This post requires a number of caveats and acknowledgements. They’re at the bottom.

In 2008 I was interviewing a candidate for an engineering position at the Wikimedia Foundation and as we talked I found myself imagining what a terrific impression he would make on donors. He’s so shiny and cheerful and mission-oriented, I found myself thinking — donors will love him!

As soon as I thought it, I had the grace to be embarrassed. And although we ended up hiring the guy, we did it because he seemed like a talented engineer, not because he was charming. I was horrified at myself for a while afterwards anyway, and the whole thing ended up being a bit of a turning point for me, as well as a cautionary story I sometimes tell. Because that was the moment that crystalized for me what’s *actually* wrong with nonprofits.

Preface! I’ve always been irritated by people who assume nonprofitland is self-evidently suckier than forprofitland. I’m particularly irritated by people who say that nonprofits “should be more businesslike,” with businesslike as a kind of confused stand-in for “better.” That just seems dumb to me — I feel like it’s obvious that nonprofits function in a specific context including challenges unique to the sector, and that solutions aimed at increasing our effectiveness needed to be designed to respond specifically to those actual, real circumstances. That’s what this post is about: my goal is to describe a serious problem, and point to where I believe we’re beginning to see solutions emerge.

Here it is.

Every nonprofit has two main jobs: you need to do your core work, and you need to make the money to pay for it. In the for-profit sector when you make better products, you make more money — if you make awesome socks, you sell lots of socks. Paying attention to revenue makes sense in part because revenue functions as a signal for the overall effectiveness of the org: if sales drop, that’s a signal your product may be starting to suck, or that something else is wrong.

Nonprofits also prioritize revenue. But for most it doesn’t actually serve as much of an indicator of overall effectiveness. That’s because donors rarely experience the core mission work first-hand — most people who donate to Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, have never lived in a war zone. That means that most, or often all, the actual experiences a donor has with a nonprofit are related to fundraising, which means that over time many nonprofits have learned that the donating process needs –in and of itself– to provide a satisfying experience for the donor. All sorts of energy is therefore dedicated towards making it exactly that: donors get glossy newsletters of thanks, there are gala dinners, they are elaborately consulted on a variety of issues, and so forth.

By contrast, when I buy socks I do not get a gala dinner. In fact it’s the opposite: the more that sockmakers focus relentlessly and obsessively on sock-making awesomeness, the likelier I am to buy their socks in future. This means that inside most of nonprofitland –and unique to nonprofitland– there’s a structural problem of needing to provide positive experiences for donors that is disconnected from the core work of the organization. This has a variety of unintended effects, all of which undermine effectiveness.

It starts with the ED.

EDs prioritize revenue because a fundamental job of any CEO is to ensure their organization has the money it needs to achieve its goals. That means fundraising is necessarily the top priority for a nonprofit ED. That’s why the head of fundraising normally reports to the ED, and it’s why, I’d say from my observation and reading, the average ED probably dedicates about 70% of his or her energy to fundraising.

Optimizing for fundraising distorts how the ED behaves. To the extent EDs optimize themselves for fundraising, they tend to spend time outside their organization — being interviewed, attending conferences, publicly demonstrating wisdom and thought leadership. An ED must hone his or her self-presentation and diplomatic abilities, even at the expense of other attributes such decisiveness or single-mindedness, because that’s what donors see and respond to. There’s an obvious opportunity cost as well: spending 70% of your time on fundraising leaves only 30% for everything else. (That’s why, in a different context, Paul Graham argues that start-ups should have only one person designated to handle fundraising: to preserve the bulk of organizational resources for other stuff.)

The second effect: Optimizing for donor experience promotes a general emphasis on appearances rather than realities. Appearing effective rises in importance relative to being effective.

Here’s how the mature nonprofits I know self-present. Everyone is very polite and the offices are quiet. Their reception areas display racks of carefully-designed marketing materials. One I know has gorgeous brushed stainless steel signs attached to its conference room doors, engraved with an exhortation to be silent in the hallways. Typically the staff dress like academics — the women wear interesting jewelry, with the men in shabby suit jackets and corduroys.

By contrast I noticed in my early days running the WMF, we were quite different. Our staff were young and messy and wore hoodies. They were smart and blunt, sometimes obnoxiously so. The office was often half-deserted because everybody worked all the time, often while travelling or from bed. I’m pretty sure at one point we had a foosball table in the middle of the room, and later there was a karaoke set-up and a Galaga game. What if donors think we’re erratic, undisciplined slobs, I found myself worrying. What if they’ve never met programmers before?

Most nonprofits, it seemed to me, optimized to self-present as competent, sober, and diligent. I think if they optimized to get stuff done, they might look different.

The third effect. Nonprofits are generally conservative in their approach to regulatory compliance, administration, finance and governance practices. (Why? Partly it’s because the core work is complicated: hard to do and hard to measure, so people drift towards stuff that’s simpler. Also, the nonprofit sector is too small to support a diverse array of service providers, and so the services provided by consultants tend to be extremely generic. Boilerplate recommendations on term limits and that kind of thing.) Optimizing for donor experience makes that worse.

Why? It’s easy to describe for donors the core problem a nonprofit is trying to solve, but explaining the work of solving it –and how impact can best be measured– is hard. Far easier to show that the 990 was filed on time, that the org got a clean audit letter, and that the ED’s compensation was determined according to a highly responsible process. And donors seem relatively willing to accept the proposition that administrative effectiveness is a good proxy for overall organizational impact, even though such a proposition is actually pretty weak. A whole industry has developed around this: supporting good compliance and measuring it, as a service for potential donors.

This effect is amplified by the presence of major donors, who are typically wealthy retired business executives.

