The need for a self-documenting community

So I was about to make a reference to the recent Kaltura brouhaha, and I went looking for an appropriate summary blog post to link to, but I couldn’t find one. Ben Yates hadn’t written on it, nor Geoffrey Burling, nor Milos Rancic, nor Wikipedia Weekly discussed it. Wikizine seems to have gone on an unexpected hiatus (and suddenly makes my browser die :( ) and the Signpost only mentioned it in passing. So there’s all my usual suspects. The only blogger to give it non-cursory treatment was Kelly Martin.

Kelly does not really write with any pretence to balance, so I had to write it myself. Tch.

To the point: Why do we need a self-documenting community? To learn from our own history is an obvious one. I have been around Wikimedia for a while now and I still step in it because I am accidentally rehashing a debate that has been had many times in the past. But guess what? New community members won’t read mailing list archives no matter how much you plead. Even if you do do the nice summarising, plenty of times people still don’t read it. At least they have a chance, though. Saying “go read the foundation-l archives sometime in early 2003” is not quite an acceptable suggestion.

There is a second reason, more immediately of interest. Wikipedia has enemies. I don’t say this because I like getting my cult on, but because their unreserved and unmediated hostility towards Wikipedia could earn them no other title.

Sadly, these people frequently target individual Wikimedia editors. This is really troubling. It creates fear and pain in the experience of people who are otherwise enjoying a fun and rewarding hobby. I don’t know any other internet community where contributing in an enjoyable and positive way could lead to such targeted personal hostility. Being aware and cautious of that possibility is not something that is generally going to lead to a more open and healthy community, I think.

The work of these people thrives not because of the personal attacks (I hope), but because Wikimedia usually fails at sensible self-criticism, before the fact.

Wikipedia has many processes that have significant failings. Wikipedians know this. No Wikipedian thinks the processes of Wikipedia are perfect. (Other Wikimedia projects are the same, but they are less pressing as they have less visibility.)

If there is nowhere to turn within the community for seriously critical analysis, we cannot be surprised when enemies of Wikimedia thrive. A lack of internal mechanisms of criticism is like oxygen for them.

I don’t think the lack of internal criticism is intentional. As Wikimedians know, criticism is at times all-too-forthcoming: mailing lists, endless talk pages…However these things are particularly opaque, not easily accessed, and transient. (There is now also the WikBack forums, but I will wait a bit longer to see how the troll:insightful ratio ends up before judging its utility.)

I am not sure that blogs are that much more permanent, but I hope so. Mailing lists and wiki discussions are also the points of criticism themselves, rather than sensible summaries.

So this is a call out to the Wikimedia community, to write about your experiences — critically, but without cynicism. Do it so we can start to fix our own flaws without waiting for crises flagged by external parties.
If you want to write a guest post on my blog as a prelude to the real thing, just drop me a line.

13 February, 2008 •



What, me not balanced? Shirley, you jest!

Wikipedia does have enemies, but most of them are of its own making. At the same time, many of these were people who were likely predisposed (due to their own mental illness personality quirks) to make enemies.

Wikipedia and Wikimedia are both remarkably intolerant of criticism. It’ll be interesting to see if anybody accepts your offer. I suspect you’ll find that most of the critical commentary comes from people who have either already left the projects, or are on their way out.

An interesting question to get an answer to would be to establish whether people leave because their criticisms lead to being pushed out, or because the dead response to criticism leads them to decide not to waste further time on the project. I suspect it’s a combination of the two, honestly. Either way, the community’s lack of useful response to well-reasoned criticism has led to the departure of many excellent participants, and is almost certainly one of the things that needs addressing.

Kelly Martin · 14. February 2008, 03:14


I have my own list and (I think that) I am very loud about the most of the things from the list.

I am not interested to participate into some project which is not willing to accept constructive criticism. And Wikimedian community at least accepts criticism (I was elected as a steward after a couple and during one very hot debate [on foundation-l]).

The main problem with Wikimedian community is its inertia. Maybe I am expecting too much from one large community… I really think that Wikimedian community is the best (large) community in the history of humankind and that it has to take a responsibility for that. (Of course, it is far of perfect, but there were and is no better one.) It may or may not to continue with changing the world, and this is the most important question for us, members of that community.

And about the rest of the list. There are two types of problems which I didn’t yet mention: (1) simply, I didn’t have a time and (2) I don’t have a clear position toward the problem (usually, because I didn’t think enough).

The second type is problematic for me personally, because I am able to say what I feel as wrong, but I don’t have an idea how to solve it. And without at least a presentation of path for solving, criticism may look like a bad faith one.

But, Brianna, I will send “the rest of the list” to you personally, of course :)

Milos Rancic · 14. February 2008, 05:15


@ Kelly,

Either way, the community’s lack of useful response to well-reasoned criticism has led to the departure of many excellent participants, and is almost certainly one of the things that needs addressing.

You say that like this community is able to be led.

It is so dispersed that I wonder if any “useful response” is ever possible.

And yet the wheel keeps turning.

pfctdayelise · 14. February 2008, 10:55


@ Milos,

You already have a blog! :P But if you want to borrow mine, why not.

As for the problems that you don’t know how to solve — hey, you can’t solve everything on your own. Discussing it with others may lead to ideas you would never have thought of by yourself. I agree that saying “Something must be done!” is not that helpful, but saying, “Something must be done, but I’m not sure what. Do you have any suggestions?” is OK, in my book.

pfctdayelise · 14. February 2008, 10:59


Well, the reason I didn’t blog about the Kaltura dispute is that I didn’t understand it. (Another reason is that my wife & I just adopted a baby girl, so I’m not able to post as much as I would like.) I just read your post on it, but I still don’t understand the issue.

That’s not a criticism of your writing, Brianna, it’s that no one has explained to me what the problem is so I can be bothered to care. To repeat the old cliche, Wikipedia building an encyclopedia; making it free in the Richard Stallman sense is the ideal, but pragmatics require us to compromise once in a while.

If a deal with Kaltura helps this endeavor, then good; as far as I can see, it currently doesn’t help or hurt the project. If it doesn’t help, then it gets kicked to the side of the road & we move on — like a lot of other ideas have. And if someone on the Foundation Board screwed up, well it won’t be the first time or the last time.


llywrch · 15. February 2008, 06:38


@ Geoff,

To repeat the old cliche, Wikipedia building an encyclopedia; making it free in the Richard Stallman sense is the ideal, but pragmatics require us to compromise once in a while.

Well, that’s a core clash that I doubt will ever be resolved, about what is more important in what we do – the freedom, or the content. It’s the same in the issue of expanding vs minimising fair use material.

pfctdayelise · 15. February 2008, 11:42


It’s certainly possible for someone to lead the community, although at the same time there are certainly elements in the community who refuse to be led (and if the community ever did get a leader, those elements would likely leave).

However, there is currently nobody in the community both capable and willing to lead it; therefore, there is no leadership.

But that’s not my point. My point is that the communities (both Wikipedian and Wikimedian) tend to take (without having been directed to do so, which itself is interesting) a very exclusionary attitude toward criticism. Almost an auto-immune response, as it were: criticism is viewed as an attack on the organism and the critic isolated, marginalized, and ejected.

I suspect that this is merely the natural behavior of a group which lacks direction and is mainly interested in self-perpetuation. The reason why the “wheel keeps turning” (as you put it) is that, so far, the energy expended on self-perpetuation has not yet expanded to consume all the available energy of the group. Give it time.

Kelly Martin · 21. February 2008, 00:07

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