William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Denny Vrandečić’

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2020

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on December 31, 2020 at 1:46 pm

It’s no overstatement to say that 2020 was a year where everything changed. Since March, ubiquitous semi-ironic references to the “Before Times” have served to euphemize the unfathomable. To date, COVID-19 has killed nearly two million people worldwide, reshaped the global economy, galvanized worldwide protests, and impacted politics, business and culture for years to come—including in ways we can’t yet see. 2020 gets all the hate now, but can we be so certain that the coming year will be meaningfully different?

2020 was also a time of change for Wikipedia, though these shifts occurred almost entirely below the surface: unless you’re an active participant in the Wikimedia movement, much of this list will come as news to you. This was a year where ambitious new projects were announced, small-scale tweaks took on larger significance, the relationship between human editors and the software supporting them became more fraught, differences in vision between the community and professional corners of Wikipedia emerged or were reinforced, and the future of the movement simultaneously became both clearer and more contentious.

Every year since 2010, The Wikipedian has offered its summary of the top ten Wikipedia stories—events, themes, and trends—of the previous year. In this installment we’ll do the same again, but with a little something extra. On Wednesday, December 30, I joined a recording of the Wikipedia Weekly YouTube livestream to discuss the big issues of the year that was. This list is informed by the “top ten” discussed on this show, although it is not identical. I hope you’ll read through my list, and then watch or listen to the discussion, which complements the topics covered below.

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10. Wikipedia approaches its 20th anniversary

Countless retrospective pieces will surely be published in the coming weeks to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Wikipedia, which I am certain you do not need to look up to know was founded on January 15, 2001. That milestone has loomed large over the past year, lending additional significance to milestones and benchmarks recently passed.

Wikipedia’s 6 millionth article, maybe?

In January, Wikipedia hit 6 million articles in the English language, its largest and most widely-read edition. No one knows precisely which article was the true number 6,000,000, but the nod was given to Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, co-founder of the Women in Red project, for her article about a Canadian schoolteacher and temperance movement leader. 

In February, Wired published a story calling Wikipedia “the last best place on the internet”, using the site as a counterpoint to the neverending dumpster fire of today’s World Wide Web—the last refuge of the promise of the “open web” which has long since given way to the mundanity of knowledge workers never being offline, every day facing another onslaught of disinformation and unpleasantry. By the end of the year, BuzzFeed offered a different way of saying pretty much the same thing: “The Top 40 Most Read Wikipedia Pages Of 2020 Perfectly Capture The Hellscape That Was 2020”.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s impressive stature was affirmed yet again when Twitter announced it was considering using Wikipedia as a benchmark for which user accounts would be bestowed with the simultaneously coveted and scorned “blue checkmark”. It was likewise affirmed in a more serious way when the World Health Organization announced it would be licensing its information for use on Wikipedia.

All in all, not a bad way to mark two decades, right? Well, you should see what else happened.

9. Should Wikipedia fear a Section 230 repeal?

If the phrase “Section 230” doesn’t mean much to you, then you probably don’t spend much time following the United States Congress… or on Twitter. Section 230 is the portion of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that protects providers of internet platforms, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and, of course, Wikipedia, from being sued for content posted by users. Section 230 specifically allows these websites to moderate content—or not—as it sees fit. The internet as we know it today could not exist without it.

But in the last few years, 230 has come under increasing scrutiny, especially for websites alleged to permit sex trafficking (Craigslist), or terroristic threats (8chan), or disinformation (too many to count, but Facebook especially). What’s more, right-wing politicians and conspiracy theorists in the U.S. have viewed it as shielding the tech giants which they believe (or at least claim to believe) are censoring them. Meanwhile, “the internet as we know it today” is no longer seen as the frontier of possibility it was as recently as 2015. In the last week of December 2020, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tied a vote on the latest covid stimulus package to 230 repeal, a poison pill designed to derail modifications sought by Democrats (and of course Republicans’ own outgoing president). 

Although I hesitate to make any predictions about the world we live in now, full repeal seems exceedingly unlikely. But maybe I’m only saying that because the internet after 230 is impossible to imagine—it would spell headaches at best and doom at worst for the entire Web 2.0 ecosystem (including Wikipedia) and the tech giants who rely upon it. So while it’s probably not going to happen, it’s still worth worrying about.

8. Creating Theresa Greenfield’s Wikipedia article

November already feels like it was years ago, but barely two months ago a news story involving Wikipedia captured the attention of American political media for about 24 hours: why Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic nominee opposing Iowa senator Joni Ernst, did not have a Wikipedia article. It goes without saying that Wikipedia is a widely-read source of information by voters, so it seemed notable that Iowans (and the reporters covering one of the country’s most hotly contested racers) couldn’t even look her up on Wikipedia.