That’s because major donors like to feel their advice is as useful as their money, and they have decades of experience of people taking their opinions seriously. But they can’t necessarily say much that’s useful about the specifics of helping victims of domestic violence or rehabilitating criminals or protecting endangered gorillas in the Congo. So many nonprofits create opportunities where they can help. They are put on the investment committee, they are asked to help with the audit firm selection process, their advice is sought about when to launch an endowment campaign. This has the effect of focusing the ED’s attention in those areas — because the ED, of course, wants to make sure the major donor’s experience with the org is a positive one. More unintended consequences: “providing a good donor experience” becomes an unstated job requirement for the head of finance. A great head of nonprofit finance needs to not just be a person who’s financially and administratively competent: he or she also needs to be credible, composed, tactful and likable.

So. A major structural flaw of many nonprofits is that their revenue is decoupled from mission work, which pushes them to focus on providing a positive donor experience often at the expense of doing their core work. That’s bad.

What can we do about it?

I believe the problem is to some degree newly now solvable. I know that, because we solved it at the Wikimedia Foundation.

Here’s what we did.

From 2008 until late 2009, the WMF played around with various fundraising models. We applied for and got restricted grants, we cultivated major donors, we made business deals that brought in what’s called in nonprofitland “earned income,” and we fundraised online using what we grew to call the many-small-donors model. After two years we determined we’d be able to be successful using any of those methods, and an important study from Bridgespan had persuaded us to pick one. And so we picked many-small-donors, because we felt like it was the revenue model that best aligned with our core mission work.

Today, the WMF makes about 95% of its money from the many-small-donors model — ordinary people from all over the world, giving an average of $25 each.

It’s awesome.

We don’t give board seats in exchange for cash. Foundations’ priorities don’t override our own. We don’t stage fancy donor parties (well, we do stage one a year, but it’s not very fancy), and people who donated lots of money have no more influence than people who donate small amounts — and, importantly, no more influence than Wikipedia editors. Donors very rarely visit the office, and when they do, they don’t get a special dog-and-pony show. I spend practically zero time fundraising. We at the WMF get to focus on our core work of supporting and developing Wikipedia, and when donors talk with us we want to hear what they say, because they are Wikipedia readers. (That matters. I remember in the early days spending time with major donor prospects who didn’t actually use Wikipedia, and their opinions were, unsurprisingly, not very helpful.)

The many-small-donors models wouldn’t work for everyone, mainly because for it to succeed your core work needs to be a product or service that large numbers of people are aware of, understand, and want to support. About a half-a-billion people read Wikipedia, and we get on average 11 cents a year from each one, which is not much. I know a couple of nonprofits that’ve backed away from the many-small-donors model after doing that math. But I think the usefulness of the many-small-donors model, ultimately, will extend far beyond the small number of nonprofits currently funded by it.

Why? People are slowly getting used to the idea of voluntarily giving smallish amounts of money online to support stuff they like — look at Kickstarter and Donors Choose and Indiegogo. These are not self-interested transactions made after a careful evaluation of ‘what’s in it for me’: they’re people funding stuff because they think it’s great. Meanwhile, the online payment processing market is maturing, with an increasing number of providers supporting an increasing number of currencies and countries, and fees are starting to drop. And, note that donations to the WMF have risen steadily every single year (we’ve been named the nonprofit with the fastest growing revenues in the United States, which probably actually means in the world) — even though the WMF’s fundraising is deliberately restrained. Eleven cents per user per year is nowhere near a ceiling, for Wikipedia or for anyone.

The advent of the internet has given ordinary people access to the means of production, and now they (we) can easily share information with each other on sites like Wikipedia. That’s been playing out for more than a decade, and its effects have included the disintermediation of gatekeepers and middlemen of all types. I think we’re now seeing the same thing happen, more slowly, with the funding of mission-driven work. I think that among other things, we’re going to see the role of foundations and major donors change in surprising ways. And I think the implications of these changes go beyond fundraising itself. For organizations that can cover their costs with the many-small-donors model I believe there’s the potential to heal the disconnect between fundraising and core mission work, in a way that supports nonprofits being, overall, much more effective.

Notes: This post is written from the vantage point of somebody who thinks many nonprofits do good work in difficult circumstances: please read it from that perspective. Lots of people think nonprofits are lazy and inefficient and woolly-minded. That’s sometimes true, but no more so in my experience than at for-profit orgs. The world has no shortage of suck.

I also want to thank some of the people who’ve influenced my thoughts in this area. Although the views expressed here are my own, Erik Moeller and I have talked a ton about this stuff over the past half-dozen years. He was the first person to point out to me the absurdity of overheard ratios, and has written about them extensively and publicly, starting back in 2009. Afterwards, he and I discovered the good work of Dan Pallotta and also the Urban Institute, investigating overhead ratios and explaining why they’re bunk. I’ve also benefited from reading Jim Collins’s monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors, as well as two books from Michael Edwards: Just Another Emperor? The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism, and Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World. I was helped by a conversation about difficulties facing new nonprofits a few years back at the Aspen Institute, as well as by dozens of less structured conversations with fundraisers including particularly Zack Exley, as well as with my fellow EDs, including ones on whose boards I serve. David Schoonover has done some analysis of U.S. non-profit funding models that has influenced me, and he and I have talked extensively about challenges facing the nonprofit sector, including this one. The folks at Omidyar have also been helpful, including pointing me towards the very useful Bridgespan study linked above.

Because I’ve been working lately on issues related to grantmaking and Wikimedia movement entities, it might be tempting to assume my arguments here are somehow aimed at informing or influencing those conversations. They’re not. To the extent anything here is useful to those conversations that’s great, but that’s not why I wrote this.

On August 22, the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning announced she wanted to be called Chelsea, and recognized as female. Within an hour, the English-language Wikipedia had renamed the article and changed its pronouns. That kicked off a week-long often-acrimonious debate among Wikipedia editors, which resulted, over the weekend, in the article title being reverted back to Bradley Manning. (For further context, here’s a news story and some detailed analysis.)

This disappointed me. I think Wikipedia did the right thing in promptly responding to Manning’s announcement, and I feel like reverting the change was, for many reasons, a bad call. And, I’m dismayed by subsequent on-wiki discussions that look like they may result in revisions to editorial policy that would support, in the future, similar bad decisions on trans issues.

