Ten years ago today [1], Jimmy Wales typed Hello World! into a wiki, and Wikipedia was born.

Today, Wikipedia’s the fifth most-popular site on the internet, and the only site in the top 25 that provides a wholly non-commercial public service, backed by a non-profit. It’s the largest collection of information ever assembled in human history: free to use, and free of advertising. If you’re reading it, it’s for you :-)

The anniversary’s an opportunity for us all to reflect on Wikipedia: its social impact, and what we want to accomplish in the next ten years. There’s been a lot of thoughtful media coverage over the past few weeks: you can read a lot of it here.

What makes me happy about the coverage is that it seems like people’s attitudes towards Wikipedia have finally turned an important corner.

In its early years, Wikipedia was one of our culture’s dirty little secrets: everybody used it, but very few were comfortable saying so. For the longest time, the only people who openly admitted loving Wikipedia were early adopters and iconoclasts.

Today though, journalists, educators and culture critics are finally embracing Wikipedia, acknowledging that its strengths vastly outweigh its weaknesses, and that its fundamental premise works. (A reporter told me the other day that mocking Wikipedia is “so 2007.” LOL.)

So today, we celebrate all the people who built this extraordinary thing. The engineers who made the code. The people who write the articles, fix the typos, smooth the text, localize the software, answer readers’ mail, and fight off vandals and POV-pushers. The donors, who pay the bills.

I invite you to check out this page, where there are listed (at last count) 454 Wikipedia anniversary parties, conferences, film screenings and other events. If you can come to one –even if you’ve never edited or even ever met a Wikipedian– please do!

And if you can’t be with us in person, why not do a little celebratory editing? Wikipedia wants your help: here’s a really great place to get started.

Thank you to everyone who’s helped to build Wikipedia. What you’ve done is amazing. Happy anniversary!

[1] It’s the morning of January 15 in southeast Asia, as I write this :-)

In my downtime while travelling, I read about two years worth of Less Wrong, a rationalist community blog that Kat Walsh introduced me to. It’s a great read, especially for people who fall into what Less Wrong co-founder Eliezer Yudkowsky hilariously and aptly labels “the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/Silicon-Valley/programmer/early-adopter crowd” – and there are a couple of posts I think are particularly worth calling to the attention of experienced, committed Wikimedia community members.

Here are four posts I think every Wikimedian should read.

1. How to Save the World lays out a rationalist approach to making the world a better place. My favourite –and the most applicable to us– “identify a cause with lots of leverage.” In the words of the author:

It’s noble to try and save the world, but it’s ineffective and unrealistic to try and do it all on your own. So let’s start out by joining forces with an established organization who’s already working on what you care about. Seriously, unless you’re already ridiculously rich + brilliant or ludicrously influential, going solo or further fragmenting the philanthropic world by creating US-Charity#1,238,202 is almost certainly a mistake. Now that we’re all working together here, let’s keep in mind that only a few charitable organizations are truly great investments — and the vast majority just aren’t. So maximize your leverage by investing your time and money into supporting the best non-profits with the largest expected pay-offs.

2. Defecting By Accident: A Flaw Common to Analytical People lays out the author’s view that highly analytical people tend to frequently “defect by accident” – basically, they hurt their ability to advance their own agenda by alienating others with unnecessary pedantry, sarcasm, and disagreeableness. The author offers eight tips for behavioural changes to make accidental defectors more effective, and recommends three books to increase influence persuasive ability — including Robert Cialdini’s excellent Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion [1].

3. Why Our Kind Can’t Cooperate. A post that argues that yes, a group which can’t tolerate disagreement isn’t rational. But also that a group that tolerates only disagreement is equally irrational.

Our culture puts all the emphasis on heroic disagreement and heroic defiance, and none on heroic agreement or heroic group consensus. We signal our superior intelligence and our membership in the nonconformist community by inventing clever objections to others’ arguments. Perhaps that is why the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/Silicon-Valley/programmer/early-adopter crowd stays marginalized, losing battles with less nonconformist factions in larger society. No, we’re not losing because we’re so superior, we’re losing because our exclusively individualist traditions sabotage our ability to cooperate.

