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Decentralising Wikimedia

It’s a bit of a shame we don’t have the tools at hand to fork (esp. partially) and merge text collections as easily as we do source code. I guess we need to invent them?

So the Wikimedia vision is big. Bigger than any of us. Bigger than the Wikipedia and WMF logos. Are we ready for that?

I guess I have been set thinking because of the strategic planning and the not-news that Wikipedia growth is slowing. Wikipedia content is going to outlive us all. It will be the new breed of internet cockroach. Good; that’s the way we designed it. But how will le Googs cope? How will people (searchers) be able to distinguish between potentially dozens of near-identical copies? Maybe those tools need to be created too.

I am thinking about how Linux has (eventually) flourished, and I think it is in no small part to Linus Torvalds’ utterly hands-off leadership. I am thinking about how anyone who wants to can call themselves a Linux user group, or create a Linux conference.

Maybe it is overly simplistic to say this, but the fork is not as feared as it used to be – because now we have much better tools for its flip-side, the merge. Is forking painful but necessary for an ultimately better result?

I am also thinking about Wikimedia chapters, and who gets to use the Wikimedia name, and why and when this is important.

And I am thinking about my favourite shiny tech thing, the write API, and wondering if ‘we’ are ready to uncouple the text collections from MediaWiki, let alone Wikimedia. Because ‘we’ own it… don’t we? Well, we don’t own it, but we’re guarding it with our lives. Wait a minute…

What about uncoupling it from MediaWiki but not Wikimedia? An interface fork, like.

Back to the mission. If all the ‘doing’ ends up uncoupled from WMF, is that okay? If ten other websites fulfill WMF’s mission without WMF having to pay the hosting bills, is that to be considered an ultimate success or failure? Can an organisation be truly invested in a movement, rather than (potentially one day instead of) its own continued existence?

Are we as a community too invested in our own continued existence? …Has it ever been any other way?

11 August, 2009 •

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The Wikimedia projects: history and deliberation

Time map of Wikimedia projects

After Wikimania was over, I caught a taxi to the Taipei airport with Adam Hyde and we discussed his pet wiki(s), FLOSS Manuals, and mine, Wikimedia. He asked me about the projects that WMF manages (I prefer that verb to runs, which implies rather more control), and like probably a good many Wikimedians, I struggled to make sure I hadn’t forgotten any as I listed them. “Did I mention Wikisource?… oh, and don’t forget Wikispecies…what is that other one… ah, Wikiquote!” As it happens I think I still left out Wikinews.

Why is it so hard to remember which projects fall under the WMF umbrella? Shouldn’t they be a natural consequence of the Foundation’s Mission statement?

On the 11 April 2007, the WMF Board accepted the Mission statement, the first line of which reads

The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.

This statement was formalised and accepted four years after the creation of the Foundation, and some six years after Wikipedia began. MetaWiki sprang into creation just ten months after Wikipedia, and Wiktionary followed hot on its heels two months later.

Why does WMF have a Mission statement? In his RFC, Erik commented

What’s the point [of a mission statement]? Aside from uniting behind a set of key goals, it helps us to decide which activities fall within our scope and which ones don’t — something that is not always easy, given the diversity of our existing projects and communities. Should we launch a WikiFoo project, or is Foo not part of our mission? Both the vision and mission statement will be frequently cited in future discussions of this kind, so they are relevant, and not just organizational fluff.

I argued at the time for the word “educational” to be included (originally it just said “knowledge”, and then “content” – then “educational content”).

It’s all been a bit backwards. By the time this document was made official, all the existing Wikimedia projects had been created (or at least conceived of), and dozens of others had been rejected. The driving force behind a project’s adoption or rejection (and by “project” here I mean Wikipedia, Wikinews, etc – not a specific language incarnation), lately, has been how noisy and determined the start-up group of users has been. So failing to make one’s case right now does not mean the project is forever doomed: it just means “not right now”. Get enough people on board and try again.

In the early days I believe it can be summed up by a single keyword: “WP:NOT”.

