Tag results

Following the strategic planning process

So if you follow any Wikimedia project or mailing list, you would be hard pressed not to have noticed that the strategic planning process has begun. The plan has several stages, and the current one includes collecting and discussing proposals. I made my first one yesterday: to implement OAuth in MediaWiki (following on from my post on Decentralising Wikimedia).

Anyway. That is not what I came to say. I was trying to think of how I could keep an eye on these proposals, without having to come each day and manually figure out what had been added. Then I remembered that Special:NewPages has a feed. And better yet, it can filter by namespace… and the proposal pages are all being created in their own namespace! woot.

So to subscribe to a feed of the new proposals, just follow one of these: RSS or Atom.

Now what you get is not very pretty looking, but it is better than nothing. There are 10 or more proposals a day at the moment.

Happy feed reading and strategising.

19 August, 2009 • ,

WMF board election - who cares?

If you are usually logged in to your user account when you visit Wikipedia et al, you may have noticed this lately:

A call for candidates for the Wikimedia Foundation Board election. What is that? What do they do? Why would you want to be a candidate and what difference does the result make anyway?

The introductory notes say:

Being a Board member of a small organization like the Wikimedia Foundation, which faces immense challenges, can be time-consuming. The position is voluntary and unpaid. While board members are not expected to bring personal money to the organisation, they are welcome to help raise funds.

Board members are expected to attend at least 3–4 meetings per year in person, attend Wikimania (our annual conference), and attend other scheduled online meetings and votes. The Board communicates intensively via e-mail, wiki, and IRC. Individual trustees sometimes participate in strategic meetings with other organizations and companies, relaying results back to Board and staff.

Individual board members are expected to be involved in certain activities (such as fundraising, Wikimania, or auditing) and to help draft policies, charters and resolutions on such topics.

The election is to fill the first three slots in this graphic (also on Commons), the “community elected” seats:

So if you were elected, you’d be working with this lot. You should definitely also study the Staff page, because they are all the people who will actually be doing stuff. Other recommended reading: Values and Policies. The best overall guide should be the Board manual (and I hope it’s up to date!).

There are several bad reasons one might want to join the Board. They include:

What is hard to see clearly at the moment is clear information about where the board is at and what its role is these days. There are lots of staff now, so being a board member is much more about setting the direction and stepping back to let the staff carry it out. In fact my guess is that the major task for the next board will be the strategic planning, for which several staff are being hired to carry out.

Questions (in order) that I will look for answers to among Board candidates are:

Currently with ten more days for candidates to announce themselves, there are 11 that have already done so. Some are repeat offendersprevious candidates:

Now 2008 had 15 candidates for 1 position. With 3 positions up for election — on one hand I shudder at how many candidates there might end up with, but on the other, I’m disappointed to think we might not get enough good candidates. I would hate to see the community seats become a ghetto of the inexperienced/confused/axe-grinders.

For repeat candidates, my additional question will be: what’s changed? WMF has changed. Have you changed? Has your response or attitude changed? Or else has the community changed? If nothing’s changed, and the community did not previously give you significant support — why are you wasting our time?

10 July, 2009 • , ,

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Interview with Sue Gardner

Gerard is right. Kudos to Liam on behalf of Wikipedia Weekly. His interview with Sue Gardner should be required listening for all Wikimedians who care about the Foundation’s influence on the future of Wikimedia.

I kinda hope Ben Yates is busy drafting a transcript at the moment, because someone should. :)

From the 2008-09 financial plan Q&A:

What is “[…]volunteer development” funding?

The “volunteer development” money is an experiment, and if it works we will probably increase the size of allocation in future. It will pay for a variety of small, one-off initiatives – for example, it might be used to pay for printing costs for brochures for a volunteer outreach event. It might subsidize a workshop, or offset small costs for other specific initiatives.

Why so little for volunteer development?