The purpose of this blog post though, isn’t to argue why Wikipedia should respect that Chelsea Manning is a woman. (I’ve already done that extensively this past weekend on-wiki, as have others.) The purpose is to talk about the underlying factors that I think led Wikipedia to make a bad decision, and point to where I think solutions might lie.

First, I want to question some of the frames people are currently using to understand what happened here. Some editors have been characterizing the debate as political in a narrow sense — with left-leaning Wikipedians favouring use of Chelsea and right-wing Wikipedians favouring Bradley. Others are framing it as accuracy versus kindness — saying that editors who support using Chelsea are motivated by a desire to not hurt her feelings, and are prioritizing that goal over truth. I think both those frames are wrong. I think what the debate is actually revealing is a blind spot that Wikipedia has about gender.

Last summer I drafted a blog post about Wikipedia’s coverage of rape. I haven’t published it yet, and at this point I think I probably never will: its moment may have passed. But the similarities between what I observed in our discussions about rape, and what I’ve observed over the past few days as we talked about trans issues, are I think instructive. In both cases a non-negligible chunk of our editing community, all of whom ordinarily value accuracy and knowledge and expertise, seem instead to be going on gut feeling and knee-jerk assumptions. We aren’t applying our normal judgement and standards.

On rape and trans issues, the typical editor probably doesn’t have much expertise. That’s not at all unusual — people edit on topics they don’t know much about, all the time. We fix typos, we smooth out writing styles, we dig up and add citations. What’s unusual here is that rather than deferring to people who had read and thought a lot about the article topic, as we normally do, instead a substantial chunk of the community seemed to let itself be swayed by prejudice and unexamined assumptions. (To be clear: I do not mean that a large chunk of Wikipedians are themselves prejudiced. I mean that they let prejudiced ill-informed people establish a tone, an overton window if you will, of what was acceptable to think and say.)

Here’s what’s normal: When Pluto was declared to not be a planet, Wikipedia deferred to the experts, and reflected what they said in the article.

Here’s what’s not normal: When Dominique Strauss Kahn was accused of having raped a hotel cleaner, and when Todd Akin made pseudo-scientific claims about rape and pregnancy, many Wikipedians’ discussions were (I thought) remarkably ill-informed. Some editors seemed to believe that false accusations of rape were common. Some didn’t seem to realize that rape is seriously underreported. They didn’t recognize that there’s a body of knowledge on rape that’s well-sourced and reliable.

It took me a while to connect this to systemic bias — to realize that rather than Wikipedians being unusually lacking in knowledge about what rape is and how it works, I might better understand it as me being more-knowledgeable-than-the-average-Wikipedian on the topic. Because I’m a woman, and also a journalist, I’ve followed rape issues pretty closely in the media, I’ve talked about it a fair bit with my female friends, and I’ve read a couple of dozen books and studies on it and related topics. It took me a while to realize that that level of interest, and therefore expertise, is unusual on Wikipedia, presumably at least partly because our editor community skews so heavily male.

The same is true for transgender issues. A number of editors have made truly ignorant comments over the past week or so, comparing Chelsea Manning to someone who woke up one morning believing herself to be a dog, a cat, a Vulcan, Jesus Christ, a golden retriever, a genius, a black person, a Martian, a dolphin, Minnie Mouse, a broomstick or a banana. In saying those things, they revealed themselves to be people who’ve never thought seriously about trans issues — who have never read a single first-person account of growing up transgendered, or a scholarly study or medical text, or maybe even the Wikipedia article itself. That in itself is perfectly okay: different things are interesting to different people, and I for one know nothing about trigonometry or antisemitism in the 19th century or how a planet is determined to actually be a planet. But I don’t deny that there is stuff on those topics worth knowing, nor do I mock the knowledge of others, nor accuse them of bias and POV-pushing.

Wikipedians normally don’t either. Wikipedians won’t ordinarily defer to someone just because of their credentials, but we do normally attach extra credibility to people who’ve demonstrated they know more about a topic than we do. In this instance though, Wikipedians are considering sanctioning the two thoughtful and well-informed editors who originally made the change from Bradley to Chelsea. Which to me suggests systemic bias fuelled by groupthink.

So what needs to happen now?

The entire controversy has been referred to Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, the body of experienced editors who’ve been elected by the community to adjudicate difficult issues.

My hope is that ArbCom will clarify Wikipedia policy, and affirm that we have a responsibility to respect the basic human dignity of article subjects, to not mock or disparage them, and to attempt to avoid doing them harm. That we must not participate in or prolong their victimization.

I also hope ArbCom will weigh in on how Wikipedia handles trans issues in general. I’d be particularly interested in an examination of the role that subject-matter expertise is playing in our current discussions, and an exploration of how editors might choose to conduct themselves in disputes in which they have little expertise, and in which systemic bias risks skewing outcomes. In the Manning situation, for a variety of reasons that almost certainly include systemic bias, discussion didn’t achieve a result consistent with our desire to protect the dignity of an article subject.

So. Here’s the question. Given that Wikipedia makes decisions by consensus, how can majority-culture (male, young, Western, heterosexual, cisgendered) editors best participate in discussions in ways that work towards good decision-making, rather than groupthink?

For anybody reading this who doesn’t know: I’m the ED of the Wikimedia Foundation, and I’m also a Wikipedia editor. It’s in my latter, volunteer capacity that I wrote this blog post. What I say here is mostly informed by my experiences editing, but of course my experiences as ED have also shaped my opinions. Also: everything I say here, I say with lots of respect for the Wikipedia community. This is a rare misstep: an unusual and unfortunate blind spot.

Thank you to the people who vetted and gave feedback me on the draft version of this post — I appreciate it :-)

Edited to add, as per Aoife’s request in the comments. Here are some of my arguments in favour of titling the article Chelsea Manning. Here are some pages where you can read all the discussions we’ve been having.