“WP:NOT” is Wikipedian short-hand for the Wikipedia:What Wikipedia is not policy. It goes like this: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It is WP:NOT a place for meta-essays. (Hence, meta, which as far as wikis go is kind of like the spare bedroom where you store all the junk you can’t quite bear to throw out, fix or find a proper home for.) Wikipedia is WP:NOT a dictionary. (Hence, Wiktionary.) Wikipedia is WP:NOT a place for how-tos. (Hence, Wikibooks.) Wikipedia is WP:NOT a collection of quotes. (Hence, Wikiquote.) And so on.

It makes me wonder what Wikipedia might have ended up like if it had started life as “Wiki-almanac” or something other title altogether. What’s in a name, indeed. The idea that Wikipedia is WP:NOT an indiscriminate collection of information is, after all, one that came solely from the community.

Wikinews is perhaps the only “original” project after Wikipedia. (If it was supposed to counter recentism, I guess it has dismally failed, whereas the other projects have largely “succeeded” in ridding Wikipedia of their style of content.) The rest all began life as a definition of what something else was not. This is not a criticism: it’s my explanation for why it’s so hard to remember the precise set of projects. And it’s also the reason why the Mission statement rather fails the task Erik set for it. It doesn’t at all explain why we do have Wikiquote, after all, or why we don’t have a code archive like LiteratePrograms. (Erik proposed in April that it be adopted into the WMF family, an idea that was halfheartedly agreed with. The lack of enthusiasm was the real killer of this adoption, rather than anything ideological.)

I asked a question that I’ve not really seen answered: It’s not obvious to me that just because we could subsume a project with suitable qualities, we should. Are we aiming to host every such suitable project?

Does WMF succeed in its mission only when it is the organisation managing the projects that match its mission, or whenever any such project exists? The status quo would suggest that WMF feels the mission is met as long as someone, somewhere, is doing the thing in a vaguely neutral fashion with a vaguely free/open license. And maybe that’s fair enough. Splintering communities of contributors is not likely to be very helpful.

I was interested to learn recently that WMF once offered to take over management of Wikitravel. (This was well before the days of the Mission statement, though.) I wonder how such a prospect would go down today.

There are dozens upon dozens of rejected or ill-conceived projects. Anyone trying to start a new project today has a tough case to make. I suspect that each time a new project starts, part of the existing community is cannibalised, rather than the total community actually expanding. Wikimedia is already spread quite thin and I daresay in five years not all the existing projects will still be with us. I guess the first two to go will be Wikiquote and Wikispecies.

Wikiquote will go because it’s simply not justifiable on the free-content and educational grounds. On both these points it has a pretty weak case. In the end, “but quotes are WP:NOT part of Wikipedia” will not sustain a project forever, I feel. So the how and when of Wikiquote’s demise will be interesting. Like the disowning of a sibling, common sense will struggle with historical fact, lived history. But wait long enough and lived history will just be history. No-one feels nostalgia for events they have not themselves experienced. At that point, it will be bye-bye, Wikiquote. At this stage my guess is Wikia will offer to adopt them. (That makes it sound far simpler than I guess it will be. I expect a fair bit of drama — just like the disowned sibling.)

As for Wikispecies, it will be closed because it simply is a failure. It has not been able to tempt enough Wikipedia editors and Wikimedia Commons editors away from their regular wikis and over to Wikispecies. In the past I have tried to use Wikispecies to look up species information, but it has failed me. I turn to Wikipedia and wa-la, success. It now strikes me as an incomplete set of infoboxes of Wikipedia. So Wikipedia in effect WP:IS Wikispecies, and given its huge head start it is naturally much more successful at it. Wikispecies has failed to articulate its unique selling point.

Given WMF has nothing resembling a policy on closing projects, it will likely hang around for quite a long time, continuing to be stripped away by Wikipedia.

——
So why does any of this matter, anyway?

It matters because the WMF is the guardian of one of the most powerful and influential information sources of our time, Wikipedia. Wikipedia right now is not even seven years old. Most of the people around the world who use it, enjoy it, marvel at it, only understand a tiny part of how amazing a thing it is. When Wikipedia is 20 years old, imagine the potential it has to make a difference in people’s lives around the world. Imagine the potential the other projects have, who are still just toddlers to Wikipedia’s school-age. Now imagine how powerful the WMF umbrella may be, to say who is deemed worthy of shelter, and who is cast out to survive on their own luck.

This lift is going up. If you want to beat the crowds, best be hopping in now.

28 August, 2007 • , , ,

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