The volunteer development fund primarily relates to volunteer organizational work, such as press work, participation through chapters, technical contributions, and so forth. As we are still in the process of developing policies and best practices around volunteer development, we have deliberately kept the overall amount relatively low in this budget, but we hope to scale up these efforts intelligently in the coming years.

Hm. I find there is a scale difference between printing fliers and holding a Wikinews conference.

06 August, 2008 • ,

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Micromanagement

WMF is occasionally, although rarely, accused of micromanaging the communities. (This would be something like: inappropriately detailed interference in the management of the projects’ development or processes.) But it occurs to me that the community is having incredible trouble letting go of micromanaging the Foundation.

I suppose slowly, eventually, people will let go – or more to the point, realise they have been made obsolete.

Either that, or the claims of the Foundation being “out of touch” will increase.

27 March, 2008 • ,

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The Kaltura brouhaha

It all began (publicly) with a press release, mid-January. No, wait. The average Wikimedian would first have had the opportunity to hear of it via a Wikinews ‘leak’. That was about a week beforehand. A few days after the press release, Jay Walsh had what must have been a baptism of fire in making the announcement to the community.

So, mailing list firebomb. The main points of contention were

In the future I hope the Foundation will first seek community input on technology partnerships: A flash slideshow editor isn’t anything anyone here has been asking for, as far as I can tell… But we have thousands of other widely desired features, many of which could have substantial external components ripe for partnership.

In the end these concerns were all more or less assuaged by, of all people, the developers. The replies went something like

In another post Greg commented, I’m unhappy that despite prior discussions, staff is acting like people finding proprietary formats is a surprise. (Greg would not be the only one, here.)

This comment and similar sentiments perhaps prompted Florence, the Board chair, to post a draft resolution on a File formats policy. It has not yet been posted publicly as a passed resolution.

In the end, everyone seems content enough with where we all stand, but really, we went through some serious drama to get there. Drama started by others (like, journalists) is one thing, but I don’t think it should be quite so difficult to spot which of WMF’s own announcements are going to be the fire starters.

So there you go, that’s my view of the Kaltura brouhaha.

13 February, 2008 • , ,

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Free software on a free content project

You would think that if anyone could appreciate limited value to security through obscurity, it would be Wikipedia editors. —After all, Wikipedia is destroying the similar notion of “authority through obscurity” or “reliability through obscurity”. There’s a very clear parallel between the open source software development model and the Wikipedia editorial process. And yet… it is not the case.

The latest drama on en.wp is about intentionally adding hundreds of useless edits to the [[Main Page]] to make it undeletable. Deleting the main page is a hallmark of an administrator gone rouge, you see. I think it’s kind of cool that you can earn the cred to be able to delete the front page of a top ten website. Apparently for some people this is too much temptation.

In part these useless edits were added by an already-contentious bot, which performs a variety of routine tasks. The issue came up about what was the “contingency plan” given that this bot account was blocked.

I don’t know that we have a contingency plan for such things. The bot system is like the wild west. Everyone runs their own code and there is very little [sic?] redundancy. — Carl

The bot owner responded:

As for the source for my bots, I am willing to share it with people that I can trust. I wrote RfC bot and gladly handed that code out to a user that I know is responcible [sic]. I have also written code for other users and they have abused it, since then I only give it to people I can trust. — βcommand

Simetrical, one of the developers, responded:

Of course, all this would be an excellent argument for requiring that all bots on Wikipedia be entirely open-source, and that this be periodically verified by someone attempting to run the bot on a test wiki and making sure it actually works as advertised. Why Wikipedia has not yet agreed on this I’m not sure, except to the extent that it seems never to be able to agree on anything. (Yes, yes, anti-vandal bots’ source code will be open, I’m sure that will be a great aid to the huge number of vandals who are also programmers and malicious enough to spend hours analyzing twisty heuristic-based source code. The idea of security through openness is that they’ll be outnumbered by the group that’s identical but willing to help out by sharing any exploits they find.) Without open-source bots, it seems to me Wikipedia is asking to have major bot contributors get annoyed with the project and leave, or just disappear for any reason, seriously inconveniencing everyone. Actually, this has happened in the past, if I’m not wrong. How is it that The Free Encyclopedia is relying so heavily on non-free software? If not for the bots and scripts that are permitted to be closed, you could come close to saying that the only proprietary software used in creating and serving the encyclopedia is routing software. — Simetrical

Cobi pointed out that ClueBot, a vandalism-detecting bot, has been open source since its inception.