4. Your Price For Joining. This picks up where Poul-Henning Kamp’s Why Should I Care What Color the Bikeshed Is? leaves off, arguing that “people in the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/etcetera cluster often set their joining prices way way way too high.” In the words of the author:

I observe that people underestimate the costs of what they ask for, or perhaps just act on instinct, and set their prices way way way too high. If the nonconformist crowd ever wants to get anything done together, we need to move in the direction of joining groups and staying there at least a little more easily. Even in the face of annoyances and imperfections! Even in the face of unresponsiveness to our own better ideas!

These are themes I think about / write about, a lot: collaboration, dissent, how groups can work together productively. I worry sometimes that Wikimedians think I’m hyper-critical and don’t see the strengths of our (argumentative, lively, sometimes ungenerous) culture. So to be super-clear: no! I very much value our culture, scrappiness and all. That doesn’t mean I don’t see its limitations though, and I do think we should always be aiming to improve and make ourselves more effective. That’s what these essays are about, and that’s why I’m recommending them.

[1] I e-mailed Robert Cialdini once looking for advice about a particular problem I was having working well with some Wikimedia community members. Surprisingly to me, he called me within just a few minutes, and we talked for more than an hour while I walked through an airport. I wouldn’t say he was able to fully solve my problem, but it was a helpful conversation and I was amazed by his generosity.

I haven’t posted here for a while because I was on a long and slightly gruelling trip, timed to coincide with Wikimedia’s 2010 fundraiser. (Which has just successfully concluded with more than a half million people contributing a total of USD 16 million, exceeding our goal in our shortest annual campaign to date: you can read more about it on the Wikimedia Foundation blog. My thanks to everyone who donated / helped with the campaign, and congratulations to Zack and the fundraising team!)

The gist of the trip: Between November 20 and December 6, I was in Stockholm, London, Dubai and Delhi. I spoke at three conferences, was interviewed by 16 journalists, and met about 50 Wikimedians as well as a few supporters and friends at cultural institutions, and I interviewed candidates for the Wikimedia Program Director for India. Afterwards I went on three weeks of holiday in India, including a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in Karnal, north of Delhi. The trip had multiple overlapping goals — to advance awareness of Wikipedia (particularly during our fundraising season) and encourage people to try editing, as well as to support chapters and find out a little more about the challenges and opportunities faced by editors in the Middle East. On the whole, the trip was successful and we’ll probably aim to do similar ones in future, building on lessons learned this time. I’ll blog more about it here as I get my notes organized.

Now, I’m back in San Francisco, and catching up on the 650-ish e-mails that accumulated (and didn’t get responded to) while I was away. Happy 2011 :-)

As ED of the Wikimedia Foundation, I get to meet Wikimedians all over the world. It didn’t take me long to see the commonalities among them – after only about six months, I believed –probably mostly wrongly– that I could pick out Wikimedians in airports and coffeeshops. I find the commonalities among Wikimedians fascinating, and also the recurring patterns I see in different Wikimedia communities. One such pattern is the very young editor.

The average Wikipedian is in his or her mid-twenties. Lots are teenagers, particularly editors who function in “wikignome” roles. But every now and I then I run across someone who started editing at an unusually young age – for example, there’s a Korean editor who started at seven, and an Israeli who started at eight.

A few days ago at the Wikipedia Academy in Stockholm, I met another: User:Calandrella [1], who started editing Wikipedia at the age of 10. He’s now 15. He told me that when he began, the thing he liked most about Wikipedia was that it took him seriously despite his age. He was able to make whatever contributions he was capable of, and they were judged on their merits.

Today, Calandrella’s made more than 10,000 edits. He’s been active on Wikipedia, Commons, Wikinews and Wiktionary, in Swedish, English, German, Norwegian and Spanish. He’s written about Pokemon, Harry Potter, anime, manga, computer games, and lots of other topics.

We know quite a bit about why people edit Wikipedia. They have an altruistic desire to share information with other people, they like learning new things themselves, and they are fussy types who are irritated by errors and feel compelled to fix them. We know that people like Calandrella appreciate that Wikipedia’s a meritocracy.

But I think there’s something else going on for the very young editors. It used to be that unusually smart kids were typically kind of isolated and lonely, until they met others as smart as them, either in university or later. I think that one of the unsung benefits of the internet, and Wikipedia in particular, is that it makes it possible for smart kids to connect with other people who are equally curious, who share their intellectual interests, and take them seriously, in a way that would’ve been completely unavailable to them 10 years earlier. I think that’s really good for them – it opens up the world for them and makes it possible for them to start making an intellectual contribution, much earlier than they would have been able to otherwise.