The reason owes to a perfect storm of three applicable circumstances: 1) Greenfield was not a well-known figure prior to capturing the Senate nomination, 2) Wikipedia doesn’t have a rule granting “Notability” to major party nominees, but 3) it does have a rule against creating articles about individuals known for just one event—in this case, the Senate race. This surprised me, because for years I had been under the impression that there was a rule automatically guaranteeing an entry for major party nominees, the same way there is for professional athletes.

As tends to happen in such cases, debate ensued and Greenfield was eventually granted a Wikipedia entry. Given how much news the race had generated, the article quickly grew to a level of detail that made the earlier obstinacy seem ridiculous. And then on November 3, she lost.

7. Scots Wikipedia and the trouble with small Wikipedias

Perhaps the actual biggest story involving Wikipedia this year, at least in terms of headlines generated, was the “fun” and “lighthearted” discovery that the Scots Wikipedia was basically a complete sham. For those whose only experience with Scots is thumbing through an Irvine Welsh novel sometime after seeing Trainspotting in the mid-1990s, Scots is either a language of its own or a heavy dialect of English spoken by the Scottish peoples. This blog last mentioned it in 2014 when Scotland voted on a referendum to leave the United Kingdom (lolsob emoji goes here) and it is one of the smaller language editions of Wikipedia.

If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!

Well… in August a Reddit user realized that roughly a third of its 60,000-odd articles had been written by a single user, who turned out to be an American teenager with scant knowledge of proper Scots grammar or terminology. In other words, by a kid using a bad Scottish accent. The story was too good to pass up for almost any outlet that considers itself remotely “online”, and they all had a good laugh

A month after the Scots Wikipedia controversy, it emerged that a significant majority of the articles on the Wikipedia edition written in Malagasy—the national language of Madagascar—had been written by a bot translating articles from other editions. And most of them rather badly. And the Malagasy Wikipedia is far from the only Wikipedia edition to be mostly written by bots—a Vice report in February pointed out that the Cebuano edition was largely written without human editors, albeit apparently with more success.

But bots are not the only challenge. In a different example, the Portuguese Wikipedia—containing more than one million entries with just shy of 1400 active editors—decided to ban IP accounts from making edits, because the vast majority of vandalism on the site came from these unregistered editors. According to the Wikipedia Signpost, vandalism went down, and new account creation increased. This is unlikely to be adopted on the largest editions, but it’s worth watching to see if other small language communities decide to follow suit.

5. Anticipation and apprehensions about Abstract Wikipedia

Wikipedia is as human-created a project as exists in the world, but its future increasingly looks to be dominated by computers, programs, and algorithms. Look no further than the newly announced project called Abstract Wikipedia, and its sister project WikiFunctions, which plans to do much the same as the bots on small Wikipedias, but at a much larger scale and with greater ingenuity. 

First announced in a Signpost editorial in April, and approved unanimously by the WMF board just three months later, Abstract Wikipedia aims to create Wikipedia articles independent of any one language, combining structured data and “functions” related to information within them, to make it feasible for machine translation to effectively translate articles from one language to another. It sounds so ambitious as to be reckless, but its pedigree couldn’t be better—creator Denny Vrandečić is a former WMF board member, former Googler, and the creator of another pie-in-the-sky project that has become wildly successful: Wikidata.

Father of Wikidata, and now Abstract Wikipedia

As Vrandečić pointed out, of all topics that exist across Wikipedia, only a third of them have articles in English. Further: “only about half of articles in the German Wikipedia have a counterpart on the English Wikipedia … There are huge amounts of knowledge out there that are not accessible to readers who can read only one or two languages.”

If Abstract Wikipedia succeeds, it points toward a future where Wikipedia is controlled less by those who can merely write articles, and more by those who can write code. Exciting as the project may be, anxieties exist, too. Will Abstract Wikipedia dictate the content of articles, or merely inform them? Local control matters a lot to Wikipedians and, as we’ll see in the next few sections, WMF bigfooting is of increasing concern to some community members.

But it’s also easy to see why it appeals to many Wikimedians: much like Wikidata and very much unlike Wikipedia, it’s greenfield, unencumbered by the old habits of the arguably hidebound, conservative editorial base that both keeps Wikipedia running while also preventing it from growing beyond its original vision. The building of Abstract Wikipedia is set to begin in 2022, and it’s expected to start integrating with Wikipedia itself in 2023.