There is somewhat similar code anarchy on the toolserver, with limited collaboration leading to multiple tools performing the same function, because with early versions the developer loses interest, some database configuration changes and the tool becomes permanently broken because it has no maintainer.

Recently a stable toolserver was introduced, which requires a project have at least two maintainers before it can be hosted there, in an attempt to alleviate some the described problems. It has not had very enthusiastic uptake yet.

In a similar vein I found it odd to be asked to contemplate a Windows toolserver just this week. Apparently the toolserver is considered exempt from the strict free software requirements of the Foundation proper because it is hosted by the German chapter. Or something. I do not find it very convincing.

And just this week Florence, the Chair of the WMF Board, has drafted a list of Foundation values :

Freedom
An essential part of the Wikimedia Foundation’s mission is encouraging the development of free-content educational resources that may be created, used, and reused by the entire human community. We believe that this mission requires thriving open formats and open standards on the web to allow the creation of content not subject to restrictions on creation, use, and reuse.
At the creation level, we want to provide the editing community with freely-licenced tools for participation and collaboration. Our community should also have the freedom to fork thanks to freely available dumps. The community will in turn create a body of knowledge which can be distributed freely throughout the world, viewable or playable by free software tools.

We, the community, clearly have some catching up to do. People in glass houses not throwing stones and all that! Closed source should not be acceptable for bots or toolserver tools.

06 February, 2008 • , , ,

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WMF is hiring

The Wikimedia Foundation is hiring: Software Developer / IT Support.

According to the organisation chart there’s room for one more dev, presumably more experienced than this position.

Yay devs :)

26 January, 2008 • ,

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Library of Congress & Flickr: that should have been us

Some big news this week is a deal between the Library of Congress and Flickr in something they’re calling The Commons, “ The Library of Congress Pilot Project”. LoC says:

We are offering two sets of digitized photos: the 1,600 color images from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information and about 1,500 images from the George Grantham Bain News Service. Why these photos? They have long been popular with visitors to the Library; they have no known restrictions on publication or distribution, and they have high resolution scans. We look forward to learning what kinds of tags and comments these images inspire.

This is a great initiative on their behalf. As a public institution they should be applauded for seeking to make their collections more accessible and more useful. They are indeed a leading example for other cultural institutions to look to and hopefully take inspiration from.

It’s also a very smart move on Flickr’s behalf. It inspires warm fuzzy “public good” feelings, and let’s face it, Flickr does have the best interface for social image management, and tagging is awesome fun.

But when I read this announcement I had a bit of a feeling of being stopped in my tracks. Library of Congress and Flickr? Why wasn’t it Library of Congress & Wikimedia?

Wikimedia Commons users have long recognised the value of the LoC’s collections and there are literally thousands of their images hosted on Commons.

Sharp-eyed Lupo also reminded me of this piece in the Wikipedia Signpost, July 2006:

Wikimedia Foundation representatives met this week with officials from two major institutions regarding the issue of access to archival materials. The United States Library of Congress has expressed interest in including Wikipedia content as part of its archive collection, while also indicating that it could make a sizable amount of its own material available for use on Wikimedia projects. […]

Wikimedia interim executive director Brad Patrick, accompanied by Danny Wool, Kat Walsh, and Gregory Maxwell, met with representatives from the Library of Congress this week to discuss sharing information, sources, and media. The Library, one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world, has offered access to nearly 40 terabytes (approximately 10 million items) of digital information. “That there would be a moment’s hesitation to cooperate fully with the Library of Congress is beyond my comprehension,” said Patrick. “I’m glad that we are moving in this direction.”