[1] Calandrella, Wikipedia tells me, is a genus of lark in the Alaudidae family. Swedish Wikipedians are very very proud of their coverage of birds: they say it’s better than that of the English Wikipedia :-)

I’m in Stockholm for the Swedish chapter’s third Wikipedia Academy, and I spent most of today with Swedish journalists.

I was talking with Robert Brännström, Editor-in-Chief of IDG Sweden, about the characteristics that distinguish people who edit Wikipedia from those who only read it. There are lots – I’d say that relative to the average person, Wikipedia editors are geekier, more curious, more introverted, they tend to be smarter, and are perhaps more inclined to be obsessive. But if I had to pick a single characteristic that’s common to all editors, I’d say it’s confidence. All Wikipedia editors share the belief that they know something worth sharing with others.

Robert immediately started laughing, and introduced me to the word wikipetter.  It’s derived from the Swedish word viktigpetter, which apparently means something like know-it-all, smarty-pants, smart-ass or “big head.” Wikipetter is apparently in fairly common use among Swedes — a quick search turned up quite a few definitions.

I hesitate to say this, because maybe Swedish Wikipedians consider the word wikipetter insulting. And probably they are tired of hearing about it, considering there have been no fewer than twelve lengthy debates about whether the Swedish Wikipedia should include an article about the Wiki Petter concept. (The outcome, I gather, is always no.) But nonetheless: I think it’s charming that the Swedish people have developed a special word for smarty-pants Wikipedians. If you know of other words like wikipetter, please tell me in the comments.

(By the way the title for this post was taken from a comment here, on this usability consultant’s blog. The Google translation made me laugh: it is “Long live Wikipettrar! (Is not a Wiki Petter self).”)

29 November 2010: I’ve just updated this post to correct the spelling of viktigpetter, which Lennart Guldbrandsson kindly informed me I’d gotten a bit wrong.

I’ve spent most of my career in public broadcasting, which is a very female-friendly environment. So the lack of women in Wikimedia / free culture / free software / Silicon Valley and the STEM world, has been a real culture shock for me. For anyone who doesn’t already know this: only 13% of Wikimedia project editors are female; less than 2% of free software contributors are female, and women are losing ground, not gaining it, in Silicon Valley tech companies.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand why our space is so gender-imbalanced, and how we can make it better.

Mostly I’ve kept my thoughts to myself thus far, because gender is an emotional topic for lots of people, and I’m not all that interested in arguing about it. But I’ll probably post here occasionally about gender issues. The purpose of this post is to talk about one fantastic book on women in computing, and what we might learn from it.

When I started reading and thinking about women in technology, I kept coming across references to Unlocking the Clubhouse, by academics Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. Here’s how it’s described by the American Library Association.

Margolis and Fisher document the astonishing gender gap in the field of computing by answering the question of why female interest in technology begins to wane in middle school and all but dies in high school. The authors argue that male dominance in information technology can be traced directly back to cultural, social, and educational patterns established in early childhood. Women, therefore, are vastly underrepresented in one of the most economically significant professions of the twenty-first century. After countless hours of classroom observation and interviews with hundreds of computer science students and teachers, the authors offer an array of formal educational reforms and informal practical solutions designed to rekindle and to nurture female interest in computer design and technology.”

Unlocking the Clubhouse is canonical, maybe because it’s unusually solutions-focused. It studies Carnegie-Mellon, which over a five-year period managed to achieve a 35% increase in female admissions to its computer science school (double the rate of increase for comparable research universities), and brought down the rate of female attrition from double that of men, to nearly the same. If you’re interested in gender in computer science, I highly recommend it. (If you’re on the staff of the Wikimedia Foundation, it’s in our library.)

Below, I’ve extracted bits that I think are particularly helpful for us. Try reading it as though “computer science” meant “Wikimedia,” and “teachers” meant “experienced editors.” I wrote the bolded text; the remainder is direct quotes from the book. Emphasis in the original.