5. WMF Board makes some suspicious moves

In the spring, as the far-reaching implications of the coronavirus pandemic became clearer, the Wikimedia Board of Trustees announced that it would postpone its tri-annual board elections, and the three trustees whose terms were set to expire would stay on for another year. At the time, it was seen as a regrettable if understandable concession to the dire circumstances, even for an organization that can operate exclusively online in many other ways.

But then in October, the Board unveiled a considerable overhaul to the committee’s bylaws, with eyebrow-raising changes to the terms of, well, board elections. Certain board seats were no longer described as “community-selected” but “community-sourced”, and the words “majority” and “voting” were removed. A number of community members raised concerns that it could spell the end of community-elected board members, thereby increasing the stratification between the “professional” and “community” parts of Wikipedia. WMF general counsel Amanda Keton conceded that the community had “found a bug” in the proposal, and promised they would address them in a revision that is still yet to come.

Compounding matters, the timeline set for the change was considered too short, while Board members expressed different opinions about how far along in the process the proposals really were. Furthermore, apt questions were raised about the wisdom of sweeping changes when the board had three members who, in normal times, wouldn’t even be there. Perhaps it was merely an oversight, but it certainly exacerbated tensions that already existed.

4. Wikimedia debates Jimmy Wales’ permanent board seat

But that wasn’t the only discordant note involving Board governance this year. Shortly after the new bylaws were proposed, prominent Wikimedian Liam Wyatt suggested another change: discontinuing Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ permanent “Community Founder Trustee Position”—in short, eliminating his board seat after nearly 20 years. As Wyatt put it, “Now that the WMF is a mature organisation, I do not believe it is appropriate any longer for a single individual to have an infinitely-renewable and non-transferrable position on the board.”

Jimmy Wales, man of the people—really!

Wales himself replied in short order, expressing a not intractable opposition to the idea at some point, but arguing that the reason it should not happen now is because of the self-same tensions ongoing. As Wales put it, it is actually he who represents the community among the professional set. And in fact, Wales’ positions on the board have been largely pro-community, including expressed opposition to curtailing community voter supervision of the board.

And while it seemed a “modest proposal” in its initial offering, the idea was soon hotly debated, with community members taking it very seriously and arguing the pros and cons. Mike Godwin, former WMF general counsel, even took to the Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group to argue for Wales as the connective tissue back to Wikipedia’s original purpose, concluding: “in my view, he shouldn’t be kicked out of the traditional position before he’s ready to go.”

The debate never really focused on Wales’ leadership, but rather the wisdom of having such a position in the first place, and it doesn’t seem likely to be taken much further for now. In a year where many statues around the world fell, it seems like the Wikimedia community decided it should at least consider whether to topple one of its own.

3. Covering COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests

It feels sort of wrong to put COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests into just one list item, but they are very much of a piece, and together they highlight what Wikipedia’s community is better at than any other editorial body: documenting far-reaching global happenings. The old saying about journalism being the “first draft of history” made sense when it was first expressed, but now that role clearly belongs to Wikipedia.

This blog covered both efforts when they first arose, in the early part and middle of the year, respectively, with posts more thoroughly researched than imaginatively titled: “How Wikipedia is Covering the Coronavirus Pandemic” and “How Wikipedia Has Responded to the George Floyd Protests”. Both subjects gave rise to dozens, if not hundreds, of new articles apiece, and several were among the most-read Wikipedia pages all year long. Quartz recently assembled a calendar depicting the most-read articles for each day of the year, and the month of June is dominated by relevant topics, including Killing of George Floyd, Juneteenth, and Edward Colston.

George Floyd protest in Brooklyn

The George Floyd protests also created opportunities for organizing around social justice issues, which have been close to the hearts of many Wikimedia affiliate groups for a long time. A virtual Juneteenth edit-a-thon was well-attended, WikiProject Black Lives Matter took shape, and the AfroCrowd initiative built a following.

To this day, the main page of the English Wikipedia retains an information box in its top right corner directing readers to critical information about the pandemic.

Activism on Wikipedia is a tricky thing: as the Neutral point of view policy spells out clearly, articles should not advocate for a particular perspective on the topics covered. But which articles Wikipedians choose to edit shows a lot about what they think is most important.

2. Effects of the global pandemic on the Wikimedia movement

How much could Wikipedia be affected by a global pandemic, anyway? Everything it does is about putting information on the internet, while the lockdowns and restrictions most affected those who couldn’t simply move online, such as restaurants and the travel industry.

