Archives for posts with tag: culture

I never thought much about the Quakers [1] until I read Joseph Reagle‘s excellent new book Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia (forthcoming from MIT Press in September), in which Joseph references the Quaker consensus decisionmaking processes – and specifically, how Quakers resolve dissent.

Joseph cites the sociological study Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Society of Friends – an exploration of Quaker decisionmaking by Jesuit priest Michael J. Sheeran, who had spent two years observing and interviewing Quakers for his Princeton PhD thesis, which afterwards was published by the Quakers and is now considered a definitive guide on the subject.

Consensus decisionmaking (CDM) is a really interesting topic for Wikimedians because we make most of our decisions by consensus, and we struggle every day with CDM’s inherent limitations. It’s slow and sometimes tedious, it’s messy and vulnerable to disruption, and –most problematically– it’s got a strong built-in bias towards the status quo. CDM creates weird perverse incentives – for example, it gives a lot of power to people who say no, which can make saying no attractive for people who want to be powerful. And it can act to empower people with strong views, regardless of their legitimacy or correctness.

Beyond Majority Rule was so fascinating that it’s sent me on a bit of a Quaker reading binge, and in the past month or so I’ve read about a dozen books and pamphlets on Quaker practices.  I’ve been interested to see what values and practices the Quakers and Wikimedians share, and whether there are things the Quakers do, that we might usefully adopt.

For the most part, Quaker practices likely aren’t particularly adaptable for mass collaboration, because they don’t scale easily.  They seem best-suited to smallish groups that are able to meet frequently, face-to-face.

But some Quaker practices, I think, are relevant to Wikimedia, and we are either already using versions of them, or should consider it. The Quaker “clerk” role, I think, is very similar to our leadership roles such as board or committee chair. The Quaker decisionmaking process has strong similarities to how our board of trustees makes its decisions, and I think Quaker methods of reconciling dissent might be particularly useful for us.  (Quakers have better-codified levels of dissent and paths to resolution than we do — I think we could adopt some of this.) And the Quaker schools’ delineation of roles-and-responsibilities among board, staff and community members, could I think also be a good model for us.

I plan to write more about the Quakers in coming weeks. For now though, here’s a list of what I’ve been reading:

[1] Quakers have their roots in 17th century England. There are about 360,000 Quakers today, mainly in Africa, the Asia Pacific Region, the UK and North America. Most consider themselves Christians, although a few identify as agnostic, atheistic, or as members of non-Christian faith traditions such as Judaism or Islam. Quakers are probably best known for their belief that the word of God is still emergent rather than fully known, their silent and “unprogrammed” religious services which have no leaders, hymns or incantations, their centuries-old tradition of pacifism and social activism, and their consensus decision-making process.

Read more about the Quakers at Wikipedia.

I stumbled recently across sociologist Gary Marx‘s documentation of tactics covertly used by external parties to hurt or help social/political movements [1].

Like for example the FBI attempts to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. by painting him as a womanizer.   Or the CIA’s 1967 project Operation CHAOS, designed to monitor the student antiwar movement. Or the FBI’s attempts under COINTELPRO in the late sixties to undermine what it called “black nationalist hate groups” by inciting rivalries among them.

I’m kind of a categorization geek, so I liked Marx’s crisp table of the ways in which folks have aimed to covertly undermine the movements that they found threatening. By investigating and harassing participants, and discrediting leaders. Fomenting internal conflict: encouraging jealousy, suspicion, factionalism and personal animosity. Spreading damaging misinformation. Undermining morale and thwarting recruitment efforts. Undermining activities that generate revenue. Encouraging hostility between the movement and its potential allies and partners. Creating similar organizations that compete for resources and public mindshare. Sabotaging events and projects. And so forth.

Reading all this, I started thinking about Wikimedia, which is of course a sort of social movement. Our goal is to make information easily available for people everywhere around the world – free of commercialism, free of charge, free of bias. That’s a radical mission.

Given that, it’s interesting to look at how external entities have responded to Wikipedia’s extraordinary success – especially those who have reason (or think they might have reason) to feel threatened by it.