  1. Deliberately focus efforts on recruiting women. Don’t assume that general outreach efforts will motivate women. Encourage women to recruit other women. Boys have staked their claim at the computer very early both at home and in schools. Girls who are interested but intimidated, or girls who don’t know what computer science is but could be very interested, need an extra word of encouragement from teachers, parents, or counselors. Rule number one, then, is that teachers have to deliberately focus efforts on recruiting girls. If teachers issue a generic recruitment call, boys turn out. Girls must know the teacher is talking to them. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of encouragement to fire a girl’s interest. … Some of the best recruiters of girls are other girls. … two mottoes emerged: “Recruit friendship circles” and “Recruit a posse.”
  2. Stage and support women-only activities. These events attract girls who would normally stay away from the classes where they fear being left in the dust or shouted down by more experienced or just plain louder boys. They provide learning environments where girls take risks, take leadership, ask questions, stop worrying about what they do not know, and build confidence.”
  3. Don’t get dissuaded by opposition. When teachers begin to make a special effort to recruit girls, they often encounter some opposition. Other teachers, boys, and sometimes girls may object that special efforts to recruit girls are not fair. … This is an important teaching opportunity: an opportunity to explain how boys have already been recruited into computer science. Public image, media and marketing of computers have been specifically focused on boys. The gender stereotypes associated with computing tend to pull boys in and push girls away. To balance the influences, a concerted campaign to recruit girls is necessary.“
  4. Work to create and protect a female-friendly environment. Computer science classrooms often have the feel of a boy’s locker room. The humor and banter usually reflect the male demographics. Donovan Williams of Madison, Wisconsin, told us of a computer programming contest, organized by a recent high school graduate, that included problems titled “Don’t Forget the Beer” and “Checkin’ Out the Babes.” He wrote to the contest organizer, explaining how the contest call assumed a male audience and could alienate female students. … Much prior research shows that female students in technical disciplines, perhaps because of their “outsider-ness,” are especially vulnerable to poor teaching, inhospitable teaching environments, and unhelpful faculty. Even a small proportion of such occurrences against an otherwise welcoming and supportive background can have severe negative effects.”
  5. Emphasize social impact. Women students’ descriptions of why they are majoring in computer science are a “counter-narrative” to the stereotype of computer scientists who are narrowly focused on their machines and are hacking for hacking’s sake. Instead, these women tell us about their multiple interests and their desire to link computer science to social concerns and caring for people. These women may or may not qualify as ‘people people’ on a psychological inventory exam to the same degree as those involved in nursing, social work, or child care, but they need their computing to be useful for society. … A metaanalysis of research on gender and science by Marcia Linn and Janet Hyde concluded that a major sex difference in interests in math and science is its perceived usefulness. … University of Michigan researcher Jacquelynne Eccles reports that the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions, a longitudinal study of approximately 1,000 adolescents from southern Michigan, found that “women select the occupation that best fits their hierarchy of occupationally-relevant values,” and that helping others and doing something worthwhile for society is high in that hierarchy.”

Further reading: Vel Henson’s classic essay HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux

The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees met in San Francisco a few weeks ago, and had a long and serious discussion about controversial content in the Wikimedia projects. (Why? Because we’re the only major site that doesn’t treat controversial material –e.g., sexually-explicit imagery, violent imagery, culturally offensive imagery– differently from everything else. The Board wanted –in effect– to probe into whether that was helping or hurting our effectiveness at fulfilling our mission.)

Out of that agenda item, we found ourselves talking about what it looks like when change is handled well at Wikimedia, what good leadership looks like in our context, and what patterns we can see in work that’s been done to date.

I found that fascinating, so I’ve done some further thinking since the meeting. The purpose of this post is to document some good patterns of leadership and change-making that I’ve observed at Wikimedia.

Couple of quick caveats: For this post, I’ve picked three little case studies of successful change at Wikimedia. I’m defining successful change here as ‘change that stuck’ – not as ‘change that led to a desirable outcome.’ (I think all these three outcomes were good, but that’s moot for the purposes of this. What I’m aiming to do here is extract patterns of effective process.) Please note also that I picked these examples quickly without a criteria set – my goal was just to pick a few examples I’m familiar with, and could therefore easily analyze. It’s the patterns that matter, not so much the examples.

That said: here are three case studies of successful change at Wikimedia.

  • The Board’s statement on biographies of living people. Policies regarding biographies had been a topic of concern among experienced Wikipedians for years, mainly because there is real potential for people to be damaged when the Wikipedia article about them is biased, vandalized or inaccurate, and because our experience shows us that articles about non-famous people are particularly vulnerable to skew or error, because they aren’t read and edited by enough people. And, that potential for damage –particularly to the non-famous– grows along with Wikipedia’s popularity. In April 2009, the Board of Trustees held a discussion about BLPs, and then issued a statement which essentially reflected best practices that had been developed by the Wikipedia community, and recommended their consistent adoption.  The Board statement was taken seriously: it’s been translated into 18 languages, discussed internally throughout the editing community, and has been cited and used as policies and practices evolve.

