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.