia and other projects.

Awesome. Right.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, broke the news on Twitter on Tuesday, followed by a formal announcement from the nonprofit organization.

Twitter, well played.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, in a statement, called Wikipedia “one of the greatest triumphs of the Internet…this vast repository of community-generated content is an invaluable resource to anyone who is online.”

You bet. Of course. But why now?

To some this raises the question of what Wikipedia might do for Google; after all, a sizable donation could be said to create the possibility of a Conflict of Interest. Previous donations, such as that from a conspicuous Silicon Valley VC and partner of Elevation Partners (not Bono), have raised eyebrows. And everyone knows about Jimmy Wales’ occasional willingness to cut special someones (and Google is) a break — at least until the community gets involved.

But this question is probably backward. Wikipedia already helps Google, and by helping Wikipedia, Google helps itself.

Google depends on Wikipedia to provide topical, authoritative results at the top of its search results pages (SERPs, in SEO-speak) on more subjects than any other website. One occasionally-discussed, conspiracy-tinged theory has Google purposefully privileging Wikipedia precisely because it “cleans up” their search results. That’s possible.

But that isn’t needed to explain Wikipedia’s prominence on Google. It guarantees, for a range of topics functionally as vast as Google searches are regularly performed, an end result that is usually informative, free (as in beer, but liberty too) and not-for-profit, “not evil” and reliably neutral in a Switzerland kind of way. From what we know about Google’s recommendations for webmasters, no website is so organized as well around the Google algorithm as Wikipedia, whether we’re talking about software, community or purpose. It’s basically Google’s perfect website.

Yeah, I would give Wikipedia $2 million, too. And even though it’s positively swimming in cash, I’d probably give it some more.

License to Chill: What Does Wikipedia’s Adoption of Creative Commons Mean to You?

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on May 25, 2009 at 7:15 am

Jay Walsh, head of communications at the Wikimedia Foundation — the organization which owns Wikipedia’s trademark and its equipment — announced on the Foundation’s official blog last week:

Today we announced some fantastic news. The proposal to see Wikimedia’s content adopt a new dual license system has been voted on and approved by the Wikimedia community. With the full approval of our Board of Trustees, this now means that the Wikimedia Foundation will proceed with the implementation of a CC-BY-SA/GFDL dual license system on all of our project’s content. The new dual license will begin to come into effect in June.

This is pretty inside baseball, but I can imagine the average Wikipedia reader would have at least two questions about this change: 1) Why did this change take place? and 2) How will this affect my experience at Wikipedia?

Fortunately, the Foundation released a FAQ answering those very questions (and many more, because many Wikipedia contributors may be unfamiliar with these issues). I will attempt to summarize:

    1) The GFDL, which refers to GNU Free Documentation License, was the original alternative to copyright. It was created by software developers who wanted something in between “All Rights Reserved” and total public domain (because others would take their public domain material, modify it, and copyright it all over again). Wikipedia was always meant to be free (as in speech and beer) and GFDL was the only way to make this happen. However, it also required that GFDL content quoted elsewhere carry about three pages of documentation — cumbersome for quoting Wikipedia in a book and impossible when said content is audio or video, among other problems. In recent years, an organization called Creative Commons has released a number of similar licenses which are better-suited to Wikipedia. The move has been a long time coming, held up only by bureaucratic negotiations. Technically, GFDL isn’t going away, but when those complicating issues arise, Creative Commons’ rules will take precedence.

I’m not sure I succeeded in making that simple. But I promise I can make the second one easy, and I can quote directly from the FAQ:

    2) “Our experience has been that relatively few editors and users are engaged enough with the licensing issues we’re discussing here to be affected in any significant way by the update.”

If most Wikipedia editors aren’t going to notice a difference, then neither will anyone who simply reads Wikipedia for fun and information. So rest easy — the new and improved Wikipedia and the familiar old Wikipedia are one and the same.