  • The strategy project of 2009-10. Almost 10 years after Wikipedia was founded, the Board and I felt like it was time to stop down and assess: what are we doing well, and where do we want to focus our efforts going forward. So in spring 2009, the Wikimedia Board of Trustees asked me to launch a collaborative, transparent, participatory strategy development project, designed to create a five-year plan for the Wikimedia movement. Over the next year, more than 1,000 people participated in the project, in more than 50 languages. The resultant plan is housed on the strategy wiki here, and a summary version will be published this winter. You can never really tell the quality of strategy until it’s implemented (and sometimes not even then), but the project itself has accomplished what it set out to do.

  • The license migration of May 2009. When I joined Wikimedia this process was already underway, so I only observed first-hand the last half of it. But it was lovely to watch. Essentially: some very smart and experienced people in leadership positions at Wikimedia decided it made sense to switch from the GFDL to CC-BY-SA. But, they didn’t themselves have the moral or legal right to make the switch – it needed to be made by the writers of the Wikimedia projects, who had originally released their work under the GFDL. So, the people who wanted the switch launched a long campaign to 1) negotiate a license migration process that Richard Stallman (creator of the GFDL and a hero of the free software movement) would be able to support, and 2) explain to the Wikimedia community why they thought the license migration made sense. Then, the Wikimedia board endorsed the migration, and held a referendum. It passed with very little opposition, and the switch was made.

Here are nine patterns I think we can extract from those examples:

  1. The person/people leading the change didn’t wait for it to happen naturally – they stepped up and took responsibility for making it happen. The strategy project grew out of a conversation between then-board Chair Michael Snow and me, because we felt that Wikimedia needed a coherent plan. The BLP statement was started by me and the Board, because we were worried that as Wikipedia grew more popular, consistent policy in this area was essential. The license migration was started by Jimmy Wales, Erik Moeller and others because they wanted it to be much easier for people to reuse Wikimedia content. In all these instances, someone identified a change they thought should be made, and designed and executed a process aimed at creating that change.
  2. A single person didn’t make the change themselves. A group of people worked together to make it happen. More than a thousand people worked on the strategy project. Probably hundreds have contributed (over several years) to tightening up BLP policies and practices. I’m guessing dozens of people contributed to the license migration. The lesson here is that in our context, lasting change can’t be produced by a single person.
  3. Early in the process, somebody put serious energy towards achieving a global/meta understanding of the issue, from many different perspectives. It might be worth pointing out that this is not something we normally do: in order to do amazing work, Random Editor X doesn’t have any need to understand the global whole; he or she can work quietly, excellently, pretty much alone. But in order to make change that involves multiple constituencies, the person doing it needs to understand the perspectives of everyone implicated by that change.
  4. The process was carefully designed to ask the right people the right questions at the right time. The license migration was an exemplar here: The people designing the process quite rightly understood that there was no point in asking editors’ opinions about something many of them probably didn’t understand. On the other hand, the change couldn’t be made without the approval of editors. So, an education campaign was designed that gave editors access to information about the proposed migration from multiple sources and perspectives, prior to the vote.
  5. A person or a group of people dedicated lots of hours towards figuring out what should happen, and making it happen. In each case here, lots of people did lots of real work: researching, synthesizing, analyzing, facilitating, imagining, anticipating, planning, communicating.
  6. The work was done mostly in public and was made as visible as possible, in an attempt to bolster trust and understanding among non-participants. This is fundamental. We knew for example that the strategy project couldn’t succeed if it happened behind closed doors. Again and again throughout the process, Eugene Eric Kim resisted people’s attempts to move the work to private spaces, because he knew it was critical for acceptance that the work be observable.
  7. Some discussion happened in private, inside a small group of people who trust each other and can work easily together. That’s uncomfortable to say, because transparency and openness are core values for us and anything that contradicts them feels wrong. But it’s true: people need safe spaces to kick around notions and test their own assumptions. I know for example that at the beginning of the Board’s BLP conversations, I had all kinds of ideas about ‘the problem of BLPs’ that turned out to be flat-out wrong. I needed to feel free to air my bad ideas, and get them poked at and refuted by people I could trust, before I could start to make any progress thinking about the issue. Similarly, the Board exchanged more than 300 e-mails about controversial content inside its private mailing list, before it felt comfortable enough to frame the issue up in a resolution that would be published. That private kicking around needs to happen so that people can test and accelerate and evolve their own thinking.
  8. People put their own credibility on the line, endorsing the change and trying to persuade others to believe in it. In a decentralized movement, there’s a strong gravitational pull towards the status quo, and whenever anyone tries to make change, they’re in effect saying to hundreds or thousands of people “Hey! Look over here! Something needs to happen, and I know what it is.” That’s a risky thing to do, because they might be perceived in a bunch of negative ways – as naiive or overreacting, as wrong or stupid or presumptuous, or even as insincere – pretending to want to help, but really motivated by inappropriate personal self-interest. Putting yourself on the line for something you believe in, in the face of suspicion or apathy, is brave. And it’s critical.
  9. Most people involved –either as participants or observers– wanted more than anything else to advance the Wikimedia mission, and they trusted that the others involved wanted the same thing. This is critical too. I have sometimes despaired at the strength of our default to the status quo: it is very, very hard to get things done in our context. But I am always reassured by the intelligence of Wikimedia community members, and by their dedication to our shared mission. I believe that if everyone’s aligned in wanting to achieve the mission, that’s our essential foundation for making good decisions.