Wikipedia Anti-SOPA Blackout Design

Below is the text of a talk I delivered Monday at the 2013 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference in Boston. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, Icelandic member of Parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir and I spoke on the theme of “Insiders/Outsiders: what is the right approach to change.”

Unlike many of the people in this room, I’m not an academic or a public policy expert and so I won’t be bringing you statistics or analysis or theories today. I run a big website. I’m also a journalist. If we consider ourselves to be in a war for the free and open internet, I am here to tell you some stories from the trenches.

Wikipedia is pretty much the consummate insider-outsider: the #5 most-popular site in the entire world, read by a half a billion people every month, yet written by utterly ordinary people with no special power or authority at all. If they have credentials, they park them at the door.

Wikipedia is a tremendous success story. It launched in 2001 and took off very quickly: by 2006 it had surpassed all the other news and information sites in terms of popularity. Today it’s a behemoth. And people love to point to it as an example of everything great about the internet. There’s only one problem with that. Wikipedia is pretty much alone. It’s NOT the general rule: it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Wikipedia is operated by a non-profit. In Silicon Valley, people often find that astonishing – they ask me why Jimmy Wales “left so much money on the table,” and whether he regrets doing it. (Answer: no.) Sometimes people ask me why we don’t just put ads on the site, and whether we are against advertising, against for-profit companies, against capitalism.

We say no. Our view is that the internet should have balance, much like the offline world. A city has restaurants and shops and banks as well as schools and libraries and parks. Wikipedia is like a park. It’s a public space, accessible and used by everybody.

But where are the other parks?

  • Wikipedia is the only donor-supported site in the top 50
  • Wikipedia and Mozilla are the only two nonprofits in the top 25(*)
  • The average person spends practically all their time online on the sites of for-profit companies, the vast majority of them American. (Caveat: mainland China.)

This worries me. The internet is evolving into a private-sector space that is primarily accountable to corporate shareholders rather than citizens. It’s constantly trying to sell you stuff. It does whatever it wants with your personal information. And as it begins to be regulated or to regulate itself, it often happens in a clumsy and harmful way, hurting the internet’s ability to function for the benefit of the public. That for example was the story of SOPA.

My first war story happened soon after I joined the Wikimedia Foundation. It’s about censorship in the United Kingdom.

The internet industry is, of course, generally hoping to remain unregulated. In the UK a coalition of ISPs have formed an association called the Internet Watch Foundation, which is essentially a group of retired police officers, paid by the ISPs to investigate complaints of child pornography online. In 2008, that group got a complaint about an image on Wikipedia of an album cover from 1976(**) – an album called “Virgin Killer”, by a German heavy metal band called the Scorpions. The album cover image is a young girl, nude, which has been treated with an effect that makes it look like she’s looking at you through a pane of glass that has been shattered by a bullet. It’s deliberately provocative – it’s heavy metal.

The Internet Watch Foundation decided this was child porn, and attempted to block it from the view of UK internet users. In doing that, they accidentally made it impossible for anybody to edit Wikipedia from inside the UK.

People went nuts. There was a lot of press coverage, both inside the UK and internationally. The Wikimedia Foundation spoke to the press, and individual Wikipedia editors in the UK spoke to the press and blogged and tweeted and so on. And after a few days the IWF reversed its decision.

Two interesting things:

  1. When they reversed their decision, they explicitly said that they still believed the image was child porn, but that the public outcry was too much for them. They backed down because they couldn’t win a PR war against fans of the number five website in the world. If we had been Joe’s Album Art History Wiki, it’s clear the decision would not have been reversed.
  2. Importantly and invisibly, while this story was playing out, and was being written about by journalists internationally, at the Wikimedia Foundation we noticed Amazon had quietly pulled the Virgin Killer album from its site. It still sold a version of the album that had a different cover, but it no longer sold the version with the image that was being challenged. Amazon didn’t call us to ask what was going on, or to offer us help. They didn’t even silently watch and wait. They pulled the album off their shelves — not just in the UK but worldwide.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Amazon. I spend a significant portion of my disposable income at Amazon every year, and I am grateful that it’s made my life easier and given me choices I didn’t have before it existed. Amazon is fantastic. But it’s also true that Amazon’s job is not to protect the public interest – it’s to advance the interests of Amazon.

Another story.

In 2011, there was a Wikipedia conference in Mumbai at which Jimmy Wales spoke as well as our Board member Bishakha Datta, and a few of our staff. To our considerable surprise, a popular Indian political party picketed outside our conference and demanded that the police arrest us. They were doing that because the map of India displayed on Wikipedia shows the country’s borders as per the United Nations – with the borders with China and Pakistan “disputed” – and not as per the map defined by the government of India. It is only legal, in India, to publish a map showing India’s borders as they are defined and understood by the government of India.

As you can imagine, the protest made us exceedingly anxious. We knew that although India is a democracy with a commitment to free speech, that commitment is variable and laws and community standards inside India are somewhat volatile. And so we retained a bunch of lawyers. We spent weeks researching the legal and PR issues. Where we could, we took a variety of small non-controversial steps to protect ourselves. And ultimately we got lucky, and the issue seemed to fizzle out.

What we did not do was change the map of India displayed on Wikipedia. Partly because we can’t – that’s a Wikipedia community decision – but also because we shouldn’t. It’s perfectly reasonable to publish a map of India with the UN borders.

What was interesting here, as we researched our position, was what everybody else does. It seems that inside India, every major player except Wikipedia displays the map of India with the borders as defined by the Indian government. If you’re in India, that’s what Google shows you. When the Economist magazine prints a map of India, I was told by our lawyer, the version of the magazine they sell inside India shows a map different from the version in the magazine they sell elsewhere.(***)

It’s also worth noting that the Wikimedia Foundation has a legal team and a PR team, and Wikipedia is a popular site, much-loved by its readers. Not everyone has those resources. Of those that do, most are private and for-profit. Again, some of those players are doing great things. But on the whole, over time, they will put profits before public service. That’s their job and their obligation.