Indeed… so what happened in the last eighteen months?

Brad Patrick and Danny Wool have left as staff; Kat Walsh is now on the WMF Board (I’m not sure if she was then), and Danny and Greg are still active within Wikimedia even if not as much as they once were. So not all of the connections from that time have moved on. But whatever they were thinking might happen clearly didn’t happen.

It’s disappointing that we weren’t able to make this happen. More importantly, I hope we will be able to pull our shit together and not miss such opportunities in the future.

There are three aspects:

One is on the organisational side, in terms of positioning ourselves as the partner for these kinds of ventures, public-interest and smart in collectively managing huge media sets. I don’t know how we’re doing on that front. It looks like 18 months ago we weren’t so great at following through, but at lot can and I imagine has changed in those 18 months.

The second is the software side, where we are not the best prospect. Right now Flickr probably does have a better set-up. I can only repeat my request that WMF hire more software developers and put some priority on functionality relating to media-management. It may take a year or two of serious improvements before we provide anywhere near the kind of usability that Flickr does.

The third is the community side, in terms of do Wikimedians welcome these kind of ventures. And for once this is actually the easy part. For Wikimedia Commons I feel pretty confident in saying we would rejoice to receive this kind of news.

It is a bit of a kick up the proverbial.

18 January, 2008 • , , ,

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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
authority

(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 • ,

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Podcast fame: PGIP; GFDL/CC-BY-SA harmonisation

Being mentioned in the New York Times (or more accurately, their blog) is one thing, but I only really felt famous when Andrew Lih invited me on Wikipedia Weekly. WW is a podcast: not quite weekly, and not just Wikipedia, but close enough. IMO it is usually twice as long and half as frequent as it should be, but the discussion is typically quite interesting, as a Wikimedian.

It can be downloaded from this page: Episode 38 (42 min)

I certainly don’t enunciate my words as clearly as Liam and Andrew. :) And maybe I have a bit too much of that high rising intonation, but at least it’s more interesting to listen to than a monotone. (Possibly more annoying, though.)

So, I discussed two topics: the first is the Philip Greenspun illustration project. I talked a bit about my broader hopes and plans for the project, and asked people to please submit illustration requests. If you are interested in seeing some of the existing illustrator efforts within Wikimedia, please check out the Community links.

The second topic is the GFDL/CC-BY-SA harmonisation effort. A good report on the initial Wikimedia community reaction is the Signpost article, and Creative Commons’ blog post Wikipedia and Creative Commons next steps summarises where the situation is now. So in this part I talk about the benefits to the commons and some of the issues that have been raised that will need to be addressed in this process. I mentioned the metaphor of “silos” of content caused by different-but-similar sharealike licenses (“and never the twain shall meet”), which I am repeating after hearing from Evan Prodromou.

NB: I mistakenly said that the GPL has a “any later version” clause. However this is not true: some project choose to make this a requirement of contributors, to license under GPL vX “and later version”.

In closing: Sealand.

14 December, 2007 • , , , , ,

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ArbCom and Steward elections in progress

Well, there’s been really an awful lot of interesting stuff going on that deserves comment, but this brief note makes it to the top of the pile because of the graphics:

Arbcom:

Source

Steward:

Source

These are summaries of two sets of elections that are going on at the moment. The first is ArbCom, only relevant to the English Wikipedia. That election closes in a couple of days.

From these candidates, Jimbo is supposed to draw at least five arbitrators, according to the Signpost. At the moment the fifth-ranked candidate has a full 98 opposes, which is quite remarkable…

As for stewards, it seems obvious that people are going to be a lot happier with the results of this election. The WMF Board chooses candidates from those who get at least 30 supports and at least a 4:1 support:oppose ratio. They will be spoiled for choice, since about 2/3 of the candidates meet that at the moment. I couldn’t see any infomation about how many they will choose; maybe as few or as many as they like.