Like I said earlier — these are just examples I’ve seen or been involved in personally. I’d be very interested to hear other examples of successful change at Wikimedia, plus observations & thinking about patterns we can extract from them.

Tonight I went to see historian Timothy Garton Ash talk with his friend Tobias Wolff at Stanford. The occasion was the publication of Timothy’s newest book, a collection of essays and reportage loosely built around the idea that “facts are subversive.”  Timothy’s premise seems to be –roughly, loosely– that people in power are often trying to construct narratives in support of a particular economic, political or culture agenda, and that facts –even very small ones– can sometimes trip that up.

One thing they talked about was about honesty in memoirs — for example, Mary McCarthy’s 1957 autobiography Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, in which McCarthy disarmingly confesses that “the temptation to invent has been very strong,” and “there are cases when I am not sure myself whether I am making something up.” And about George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, in which Orwell wrote:

I have tried to write objectively about the Barcelona fighting, though, obviously, no one can be completely objective on a question of this kind. One is practically obliged to take sides, and it must be clear enough which side I am on. Again, I must inevitably have made mistakes of fact, not only here but in other parts of this narrative. It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.” (1)

This brought into focus for me something I’ve long half-recognized — both in my own experiences of reading Wikipedia, and the stories people tell me about how they use it themselves. Article after article after article on Wikipedia is studded with warnings to the reader. “This article needs references that appear in reliable third-party sources.” “This article needs attention from an expert on the subject.” “This article may be too technical for most readers to understand.”  On this page, you can see 24 common warning notices — and there are many, many more.

And I think that’s one of the reasons people trust Wikipedia, and why some feel such fondness for it. Wikipedia contains mistakes and vandalism: it is sometimes wrong. But people know they can trust it not to be aiming to manipulate them — to sell them something, either a product or a position. Wikipedia is just aiming to tell people the truth, and it’s refreshingly honest about its own limitations.

Tobias Wolff said tonight that sometimes such disclaimers are used manipulatively, as corroborating detail to add versimilitude to text that might otherwise be unpersuasive. I think that’s true. But in the case of Wikipedia, which is written by multitudes, disclaimers are added to pages by honest editors who are trying to help. They may not themselves be able to fix an article, but at the very least, they want to help readers know what they’re getting into. I like that.

(1) I looked that up on Google Books when I got home. Yay, Google Books!

Jay Walsh already wrote about these new videos on the Wikimedia Foundation blog, and I want to write about them as well. I really, really love them :-)

One of my main functions is to be a face and voice for Wikipedia — telling our story to all kinds of people, including potential partners, donors, critics, and so forth. And the least-visible part of our story has always been the editors — the people who write the encyclopedia. That’s because most readers don’t actually think much about how Wikipedia gets produced: they tend instead to imagine it as a kind of utility, like their web browser or ISP or hydro-electric service. (Like, “I turn on the faucet and information comes out.”) So from the beginning, I’ve aimed to tell that untold story — to, in effect, take readers backstage.