So for example, the media. Conventional media business models are crumbling, and media organizations are struggling to persuasively articulate their value proposition.  Some see Wikipedia as a competitor. So it doesn’t surprise me that –with a fervour that can border on the obsessive– some media talk so relentlessly about why Wikipedia can’t succeed, and make predictions about how quickly, and in what manner, it will fail.  Cultural and educational and PR organizations have less of a megaphone, but apart from that their initial responses have been pretty similar. [2]

None of that is surprising. What has surprised me though, is the other side of the balance sheet.

Marx posits a world in which detractors work against a social movement, and supporters work in favour of it.

At Wikimedia, we’ve had our share of detractors. But I’ve found myself more surprised by the other side — surprised that Wikimedia’s most articulate and passionate supporters –its core editors– don’t do more to promote its success.

Here are some of the things Marx says people can do to support social movements:

  • Work to create a favourable public image for the movement
  • Support participants and help recruit new participants
  • Help with effective communications
  • Support revenue-generating activities
  • Build and sustain participant morale
  • Build and support leaders
  • Encourage internal solidarity: support kindness, understanding, generosity and a sense of common purpose
  • Encourage external solidarity: support the development of common cause between the movement and its potential allies and partners
  • Support movement events and projects.

I want to be clear: lots of Wikimedia editors (and other supporters) do this work. We have a communications committee which is sometimes remarkably effective. The Wikimedia network of international chapters is excellent at outreach work – particularly the German chapter, which pioneered the Wikipedia Academy concept, and lots of other initiatives. Editorial and movement leadership emerges almost entirely organically at Wikimedia, and I have seen it warmly and enthusiastically supported. And we have some really terrific editors working tirelessly to develop strategic partnerships with cultural and educational institutions. So there is lots of good work being done.

But even so: sometimes when I read our mailing lists, I laugh out loud at how Wikimedians can be our own worst enemies. We subject each other to relentless scrutiny — criticizing our own leaders and supporters and activities, monitoring, speculating, worrying, and poking and prodding each other. All, frequently, in public.

I’ve been trying to figure out why we’re like this. And I think there are two main contributing factors. One is, Wikipedians are engaged first and foremost in building an encyclopedia, and knowledge workers of the encyclopedia-writing type are famously fussy, fastidious, fact-obsessed and obsessive about neutrality. So it makes sense that neutrality is a value that extends to our communications about the Wikimedia projects. We don’t want to shill for anybody, including, LOL, ourselves.

Second though is the disease of paranoia, which seems unavoidable in social movements. Anybody who’s committed themselves to working to advance a cause, particularly voluntarily –and who has only very limited control over the rest of their social movement– is vulnerable to paranoia. It makes sense: you’ve worked incredibly hard for something you care about a lot, without any expectation of reward, so of course you worry that others could destroy what you’ve accomplished.

(Lawyer and writer Bill Eddy tossed off a fascinating aside in his book High-Conflict People in Legal Disputes – to the effect that groups often instinctively elevate the most paranoid among them into leadership positions. Essentially because although hyper-paranoid leaders may often mistake innocence for evil, it can at least be assumed that they will never do the reverse. As in Michael Shermer‘s TED talk: better a false positive, than a false negative that results in being eaten by a predator.) The upshot: social movements often exist in a kind of amplified state of vigilance, which is probably occasionally useful, but equally often just wasted effort, or carries with it an opportunity cost, or is just really destructive.

Personally, I would like to see the core Wikimedia community better support itself and its own success.

[1] From Gary Marx’s chapter “External Efforts to Damage or Facilitate Social Movements: Some Patterns, Explanations, Outcomes, and Complications,” in the book The Dynamics of Social Movements, edited by M. Zald and J. McCarthy, Winthrop Publishers, 1979.

[2] I should be careful to be clear here. First, Wikimedia’s got lots of supporters — and we’ve always had strong supporters in traditional media. I don’t want conventional media to see Wikipedia as a threat and I don’t think it is a threat: I think Wikipedia’s a useful complement, part of a balanced information diet. Second, everybody’s reaction to Wikipedia has gotten warmer over time, as Wikipedia’s earned credibility. But the original systemic pressures haven’t changed: they are still what they always were.

Since joining the Wikimedia Foundation, I’ve hired about 25 people. That means I’ve read thousands of CVs, done hundreds of pre-interview e-mail exchanges and phone calls, and participated in about 150 formal interviews.