Stewards have a funny job. They typically do administrative work on wikis too small to have their own administrators or bureaucrats. There are currently 30 stewards. They are really in the Wikimedian spirit of contributing something that brings them no immediate personal gain but helps another person out who has done nothing more than ask politely. They would see quite some interesting things, too: emergency de-sysops in small communities and the like. There is even a Small Wiki Monitoring Team which does nothing more than try to keep spam off these projects too small to defend themselves. It is like tending to baby birds abandoned prematurely in the nest. ;)

Conclusion: the small wikis that rely on the stewards should be in good hands, but if Arbcom elections can only produce two candidates with > 80% support, it’s a good guess that controversy won’t be leaving the administration of the English Wikipedia anytime soon.

13 December, 2007 • , , ,

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Wikisource in action

As recently announced by Board chair Florence, the Wikimedia Foundation recently won a court case in France which confirmed the belief that they are a “hosting provider” and “can not be held accountable for the content added by contributors to the encyclopedia”. This was naturally a great relief.

Something cool: a translation of the court’s finding is now available on English Wikisource, by the catchy title Order of relief, Mrs M. B., Mr P. T., Mr F. D. vs. Wikimedia Foundation Inc..

In case you know some French, you can even read them side by side (well, more or less).

Thanks to John Vandenberg for the tip, at the 8th Melbourne Wikimedia meetup.

18 November, 2007 • , ,

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OTRS & the permissions problem



Screenshot of the OTRS interface

The Wikimedia Foundation uses a software package called OTRS for a variety of purposes. OTRS volunteers are chosen from various Wikimedia projects, usually if not always admins, as the OTRS chores often require checking of deleted edits.

If you manage to dodge the inbound links on Wikipedia:Contact us, you’ll eventually reach an email address. Most of the addresses on that form represent OTRS queues. So one function is for answering queries from the public. Other similar functions include answering press queries, fundraising queries, and legal queries.

One function dear to the heart of many Wikimedia Commons users is that of permissions. “Permissions” means forwarding emails in which an author agrees to license their work under a free license to OTRS, to act as a record of the permission being given.

Typically it would play out like this:

  1. Wikimedian goes hunting for an image for their pet topic. They find a good candidate, but it’s all-rights-reserved copyrighted or under a non-free license.
  2. Wikimedian writes a begging email to the author, hopefully using a template request. (This is important: if you only ask “for Wikipedia”, the author will probably give Wikipedia-only permission. That’s not free enough.)
  3. Author is dazzled by flattery and/or the possibility of having their image appear on Wikipedia and replies, assenting to the free license terms.
  4. Wikimedian uploads the work and forwards the email to OTRS as evidence of the license release.
  5. The Wikimedian or OTRS volunteers tag the work with a template providing a link to the relevant OTRS ticket as a reference.

Ideally this would be quite straight-forward and move along in a timely fashion, but of course it doesn’t work like that. :) Common problems faced by OTRS volunteers checking the permission queues are:

While I was at Wikimania I gave an impromptu tutorial on using Wikimedia Commons. When I’d finished and said “any questions?” I think the first one was about: what should I do if I have my friend’s photo and he just told me OK? How does that work in the context of OTRS?

I had to lamely reply that he should ask his friend to send him an email granting the permission. I would like to say “talk about an edge case!” but that is less and less true.

How can we solve this problem, of shallow verification of permissions? I say “shallow” because of course OTRS is only represents a first basic check. This is “balance of probabilities”, not “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Should someone later come along with a convincing claim to own particular images and never have given permission for them to be used, we’ll chalk that OTRS ticket up to “well, we made an effort”. We’re not checking for passport fraud…these are projects that we let anyone edit, after all. ;)

The second part of the “permissions problem” is that of longevity. What is an acceptable statement of “proof” may not be 12, 24, 36, 48 months later. Or even further into the future. And how long will those tickets be preserved? Perhaps the permissions tickets should be shipped with the database dumps? Or will WMF maintain the OTRS system for perpetuity?