Partly it just seems fair: when people are reading something, they deserve to know who wrote it and why. But also, I want people to use Wikipedia, to trust it and support it. And the more they know about our editors, the likelier they are to do that.

Wikipedia’s written by smart people, 99% of whom have no motivation other than a love of knowledge and sharing. They’re not trying to sell anything, or make readers vote a particular way or believe a particular idea, nor are they trying to enrich or benefit themselves. As Jimmy said once long ago, they’re just smart geeks – the kind of people who think writing an encyclopedia is a fun way to spend their free time.

So, up until a few weeks ago, I used to tell the stories of Wikipedians by running a little slideshow of photos that I pulled off Wikimedia Commons, in decks like this one. I’d talk over them, giving the basic info – that the average Wikipedia editor’s male, in his mid-twenties, typically a graduate student, and so forth.

But now, Wikimedia’s Head of Communications Jay Walsh has made four lovely videos in which Wikipedians speak for themselves.

This first is just a kind of teaser / proof of concept — it was strung together in the edit suite to see what it would look like.

“Nice People” is intended to introduce viewers to typical Wikipedians.

“Edit Button” is part of a set of outreach materials the Wikimedia Foundation’s creating, aimed at encouraging readers to try editing.

“Great Feeling” is I think most people’s favourite — definitely, it’s mine :-)

I think these videos are really lovely. Many thanks to Jay for commissioning them, and to Jelly Helm for directing them. Jelly’s talent is shiningly, thrillingly obvious here — I’m really happy that Jelly loves Wikipedia, and that he wanted to help its editors tell their stories :-)

All four videos are on Wikimedia Commons and YouTube. They’re all CC-BY-SA. For the YouTube version, please consider supporting the open web by opting into YouTube’s HTML5 beta. And many thanks to the people who are currently translating the videos for subtitling and closed-captioning. The translated text is linked to from these pages on Commons.

Below are some raw notes I took this weekend at the Quaker workshop I posted about yesterday. This is super-rough; if anything doesn’t make sense just say so in the comments, and I will try to reconstruct what it meant :-)

How meeting attendees are expected to behave:

  • The tone of the meeting is supposed to be unhurried, calm and thoughtful;
  • People are expected to come with an open mind;
  • People are expected to pay attention and listen carefully;
  • People are expected to try to avoid clever debate or heated argument: to try to speak with love rather than judgment;
  • Quakers wait to be called upon by the meeting clerk;
  • Expressing agreement with other people is fine. Quakers will nod and say “this Friend speaks my mind.”
  • People are expected to be open to learning and changing their minds;
  • They’re expected to be honest, and call out other people who are behaving badly;
  • Quakers used to vote but don’t any more: a decision isn’t taken until the weight of the meeting is behind it;
  • People are expected to be open to exploring disagreement. Avoiding conflict means avoiding the opportunity to learn;
  • People should speak appropriately – if they are talking too much, they should restrain themselves. They shouldn’t interrupt other people. Once they express a view, they should refrain from repeating themselves, or bringing up the issue again once the meeting has moved on;
  • If Quakers are feeling shy or reticent or silenced, they should say that in the meeting, in order to get the impediment –whatever it is– resolved;
  • In Quaker meetings, some work is done offline and presented to the meeting by committees. In the meeting, Quakers are expected to trust the diligence and the care of the committees, rather than aiming to second-guess or redo the committee’s work;
  • When people at meetings behave badly (compulsively wordsmithing other people’s work, compulsively standing in the way of consensus, and so forth), the others at the meeting help everyone by encouraging that person to let go;
  • Quakers are expected to not gossip about each other. Useful conversation is accurate and caring, promotes greater understanding, and does not break confidences. It has the result of increasing trust rather than diminishing it.
  • Quakers are expected to express appreciation to the presiding clerk for their work. They’re also expected to try to help the presiding clerk do better.