Governments, in my experience, aren’t helping. Mostly they’re just befuddled, but even if they knew what to do, there’s no reason to believe they’d do it. Too often they’re corporate captives. We saw it with SOPA. Today they listen too much to the entertainment industry – the copyright owners. Tomorrow, maybe they’ll be listening too much to giant technology companies. Either way, the voices of ordinary people will only rarely be heard, and I have difficulty believing that more or better civic engagement will fix that anytime soon. I agree with Larry Lessig: structural problems – fundraising, gerrymandering – have made for a powerful incumbency with skewed incentives.

And so, as a soldier in the trenches, my message to this conference is caution and concern.

Aside from Wikipedia, there is no large, popular space being carved out for the public good. There are a billion tiny experiments, some of them great. But we should be honest: we are not gaining ground. Our schools, our libraries, our parks – they are very, very small and they may or may not sustain. We certainly have no information-sharing participatory Garden of Eden, the promise of the internet that we all originally believed in. Though we are not lost, we are losing.

I say this because it’s easy to come together for a conference like this and get excited about awesome experiments and interesting breakthroughs. It’s worth doing! We want to celebrate success! But if you’ve read Tim Wu‘s Master Switch, if you’re reading Robert McChesney‘s Digital Disconnect, you know that the insiders are winning. We are not.

The internet needs serious help if it is to remain free and open, a powerful contributor to the public good. That’s what I’m hoping you’ll discuss over the course of this conference. How to create an ecosystem of parks and libraries and schools online … that supports participation, dialogue, sharing.

Thank you.

(*Turns out I was wrong about this. Mozilla is #60 globally according to comScore Media Metrix, the industry standard for web audience measurement. Therefore, I should actually have said Wikipedia, at #5, is the *only* non-profit in the top 25.)

(**When I delivered the talk I said 2009 and 1979. I’d been misremembering: it was 2008 and 1976.)

(***Since delivering this talk, Tilman Bayer at the Wikimedia Foundation pointed me towards this BBC article, in which the Economist accuses the Indian government of hostile censorship after it forced the magazine to place a blank white sticker over a map of Kashmir in the 30,000 copies of the May 2011 Economist that were distributed in India.)

On 5 July 2013 I updated the blog post image to be the design that actually appeared on Wikipedia during the anti-SOPA blackout, as recommended to me by Brandon Harris, the guy who designed it :-)


People have been asking me which TED talks I’d recommend from this year, so here’s a quick rundown. I’ll start with the predictably excellent, and work my way towards the lesser-known but equally wonderful.

Larry Lessig was rousing, talking about the corrupting influence of money on American politics, which he characterizes as the root of many other problems. The talk was essentially a distillation of Republic Lost (and maybe also One Way Forward, which I haven’t yet read). Great at laying out the problem and rallying people to want to help fix it, but if you’re expecting solutions you might be disappointed — he doesn’t really chart a specific path forward, but instead points towards existing groups he says are doing good work. His talk isn’t up yet, but here’s the TED blog post.

Sugata Mitra is the “hole in the wall” guy who famously set up computers for kids to use in nooks and crannies of Delhi slums — and in so doing, proved that kids with internet access could teach themselves difficult subjects, even if they didn’t know English. This year he won the TED prize, which he’s going to use to build a virtual school staffed by volunteer “grannies” — retired schoolteachers around the world whose job is to “ask good questions and then admire the answers.” Here’s his talk.

I’d never seen Peter Singer before, and I enjoyed his thoughtful, logical talk about how to practice altruism effectively. There are lots of people who believe it’s important that public service be a significant part of everyone’s life, not just a sideline. (Like, uh, me.) So I was surprised when Singer argued that rather than taking a public service job, it might be more effective/better for a smart young person to take a highly-paid corporate job and earmark a substantial part of their salary for charity. Not a new idea, but unexpected, at least for me, from Singer. No video yet but here’s the blog post.

Dan Pallotta, who I’ve been reading for years, gave a gorgeous, measured, elegant talk about popular beliefs that inhibit the effectiveness of the non-profit sector. I don’t agree with everything he says, but his debunking of the usefulness of “overhead ratios” is dead-on and so necessary. When Erik Moeller and I were new to the non-profit sector back in about 2007, we learned about overhead ratios together and were horrified by how self-evidently useless (and obviously gameable) they are: Pallotta was one of the first sources we found that made any sense on the topic. I’ve been gratified to see his ideas get more broadly accepted over time, and I hope this talk is influential. Video’s not up yet; here’s the blog post.

The standout performance at TED this year for me was Amanda Palmer, who was spectacular. I’d loved her Kickstarter video pre-TED, and her TED talk didn’t disappoint. I know she’s controversial (she was criticized for continuing to ask local musicians to join her tour dates for free, even after making 1.2 million dollars through Kickstarter), but her message is solid regardless of the controversy. “The question isn’t how to make people pay for music: it’s how to let them pay for music.” Lots of joy and love and affirmation in her talk.

Pre-TED, I hadn’t seen Vancouver poet Shane Koyczan‘s YouTube version of his spoken-word poem To This Day, about poverty and bullying and class and the shaming of little kids. The YouTube version was animated by more than 80 volunteers and has been watched more than six million times since being posted in February — I watched it post-TED, and to be honest I prefer the TED version. (Maybe for the same reason I like books and radio better than TV — I’d rather make up my own pictures than watch somebody else’s.) The TED video’s not up yet, but the blog post about it is here.

OLPC co-founder Mary Lou Jepsen gave a great talk. Even though it was only an aside, I loved when she said, about self-medicating post-brain-surgery to become hormonally equivalent to a man in his early twenties: “I was angry all the time. I thought about sex all the time. I thought I was the smartest person in the entire world. It gave me a new appreciation for men.”[*] Her talk’s not up yet, but here’s the blog post.