With each hire I’ve –and the Wikimedia Foundation as a whole has– gotten smarter about what kinds of people flourish at Wikimedia, and why. The purpose of this post is to share some of what we’ve learned, particularly for people who may be thinking about applying for open positions with us, or participating in our open hiring call.

Let me start with this: The Wikimedia Foundation’s not a typical workplace.

Every CEO believes his or her organization is a special snowflake: it’s essential that we believe it, whether or not it’s true.  And when I first joined Wikimedia, my board of trustees would tell me how unusual we were, and I would nod and smile.  But really.  Once I worked through some initial skepticism, it became obvious that yeah, Wikimedia is utterly unique.

Viewed through one lens, the Wikimedia Foundation is a scrappy start-up with all the experimentation and chaos that implies. But, it’s also a non-profit, which means we have an obligation to donors to behave responsibly and frugally, and to be accountable and transparent about what we’re doing. We’re a top five, super-famous website, which brings additional scrutiny and responsibility. We work closely with Wikimedia volunteers around the world, many of whom are hyper-intelligent, opinionated, and fiercely protective of what they have created.   And, our role is to make information freely available to everyone around the world — which means we are more radical than, at first glance, we might appear.

None of those characteristics is, by itself, all that unusual.  (Except the super-smart volunteers. They are pretty rare.)   But our particular combination is unique, which means that the combination of traits that makes someone a perfect employee for us is unique as well.   Here’s what I look for.

Passion for the Wikimedia mission. This is obvious. We’re facilitating the work of millions of ordinary people from around the world —helping them come together to freely, easily, share what they know.  We’re responsible for the largest repository of information in human history: more than 16 million articles in 270 languages, accessible to people all over the world.   If people aren’t super-excited about that, they have no business working with us.

Self-sufficiency and independence. The Wikimedia Foundation is not a smoothly-sailing ship: we’re building our ship. That means roles-and-responsibilities aren’t always clear, systems and procedures haven’t been tested and refined over time, and there isn’t going to be somebody standing over people’s shoulders telling them what to do. People who work for the Wikimedia Foundation need to be able to get stuff done without a fixed rulebook or a lot of prodding.

That’s normal for all young organizations.

But we’re looking for more than just self-sufficiency.  We have found that a streak of iconoclasm is a really strong predictor of success at Wikimedia.

Wikipedia is edited by everyone: contributors represent a dizzying array of socio-political values and beliefs and experiences, as well as different ages, religions, sexualities, geographies, and so forth.  In our hiring, we tell people that it isn’t a question of whether working at Wikimedia will push their buttons; it’s just a question of how they will respond once it happens. People who’ve never examined their own assumptions, who embrace received wisdom, who place their trust in credentials and authority: they will not thrive at Wikimedia. And people who are motivated by conventional status indicators: a big office, a big salary, a lot of deference — they won’t either.

An inventive spirit. People who fit in well at Wikimedia tend to like new ideas, to be curious, and driven towards continual improvement. This manifests in simple, obvious ways – they read widely; they like gadgets and puzzles; they make stuff for fun. They are optimists and tinkerers.

Openness. At Wikimedia, we look for evidence that applicants have deliberately stretched themselves and sought out new experiences – maybe they’ve lived outside their home country, they read outside their comfort zone, they’ve explored other belief systems.

Openness means people like to be challenged. They like kicking around ideas, they naturally share and communicate, they’re not defensive or unhealthily competitive. They’re comfortable interacting with a wide range of people, and people are comfortable with them.

Lastly, we look for orientation towards scalability. The Wikimedia Foundation is a very small group of people.   It achieves impact by working through and with large numbers of volunteers – the millions of people around the world who create 99.9% of the value in the Wikimedia projects.   So in our hiring, we look for people who are oriented towards scale: who reflexively document and share information, who write easily and fluently, who take advantage of channels for mass communication and who instinctively organize and support the work of others.

If I ran Der Spiegel or Yelp or the ACLU, the traits I’d be looking for would be different. (When I worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the people I hired were quite different from the ones I hire today.)  And this list will change over time, as the organization changes. This is the list that works for the Wikimedia Foundation, today.