How meeting clerks [1] are expected to behave:

  • Clerks are responsible for establishing the appropriate tone for the meeting – setting the stage at the beginning, and controlling the tone throughout;
  • The clerk’s expected to know more about every topic than practically everyone else. Most of that is research and thinking and other prep that happens outside of the meeting;
  • The clerk’s expected to help the group trust the work of the committees. This may involved working with committee chairs offline prior to the meeting, to ensure the material’s in good shape and ready to present. The clerk is also expected to help the committees draft appropriate rough minutes in advance of the meeting, so the meeting has a starting point for its deliberations. The clerk should aim to establish a tone in which the committee’s work can be appropriately received;
  • Remind people how to behave in the meeting. Remind people of the higher purpose;
  • Pace the meeting – providing for silence where necessary;
  • Be conscious of their own effect on other attendees (e.g., hugging one person and not others can foster suspicion of cabals);
  • Park their own strong opinions;
  • Be humble and patient and loving, but not wimpy;
  • Park their own desire to be popular;
  • Have a sense of humour, and leaven the seriousness sometimes;
  • Surface and aim to resolve conflict, rather than letting it fester under the meeting’s surface;
  • Build bridges among different constituencies in the meeting;
  • Pay attention to the tone of the meeting, especially to people’s complaints or problems that are keeping them from letting the meeting move forward. A lot of this is emotional work – understanding when people are feeling unheard, and helping them fix that.
  • Right after the meeting, check in with the recording clerk to see if they accurately captured the sense of the meeting;
  • Right after the meeting, connect with any participants who found the meeting particularly difficult, to help them resolve whatever the conflict is;
  • Look around the group and see which other people may be able to lead [2], and encourage and help develop them.

[1] Quakers call the people who facilitate their meetings ‘clerks.’ The job of the clerk is to listen, understand and document meeting decisions. When clerks think they’re understanding the ‘sense of the meeting,’ they will draft a minute and read it back to the meeting for acceptance or refinement. At the Wikimedia Foundation, all our leadership roles contain elements of clerking.

[2] Quakers say “we don’t find Quaker leaders; we grow them.”

How recording clerks [3] are expected to behave:

  • Does not facilitate;
  • Listens really carefully during the meeting and creates the minutes that discern the truth of the meeting (“what does the meeting think”). The minutes are intended to capture all decisions, including who will do things, and by when;
  • The recording clerk will draft the minutes during the meeting itself. Often the meeting pauses to have a draft minute read back to the group – this will surface dissent and misunderstandings, and allow for them to be resolved and reflected in a revised minute;
  • Good minutes are thought to be brief but complete. They typically aim to show how a decision was arrived at, but try not to revive dissent. Points raised in discussion typically aren’t attributed to individuals, because ultimately consensus is achieved and disagreement resolved, so there’s no benefit to retaining a record of who said what. Good minutes aim to reflect the fact that everyone in the meeting is seeking unity;
  • Minutes need to include sufficient rationale so that people don’t need to have the discussion all over again;
  • Responsibility for the accuracy of the meeting resides with the clerk – both the recording clerk and the clerk signs the minutes
  • Minutes should be published as soon as possible after the meeting, so that people’s memories are fresh, and they are reminded of what they’ve committed to do.

[3] Recording clerks are the people who actually capture the minutes of the meeting for the clerk. Once the minutes are captured, both the recording clerk and the clerk sign them. Essentially: the recording clerk keeps the records, which frees the clerk up to do active facilitation.

How committees are expected to behave:

  • The job of the committee is to actually do the work well, offline, out of the meeting. The meeting doesn’t have sufficient time to go through issues with an appropriate level of detail and rigour: that is what the committees are for;
  • Committees should bring to the meeting clear draft minutes (resolutions). Clerks should look at the minutes in advance and tweak them if he or she thinks it will help;
  • Committee membership should not be determined by who is free, or most interested – people should not ‘volunteer’ to be on committees. Instead, committee membership should be determined carefully, by weighing what skills and abilities are needed, and who has them;
  • Committee meetings should be open: unless confidentiality is required, anyone should be able to attend them;
  • Committee work has the incidental benefit of creating time and space for committee members to develop personal relationships with each other, that strengthen the entire community;
  • Committees are expected to do the hard work and resolve difficult issues. They are not expected to throw up their hands and bring back unresolved issues to the meeting;
  • The meeting is asked to trust the committee, and the clerk is asked to help the meeting trust the committee. The committee needs to live up to its part of that bargain, by meeting its deadlines and doing the work it’s committed that it will do.

Here are some examples of Quaker meeting minutes. I have no reason to think these minutes are particularly exemplary – they’re just examples I could find quickly, on the internet. Here are minutes from a 2005 Davis (California) meeting, minutes from a 2010 Eastbourne (UK) meeting, and minutes from a 2010 national UK meeting. (All PDF.)