University of Maryland president Freeman Hrabowski gave a beautiful barnstormer about his work helping minority students achieve graduate degrees in STEM. No video yet but here’s the blog post.

Beijing artist Liu Bolin, also known as the Invisible Man, showed slides of his work while speaking through through a translator. Liu goes to places like supermarkets and city exteriors, where he poses against the scenes and is painted in a painstaking process by his assistants, so that he fades into the background. He describes the resulting photographs as a silent protest, meant to critique the social problems accompanying China’s economic development.

I’d never heard of British architect Alistair Parvin before TED, which surprises me now that I’ve seen his talk. As a young architect Parvin wanted to democratize architecture. His talk was about what’s called WikiHouse, an open-source construction set you can use to build your own house. No video yet, but here’s the blog post.

I’d never heard of Eleanor Longden before TED either. A British research psychologist who was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at the age of 17 and who describes herself as someone who’s “been harmed by many people and remembers all their names” (I loved that phrase), she’s heard voices in her head for years, which she characterizes as not an “abstract symptom of illness to be endured, but a complex, significant and meaningful experience to be explored” and “a creative and ingenious survival strategy.” Video’s not up, but here’s the TED blog post.

Hyeonseo Lee, like 24,000 North Koreans before her, escaped to South Korea via China. In her TED talk she describes her own escape and that, a few years later, of her family members. I had just read Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy and Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape From North Korea, so I found this low-key talk fascinating. The TED video’s not up yet, but here is her video from TEDx Seoul.

Dutch ornithologist Kees Moeliker gave a very funny deadpan talk on his experience observing and documenting the first scientifically-documented case of homosexual necrophilia in ducks, for which he was awarded the 2003 Ig Nobel prize. Here’s the TED blog post.

[*] I edited the Mary-Lou Jepsen quote to add her final sentence, because it was pointed out to me that otherwise it might sound dismissive. Unintentional!


Wikipedia editors in Washington DC at our annual conference (July 2012)

(This post is a very lightly-modified version of a piece that appeared in the L.A. Times this past weekend. I wrote it because at Newfoo I was describing Wikipedians to the Times op ed editor — she found it interesting, and asked me to write it up for her. It’s also in honour of Wikipedia’s 12th anniversary, which is tomorrow.)

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit (yes, even you!), but most people don’t think much about who does the work. With half a billion people around the world relying on Wikipedia for information, we should.

More than 1.5 million people in practically every country have contributed to Wikipedia’s 23 million articles. More than 12,000 new entries are created every day — eight in the last minute. The authors are poets and professors, baristas and busboys, young and old, rich and poor.

It’s crazy. An encyclopedia is one of humankind’s grandest displays of collaborative effort, with contributors from pretty much every ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic background, political ideology, religion, sexual orientation and gender. The youngest Wikipedian I’ve met was seven, a boy in Tel Aviv who makes small edits to articles about animals and children’s books. The oldest I’ve met was 73, a retired engineer who writes about the history of Philadelphia, where he’s lived for half a century. My most recent cab driver in San Francisco, a middle-aged guy who I think was Eastern European, told me he edits, although I don’t know on what topics. I don’t know of a comparable effort, a more diverse collection of people coming together, in peace, for a single goal.

But beneath that surface diversity is a community built on shared values. The core Wikipedia editing community — those who are very, very active — is about 12,000 people. I’ve met thousands of them personally, and they do share common characteristics.

The first and most defining is that Wikipedians, almost without exception, are ridiculously smart, as you might expect of people who, for fun, write an encyclopedia in their spare time. I have a theory that back in school, Wikipedians were the smartest kids in the class, kids who didn’t care what was trendy or cool but spent their time reading, or with the debate team, or chess club, or in the computer lab. There’s a recurring motif inside Wikipedia of preteen editors who’ve spent their lives so far having their opinions and ideas discounted because of their age, but who have nonetheless worked their way into positions of real authority on Wikipedia. They love Wikipedia fiercely because it’s a meritocracy: the only place in their lives where their age doesn’t matter.

Wikipedians are geeky. They have to be to want to learn the wiki syntax required to edit, and that means most editors are the type of people who find learning technology fun. (It’s also because Wikipedia has its roots in the free software movement, which is a very geeky subculture.) The rise of the dot-com millionaire and the importance of services such as Google, Facebook and Wikipedia have made geekiness more socially acceptable. But geeks are still fundamentally outsiders, tending to be socially awkward, deeply interested in obscure topics, introverted and yet sometimes verbose, blunt, not graceful and less sensorily oriented than other people.

Nine of 10 Wikipedians are male. We don’t know exactly why. My theory is that Wikipedia editing is a minority taste, and some of the constellation of characteristics that combine to create a Wikipedian — geeky, tech-centric, intellectually confident, thick-skinned and argumentative, with the willingness and ability to indulge in a solitary hobby — tend to skew male.

Although individual Wikipedians come from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds, we tend to live in affluent parts of the world and to be relatively privileged. Most of us have reliable Internet connectivity and access to decent libraries and bookstores; we own laptops and desktops; we’re the product of decent educational systems, and we’ve got the luxury of free time.

Wikipedians skew young and are often students, concentrated at the postsecondary level. That makes sense too: Students spend their reading, thinking, sourcing, evaluating and summarizing what they know, essentially the same skills it takes to write an encyclopedia.

Like librarians and probably all reference professionals, Wikipedians are detail-obsessed pedants. We argue endlessly about stuff like whether Japan’s Tsushima Island is a single island or a trio of islands. Whether the main character in “Grand Theft Auto IV” is Serbian, Slovak, Bosnian, Croatian or Russian. Whether Baltimore has “a couple of” snowstorms a year or “several,” whether the bacon in an Irish breakfast is fried or boiled, whether the shrapnel wound John Kerry suffered in 1968 is better described as minor or left unmodified. None of this makes us fun at parties, but it does make us good at encyclopedia writing.