In the first place, its professional class realized how much it actually depends on travel. Although all the editing necessarily happens online, in every other year dozens of regional and global meetings take place. The Wikimedia Summit, formerly known as the Wikimedia Conference and scheduled for April, was the first to be canceled. It didn’t take long for the main annual event, Wikimania, to be “postponed” from its August date in Bangkok, Thailand as well. Rumor has it that Wikimania 2021 will not happen either.

Some events, with more time to prepare, moved online: Wikiconference North America went ahead with a scaled-down virtual program in mid-December. And Wikipedia’s community has long made use of online tools from the esoteric like IRC and Etherpad to the commonplace like Zoom and Google Hangouts. A new wikiproject even sprang up to catalog the various online-only events, and to offer advice to those wanting to host their own. But virtual conferences are a split proposition: the lack of obligation to appear in-person made it easier for some to participate remotely, while removing a lot of the reason to show up in the first place for others.

I’ll add one more possible effect of the pandemic, and I suggest this very delicately: COVID-19 might have actually been a good thing for Wikipedia. As The Signpost noted this summer, editing activity on Wikipedia surged to levels not previously seen in a decade. As they explained: “Recent years seem to have stabilised at a million edits every six to six and a half days, so the lockdown period with its editing levels of a million edits every five days is a significant increase.” 

Some people learned to make sourdough. Others, presumably, learned to edit Wikipedia.

1. The Wikipedia Foundation?

Chances are, you have never heard of the biggest controversy to envelop Wikipedia in 2020. The dispute, which began in January, boiled over in June, and remains as yet unresolved, centered on the obvious desire of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) to change its name to the “Wikipedia Foundation” despite the clear majority of active Wikimedians who oppose the idea. 

The case in favor of doing so is simple: everyone and their grandmother knows what Wikipedia is, but almost no one outside of the movement knows what Wikimedia means. Wikipedia’s ubiquity has overshadowed other important projects funded by the WMF. By rechristening the entire endeavor “Wikipedia” and doing away with the confusing split branding of “Wikimedia”, it would unify the whole project behind the one word everyone knows.

I still remember when the WMF logo was in color

But the arguments against were simple, too, and passionate: rather than drawing attention to other projects, it would obscure their independent status and achievements. Further, the proposed change was initiated without sufficient feedback or consideration for the branding of the movement’s many organized chapters and user groups. Procedurally, it was inexplicably separated from the rest of the long-gestating Wikimedia 2030 Movement Strategy that it clearly belonged to, and rushed to the proposal stage at a time when the conferences and meetings where this would normally be debated had been called off due to the pandemic. What’s more, the proposal drew the harshest rebuke from those very groups who work most closely with the WMF—a rare intra-wiki dispute not between Wikipedia’s professionals and volunteers, but within the professional class itself.

The sequence of events was damning, too: In June, the WMF opened up a survey asking the community to weigh in on what Wikipedia should call itself. The survey was heavily weighted toward the conclusion that “Wikipedia Foundation” was the way to go, even though a Request for Comment earlier in the year ran 9 to 1 against it. Yet the WMF decided that its “informed oppose” was less than 1%, based on an invented number of “~9,000” community members whom they claimed had a chance to fill out the survey, though far fewer actually submitted responses. Soon after, an open letter organized by the affiliate groups received nearly 1,000 signatories calling on the WMF to “pause renaming activities … due to process shortcomings”. 

And so it was shelved, but only until March 2021. Whether the WMF will go ahead and become the WPF (I guess) remains to be seen, but this blog for one finds it unlikely. Interestingly enough, it also shows the limits of even these change-oriented groups’ interest in changing how they think of themselves and the movement they’ve dedicated their lives and careers to. The WMF would do well to put this aside and accept this as just one of the many contradictions that Wikipedia has managed to succeed in spite of over nearly two decades. As the old joke among longtime editors goes: “Wikipedia doesn’t work in theory, only in practice.” That’s as true here as it is anywhere.

For threatening the goodwill of its closest allies, for creating a headache where none need exist, and for being an own goal of massive proportions, the controversy around the renaming of the Wikimedia Foundation is easily the #1 Wikipedia story of 2020. 

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And now, if you still can’t get enough Wikipedia year-in-review content, I present to you the Wikipedia Weekly episode featuring Richard Knipel, Vera de Kok, Netha Hussain, Jan Ainali, Andrew Lih, and yours truly. Enjoy, and see you in 2021!

Image credits, top top bottom: Public domain, Sodacan, Victor Grigas, Zachary McCune, Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Foundation

The Crisis at New Montgomery Street

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on January 11, 2016 at 12:12 pm

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

The major events and themes seem to be as follows:

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

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

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The Sacking of Doc James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Trouble With Tretikov

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

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

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

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


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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.


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.