Institutional change

WWII poster, public domain.

Something has seemed different for the past month or so. I don’t think it’s community change, but institutional change, or maybe relationship-between-community-and-institution change. The institution being the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF).

What has materially happened?

Foundation-l was starting to become a lame duck but the last few weeks have certainly changed that.

About leaks. They are so viciously harmful. For people who knew the information beforehand, they become distrustful of one another. For people who didn’t know, it is a terrible way to find something out (if you actually care about the organisation), because it says “we didn’t trust you enough to tell you before”, and look, here you are knowing something, and the sky is not falling in. To find out something from hostile sources, that they actually knew before you, really destroys your ability to dismiss them as obsessed jerks. It is like your worst enemy telling you you are adopted, and then it actually being true. Wikipedia generally prides itself on knowing its own flaws better than its critics (although acting on that knowledge is always more difficult), but I think the same cannot be said of WMF.

So, first there was the “secret mailing lists” saga. This is really an en.wp drama that spiralled into unbelievable proportions, not helped by a mailing list hosted on Wikia and having Board members as subscribers. I don’t think that drama was actually about anything meaningful but it did not, in a general sense, speak well for cultural openness.

Second there was the Carolyn Doran story. I truly felt a little bit wounded to find out about this from a hostile source. Which is a stupid, purely selfish reaction but there it is. The puerility of the story itself and the evasiveness with which her leaving was handled at the time did not help I suppose. Mostly I felt sorry that Doran was being subjected to such crazy scrutiny by strangers all over the globe merely because she was unlucky enough to work for WMF. I hope she was and is not aware of it. I don’t think WMF staff should have to have a bulletproof private life just because Wikimedia has earned enough enemies that they will muck-rake through it.
So generally I accept Mike Godwin’s stance that they cannot go into detail about staff issues, and that seems OK.

Next, although not really documented on foundation-l, was a couple of leaks (or rather teasers) through blogs.

Mike Godwin’s latest email says

I do think that reflexive criticism, conspiracy-mongering, and hostility is destructive, and I think we all ought to be as self-aware as possible about whether we’re saying things that promote destructive memes.

D’oh. I have no idea if I am “promoting a destructive meme”. Mike says “long-term recovery from institutional problems that are not unusual in growing organizations” but if that’s what this is, he doesn’t explain how to process it, for those who feel it not like a recovery.

I just love this thing we’re doing, Wikimedia, and I’d hate to see this ship go down because everybody accepted the crack-papering without speaking up.

Lately, the fundraiser ended. Several aspects of the fundraiser caused friction that could so, so easily have been avoided. For example the first banner, that was quickly redesigned after its unveiling, and the idea of representing donors rather than dollars. (Why wasn’t the banner “released” to the community before the fundraiser began? Ditto with the video.) The matching donations that came so late in the campaign. The extension to the fundraiser’s length that came like a day or two before it was due to end. The poor management of translators. Like really. None of that is rocket science. So I am glad that one of the new staff being hired is a fundraiser person.

I haven’t blogged about Florence’s posts, for literally weeks, because they are just sitting in my inbox and they have been rumbling around the back of my head as I try to process them while life continues on. But I have failed to date, so lest they don’t get recorded at all, I will just list some important posts from the last few weeks and encourage all Wikimedians to read them, think about them, talk about them.

I feel there are two paths for the future. Either we keep a board mostly
made of community members (elected or appointed), who may not be
top-notch professionals, who can do mistakes, such as forgetting to do a
background check, such as not being able to do an audit in 1 week, such
as not signing the killer-deal with Google, but who can breath and pee
wikimedia projects, dedicate their full energy to a project they love,
without trying to put their own interest in front. A decentralized
organization where chapters will have more room, authority and leadership.

Or we get a board mostly made of big shots, famous, rich, or very
skilled (all things potentially beneficial), but who just *do not get
it*. A centralized organization, very powerful, but also very top-down.

My heart leans toward the first position of course. But at the same
time, I am aware we are now playing in the big room and current board
members may not be of sufficient strength to resist the huge wave.

I do not share the same optimism than Jimbo with regards to Knol. I
think Knol is probably our biggest threat since the creation of
Wikipedia. I really mean the biggest. Maybe not so much the project
itself, but the competition it will create, the PR consequences, the
financial tsunami, the confusion in people minds (free as in free speech
or as in free of charge). Many parties are trying to influence us, to
buy us, and conflicts of interest are becoming the rule rather than the
exception. There are power struggles on the path.

1. Quality
2. Promotion of lesser known projects
3. Software development
4. License, international laws and compatibility
5. Wikimania, reinventing the wheel, and civility
6. Wikicouncil
7. Chapters and general assembly
8. Board membership, election
9. financial sustainability, controls and independance
10. Organization. Clarification of board role and limits to executive

(see her post for details)

I very much like these goals. But they will only have a chance of succeeding if the community picks them up and pushes them whenever there’s a lull. We need more than “mailing list memory” to succeed with these.

09 January, 2008 • ,



Without people to continually provide a countering viewpoint, and to provide criticism of the foundation’s activities on the mailing lists, we will never have any change. The entire reason that the foundation has undergone this shift towards more transparency lately is because people on the lists who know these things are getting sick and tired of being mistreated, and are speaking up. That’s not vicious, nor is it harmful. What’s vicious and harmful is a structure that created when you arbitrarily give two different people of the same organization different amounts of information. ComCom members know different things from each other, because some are not allowed to access internal wiki. This is wrong. Foundation-l members know different things from each other, because some are privately told things by the board and staff. This perpetuates an atmosphere of secrecy and “leaking”, which is really just the sharing of knowledge.

The REAL way to ensure transparency has nothing to do with letting the community decide about things (For all the hullaballoo about OMG I NEVER WANT TO SEE A COMMUNITY VOTE ON AN ACCOUNTANT it’s a strawman): It has to do with ABSOLUTE and TRUTHFUL informing to the community of ALL of the foundation’s activities unless they are REQUIRED not to do so. So far nothing of the sort has happened.

I’m probably going to make a blog post about this on my blog at Wikilaw in the next couple of days.

Dan Rosenthal/Swatjester

Swatjester · 10. January 2008, 07:33


Dan, I think it has probably always been true that different people know different amounts of information at different times, so I don’t see why it would suddenly makes things feel different and people act differently (leak).

pfctdayelise · 10. January 2008, 21:28


“Why wasn’t the banner “released” to the community before the fundraiser began?”

The mockups of the original banner were actually done on Meta, but the process wasn’t very advertised. As for the video, we only got a copy at the last minute. :P

There’s no question it could have been handled better, and lessons have been learned for next year. Actually having someone in charge of the fundraiser will be a big help…

Brion · 11. January 2008, 11:20

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