As befits an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, Wikipedians tend to be iconoclastic, questioning and curious. Wikipedia is a place where debate is a form of play and people are searching in good faith for the most correct answer. We’re credentials-agnostic: We want you to prove what you’re asserting; we take nothing on faith (and the article on “Faith” has ample footnotes). We’re products of the Enlightenment and the children of Spinoza, Locke and Voltaire. We oppose superstition, irrationalism and intolerance; we believe in science and reason and progress.

The most contentious topics on Wikipedia are the same as those in the rest of the world, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global warming, intelligent design, the war on terrorism and people such as Adolf Hitler, Ayn Rand and Dick Cheney. We believe it’s not our job to edit Wikipedia so that it reflects our personal opinions; instead, we aim to be fair to all sides. Entries need to be neutrally stated, well-documented and verifiable. Editors are asked to avoid stating opinions, or even seriously contested assertions, as facts; instead, we attribute them to their source. We aim for non-judgmental language: We avoid value-laden words like “legendary” and “racist” and “terrorist.” If we don’t know for sure what’s true, we say so, and we describe what various sides are claiming.

Does this mean Wikipedia’s perfect? Of course not. Our weakest articles are those on obscure topics, where subtle bias and small mistakes can sometimes persist for months or even years. But Wikipedians are fierce guardians of quality, and they tend to challenge and remove bias and inaccuracy as soon as they see it. The article on Barack Obama is a great example of this. Because it’s widely read and frequently edited, over the years it’s become comprehensive, objective and beautifully well sourced. The more eyes on an article, the better it is. That’s the fundamental premise of Wikipedia, and it explains why Wikipedia works.

And it does work. On Dec. 17, 2001, an editor named Ed Poor started an article called “Arab-Israeli conflict” with this single sentence: “The Arab-Israeli conflict is a long-running, seemingly intractable dispute in the Middle East mostly hinging on the status of Israel and its relations with Arab peoples and nations.” Today that article is 10,000 words long, with two maps and six other images and 138 footnotes. It’s been edited more than 5,000 times by 1,800 people in dozens of countries, including Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Denmark, Germany, Australia, Canada, Britain, the United States and Russia.

Since it was founded 12 years ago this week, Wikipedia has become an indispensable part of the world’s information infrastructure. It’s a kind of public utility: You turn on the faucet and water comes out; you do an Internet search and Wikipedia answers your question. People don’t think much about who creates it, but you should. We do it for you, with love.

From the collections of the Musée de la chasse et de la nature. Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SALots of Wikipedians are savants, geniuses, boffins. I am not, and I’m a pretty good Wikipedia contributor anyway — and you could be too. The purpose of this post is to show you how.

I usually start writing an article because I stumble across something interesting somewhere and want to find out more about it. If Wikipedia doesn’t already have an article, I’ll start one. That’s how I started the Wikipedia articles on the emo killings in Iraq, American chicklit novelist Laura Zigman, the type of prostitution known as survival sex, the Palestinian journalist Asma al-Ghul, and the healthcare industry practice of balance billing.

Here’s how to do it.

1.  Find a topic that interests you and which has either a bad Wikipedia article, or none at all. This is not hard, particularly if you fall outside the typical Wikipedian demographic (male, youngish, well-educated, and living in North America or Europe). There are lots of weak or missing articles on Wikipedia — here are a few: Handbag. The 17th century English Shoplifting Act. French curator Claude d’Anthenaise. American sociologist Rose Weitz. The hair treatment called marcelling. CEO Dane Jasper. The Marathi “bangle protection” ceremony Doha Jeevan. Mourning jewellery. The article on the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature used to be pretty weak, until I fell in love with the museum on a trip to Paris, and then fixed it up.

2.  Google it. Wikipedia doesn’t care how smart you are, or how knowledgeable — it wants you to provide a reputable source for every statement you make. So if you say The Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature is housed in the Hôtel de Guénégaud, Wikipedia wants to know how you know that. I found that fact in Let’s Go Paris, the student-traveller guidebook published by Harvard, which I found by searching for the museum’s name in Google Books. In this case, I already knew where the museum was located, but I still needed to support it with a published reference.

Normally, when I’m researching a Wikipedia article, I get my best results from Google Books (preview results not snippet results) or Google Scholar. There are guidelines on Wikipedia about what sources are okay and what aren’t, but you don’t need to obsess over this: mostly, if you let common sense be your guide you’ll do fine. And if you mess up, a Wikipedian will likely fix your mistake.

3. Assemble your facts into a decent article. Most people do this in a text editor, and then dump it into the Wikipedia edit window once they’re nearly done. You get an edit window by typing this into the addressbar of your browser:*******&action=edit. Replace the asterisks with your title, in mixed case.

As you’re writing, you can look at other articles on Wikipedia to see how they’re structured (like this or this or this), but you’re free to do it however you like — there are no strict rules, and if you do it badly somebody will usually help make it better. Normally articles will contain some or all of the following sections: Overview, Background or History, the meat of the article which will have a section heading(s) appropriate to the subject-matter, References, Further Reading, and External Links. But an article can be considered complete even if all it contains is a paragraph or two of text, supported by a References section.

When you’re ready, paste your text into the edit window.

4. Add citations. This used to be really fiddly and irritating (and yes, I know, wiki syntax is not at all user-friendly, and yes we are working on it), but recently some lovely person made it easier.

Put your cursor right after the sentence you want to cite, then click cite. That’ll bring up a new set of options. Click templates then select which one you want –- if you’re unsure, choosing “web” is always safe. Fill out the little form that pops up and click insert. That’ll paste the appropriate wiki syntax into your article text. (Here is something I just figured out a few months ago: If you are adding a citation to a book, copy-paste the ISBN into that field first, then click the magnifying glass to its right. The rest of the form will auto-populate, yay!)