Or, more likely, they will degrade with time, and slowly be deleted over time, with more and more being replaced by definitively free works. This is what’s happening with “web-sourced” free works, I think. Websites die. Even the US government department websites get rearranged and all the convenient “evidence” links die. What can we do about it?

When confronting the problem of changing Flickr permissions, it was put forward that we should have a bot or something taking screenshots of the images on Flickr showing the free license.

So, dear world, any thoughts about how to approach this vexatious problem?

18 October, 2007 • ,

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Leaders, stand up

Or: how to get things done whilst herding cats.

The Wikimedia Foundation has always been, in its short history thus far, playing catch-up to the needs and demands of the editing community that spawned it. By and large the demands that have been met have been technical and behind-the-scenes: servers, developers, basic staff. Calls from the community for WMF to intervene in this situation or that have largely been resisted. WMF wants to facilitate self-organised communities, not run the communities for the users.

Now, for the first time, we are almost free from the “working Board”. So when the Board members actually have time to look up, and breathe, what exciting things might we imagine happening then?

For example, how can Wikimedia projects and communities organise publication of their material?

Delphine:

My take at this stage, and that is a personal opinion, is that it is high time that people like you and I, who feel they are part of the community”, organize themselves so as to be able to present a valid partner to the organisation.

By valid partner, I meant that saying “this is not working, fix it” is in my opinion, not the way to go. I’d rather hear something along the lines of “this is not working, here is how to fix it, here are the people that can fix it and here is how much it takes to fix it. Give us the money — organisational framework in my acception of the term— to fix it”.

I raised some question about the difficulty of authority in volunteer-created communities and groups. When can one legitimately speak on behalf of any community? When speaking to WMF it is easy enough, because if someone disagrees enough they can jump in and reply, but how about to outside organisations? Come-as-you-like volunteerism evidently works well for content creation, but there are other aspects where it doesn’t, such as creating partnerships with external groups. I’m also reminded of the closure of the French Wikiquote . For WMF to have to close an entire project seems, to me, to speak of a very deep failure somewhere in this system. No individual volunteer is accountable, but somehow the collective have to be. Was this an example of something that will be inevitable from time to time? Or are there things we can do, things that should have been done, to stop it from happening again elsewhere?

WMF—local project communication is a topic for another day. In the same thread as Delphine above, Florence wrote,

…the more volunteers will take the lead, the more chance there is that the Foundation is a facilitator. The
more volunteers will adopt a passive attitude, will voice expectations rather than push their own dreams, the more people will take the easy road, the more “authority” will get in Foundation hands.

On a related note, Erik recently mentioned similar problems:

I believe that there is a deep and complex challenge of what I call “meta-management” — the Foundation has such a diversity of projects (Wikibooks, Wikinews, Wikisource, etc.) and goals that any approach which does not scale massively will not serve our community well. So, yes, we should of course hire coordinators for grants and projects, and get better at business development, and improve our technical infrastructure, and so forth. But I think networking and empowering volunteers to do many of the things we hope to pay more people to do is a much more scalable approach.

So if you have an idea for a project, what can you do? My advice is to do as much as you can on your own steam before contacting the Foundation. Organise people, recruit within your project, think about potential partners (if appropriate – and especially think about ways chapters could help), and when you’ve gone as far as you can go, present it to the VolCo (volunteer co-ordinator). And if you’ve done all that and after two weeks haven’t heard a peep out of anyone, raise an almighty stink on foundation-l. ;)

And if you have an idea which involves the Foundation coming in and laying down the law, let it go, because it’s probably not going to happen.

02 September, 2007 • ,

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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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