5. Make some final tweaks. Bold the first instance of your article title, like this: The Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature is a private museum of hunting and nature located in the IIIe arrondissement at 62, rue des Archives, Paris, France. Add double-square brackets around words you want to link to other pre-existing articles on Wikipedia – usually proper nouns are good candidates for this. Like this: In the Salon of the Dogs, a collection of gold dog collars throughout the ages is displayed alongside 17th-century portraits of [[Louis XIV]]’s pets and a small white version of the Scottie dog sculpture [[Puppy]] by contemporary American ceramic artist [[Jeff Koons]].

Once you’re happy, preview your article by clicking Show Preview at the bottom of the edit window, then fix anything that looks broken.

6. Then hit Save Page. And you’re done!

Here’s some further reading……


I spent part of last weekend at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, in New York’s financial district. It was a terrible weekend to be there, with the slush and snow making life pretty miserable for the protestors. Friends who’ve gone have reported a festival-like atmosphere with music and food and day-tripping families: what I saw was mostly just sodden people huddled in tents.

But it was fascinating, and I’m glad I went. You probably already know that the Occupy movement aims to operate via consensus decision-making, which makes it especially interesting to me because the Wikimedia projects operate the same way. OWS does it slightly differently though — because they’re making decisions via face-to-face interactions among large numbers of people, they use a variety of hand signals so that people can give simultaneous input without obstructing each other or interrupting speakers. Different gestures signal agreement and disagreement, the desire to raise points of process or ask clarification questions, and so forth.

As I watched the General Assembly, held at seven every evening, three things struck me as useful for the Wikimedia movement:

The “progressive stack” notion could help Wikimedia combat systemic bias in our projects. I want to immediately note here that the progressive stack is not uncontroversial in the Occupy movement: the New York General Assembly has agreed to use it, and is using it, but a couple of facilitators openly expressed ambivalence towards it. I am well aware that anything hinting at a progressive stack would be generally disliked in the Wikimedia movement, for lots of reasons.

The progressive stack is based in the premise that people who come from culturally dominant groups have throughout their lives been encouraged to speak, and rewarded for speaking, whereas people from other groups are more likely to have been ignored or silenced. Therefore, when GA participants line up in a “stack” to speak, the movement has agreed to privilege the marginalized by moving them forward, ahead of others. In practice this means that women, people of colour and gays and lesbians may get to speak before straight white men. You can read more about the progressive stack in this article from The Nation, this Feministing article, this discussion on the Occupy San Jose site and this discussion on Occupy Nashville.

I don’t flat-out love the progressive stack either: it’s obviously problematic. But it does strike me that it’s got application for the Wikimedia projects and our problems with systemic bias. I wouldn’t advocate that we give people from underrepresented groups a louder voice than others, or that they be given particular extra privileges of any kind. But I would recommend that if for example we’re arguing about a topic related to India, and there’s an Indian person in the conversation, given that we know Indian people are underrepresented on the projects, it would make sense for us to listen to that person extra carefully, since he or she would be bringing information we’d otherwise be likelier to miss. Same goes for women, and other underrepresented groups in our community.

I loved how the facilitators deliberately created space for new people by minimizing and making fun of their own contributions. The man who facilitated at my second GA did this explicitly, saying things like “I hate facilitating; I am really bad at it,” and “Nobody trained me to do this. I learned how to do it by reading magazines at Barnes and Noble, which means I don’t really know how to do it.” I thought that was great. In the Wikimedia projects, too often we do the opposite: we use impenetrable acronyms and jargon, sending the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that there is a lot to learn, and you, the new editor, might not be quite up to the task. That’s a shame.

We used to create more space for new people: I remember Florence Devouard, then the chair of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, telling me that in the early days of the French Wikipedia she used to deliberately make crappy messed-up pages full of misspelled words, so it was easy for people to imagine themselves making things better. I’m not advocating for that today, at least not in the large, mature Wikipedia language versions, but I do think that demystifying our work and making it clear that most policy is just common sense, would help new people to find us more approachable.

I loved how multiple random people in the assembly took personal responsibility for its success. Consensus decision-making can be frustrating, and a couple of times I saw angry people try to circumvent or ignore the process by interrupting or starting up side conversations. Every time that happened, someone in the crowd near the disruptive person would patiently, but firmly, explain the process and ask the person to respect it. I saw one woman do this repeatedly, and I was surprised to eventually figure out she’d only arrived at Zuccotti Park from California earlier that day, and didn’t have any prior experience with the Occupy movement. The fact that she felt empowered to help the GA succeed, and that she wanted to, reflected well on her — and also on the organizers.

By contrast in the Wikimedia movement, too often I see people stand silently aside while somebody else acts destructively. It’s most obvious on our mailing lists, where promising threads sometimes devolve into flame-wars and snark. When that happens in a thread I started, other people will often write me supportive e-mails off-list, wanting to commiserate about how awful so-and-so is, or how terrible the lists are. I appreciate those mails (really, I do!), and I have written a couple like that of my own. But it would be so much healthier for us all to take responsibility for creating a constructive space, rather than standing by as though we are helpless, while stuff is set on fire. That Californian woman was correct: it’s her movement too, and she has every right, and arguably a responsibility, to keep it from being damaged.

So those are three quick things I think the Wikimedia projects might usefully learn from the OWS movement. Please don’t write me angry comments about NPOV: I am not talking here about the substance of OWS: I’m talking solely about its process :-)

I’m writing this fast tonight, even thought I’m a bit of a jet-lagged wreck, because I’m in Paris kicking off a two week trip to Europe, and I’m hoping to visit the Occupy movement while I’m here. I know about Occupy London at St. Paul’s Cathedral, but I don’t know if there are ongoing protests taking place in the other cities I’m travelling to. If you know that there are protests happening in Paris, Utrecht, Vienna, Berlin or Hanover, please tell me in the comments where they are. I’d love to see how they are, or are not, different from the one in New York.

For some reason I can’t make the cutline show up (sleepy!) but the image at the top of this post was taken at Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street, by David Shankbone. The woman shouting in the foreground is still there, but now she’s wearing mittens and a parka.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,616 other followers