Archives for posts with tag: mission

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.

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.

About a week ago, I started running a little survey asking Wikimedians how we should approach target-setting for the next five years.

I did it because next month Wikimedia will finalize the targets that’ll guide our work for the next five years, and I wanted to gather some quick feedback on the thinking that’s been done on that, to date.  The survey’s close to wrapping up now, and the results thus far are terrific: there appears to be good consensus on what we want to measure, as well as on our general approach.

More detail below!  But first, some general background.

In July 2009, the Wikimedia Foundation kicked off a massive strategy development project, which is starting to wrap up now. [1] The one major set of decisions that remains to be finalized is how we will measure progress towards our goals.

The draft goals, measures of success and targets that have been developed via the strategy project are here. They were created over the past several months by Wikimedia community members, Bridgespan staff, and Wikimedia Foundation staff (thank you all) – and in my opinion, they’re pretty good.  They focus on what’s important, and they do a reasonably good job of figuring out how to measure things that don’t always lend themselves to easy measurement.

Before finalizing the targets and taking them to the Wikimedia Board of Trustees for approval, I wanted to gather some additional input, so I hacked together a quick, imperfect little survey.   (You can read it –and fill it out if you want– here.) The purpose of this post is just to share the results — I will probably write more about the targets themselves later.

First some methodology: I made the survey in Google Docs, and sent identical versions to i) the Wikimedia Board, ii) the Wikimedia staff, and iii) the “foundation-l” mailing list (a public list on which anyone can talk about the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia projects), the Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board list, and the “internal-l” mailing list (a private list intended for Wikimedia chapters representatives and Wikimedia Foundation board and staff).  Then –for the purposes of this post– I aggregated together all three sets of results, which total about 120 individual responses thus far.

If I’d been more serious I’d have used LimeSurvey, which is a better survey tool than Google Docs — but this is really just meant to be a structured solicitation of input, rather than a proper quantitative study.  For one thing, the “community” results reflect only a tiny fraction of active editors — those who read English, who are on Wikimedia’s mailing lists or are connected with people who are, and who self-selected to answer the survey.  So, please resist the temptation to over-interpret whatever numbers I’ve given here.

In general, I was happy to find that the survey surfaced lots of consensus.  A comfortable majority agrees with all of the following:

  • Wikimedia’s goals should be “ambitious but possible.” (Other less-popular options were: “definitely attainable, but not necessarily easily,” “audacious and probably not attainable, but inspiring,” and “fairly easily attainable.”)
  • We agree that the purpose of setting goals is “to create a shared understanding and alignment about what we’re trying to do, publicly and with everyone.” (Other options: “to create an audacious target that everyone can get excited about and rally behind,” and “to create accountability.”)
  • In setting goals, we believe “perfection is the enemy of the good: I would rather see us using imperfect measures than no measures at all.” (About 15% of respondents felt otherwise, believing that “imperfect measures are a waste of time and energy.”)
  • The Wikimedia Foundation’s goals should be dependent on efforts by both the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikimedia community, not by the Foundation alone. (18% of respondents felt otherwise, that the targets should be “entirely within the control of the Wikimedia Foundation to influence.”)
  • If we exceed our goals, practically everyone will be “thrilled.” (About five percent of respondents felt otherwise, saying that they would be “disappointed: that would tell me our goals weren’t sufficiently challenging.”
  • If we fail to meet our goals, about three quarters of respondents will feel “fine, because goals are meant to aspire/align: if we do good work but don’t meet them, that’s okay.” Interestingly, this is one of the few areas of the survey where there was a real division between the staff of the Wikimedia Foundation and other respondents. Only 17% of staff agreed they’d be okay with missing our targets. I think this is probably good, because it suggests that the staff feel a high sense of personal responsibility for their work.
  • Almost everyone agrees that “goal-setting for the Wikimedia Foundation is difficult. We should set goals now, but many measures and targets will be provisional, and we’ll definitely need to REFINE them over the next five years, possibly radically.” (Runner-up response: “we can set good goals, measures and targets now, and we should NOT need to change them much during the next five years.” And a very small number felt that we should refrain from setting targets for “things we’re still uncertain about,” and instead restrict ourselves to areas that are “straightforward.”)
  • The global unique visitors target is felt by most to be “attainable if the staff and community work together to achieve it.” (About 20% of respondents felt the target might be “even happen without any particular intervention.”)

I wanted to get a sense of what measures people felt were most important. They’re below, in descending order of importance. (The number is the percentage of total respondents who characterized the measure as either “critical” or “important.” Other options were “somewhat important,” “not important,” and “don’t know/not sure.”)

It’s probably worth noting that consensus among community members, the board and the staff was very high.  For more than half the measures, the percentage of respondents rating the measure as “important” or “critical” varied by less than 10% among the different groups, and for the remainder, it varied by less than 20%.

Measure Avg
Retention of active editors 84
Number of active editors 83
Site performance in different geographies 80
Demographics of active editors 80
Uptime of all key services 78
Financial stability 74
Global unique visitors 66
Secure off-site copies 65
Number of articles/objects/resources 65
Regular snapshots/archives 60
Thriving research community 54
Offline reach 53
Reader-submitted quality assessments 41
Expert article assessments 40
Community-originated gadgets/tools/extensions 22

The survey’s still accepting input — if you’re interested you’ve got until roughly 7PM UTC, Wednesday August 18, to fill it out.

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[1]

I launched the Wikimedia strategy project at the request of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, and it was led by Eugene Eric Kim of Blue Oxen Associates, a consulting firm with a special focus on enabling collaborative process. Eugene worked with Philippe Beaudette, a longtime Wikipedian and online facilitator for the project, and The Bridgespan Group, a non-profit strategy consulting firm that provided data and analysis for us. The premise of the project was that the Wikimedia movement had achieved amazing things (the number five most-used site in the world! 375 million visitors monthly!), and it was now time to reflect on where we were making good progress towards fulfilling the mission, and where we weren’t. With the goal of course-correcting where we weren’t doing well.

To come up with a good plan, we wanted to stay true to our core and central premise: that open, mass collaboration is the most effective method for achieving high-quality decisionmaking. So, we designed the process to be transparent, participatory and collaborative. So, during the course of the project, more than a thousand volunteers worked together in 50+ languages — in teams and as individuals, mostly in public on the strategy wiki, but supplemented by IRC meetings, Skype calls, e-mail exchanges, and face-to-face conversations (e.g., meetings were held in Berlin, Paris, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Boston and Gdansk).

The project’s now entering its final phase, and you can see the near-final results here on the strategy wiki.  What remains to be done is the finalization of the measures of success, which will happen over the next six or so weeks. At that point, there will be some final wordsmithing, and the result will be brought to the Wikimedia Board of Trustees for approval.

I will probably write about the strategy project at a later date, because it is super-interesting. (Meanwhile, if you’re interested, you can read a little about it here in a story that Noam Cohen wrote from Wikimania 2010 in Gdansk.)

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.

Every non-profit has two main jobs: service delivery (which is the mission work, the reason the non-profit exists) and revenue generation (how you pay for the costs of service delivery).  If a non-profit is lucky, the two are aligned and support each other.   But that’s rare — it’s more common for them to be completely disconnected, and often they’re in flat-out conflict.

When I started working at the Wikimedia Foundation in 2007, I wanted us to experiment with revenue generation.  So we spent about two years doing a bit of everything: making friends with grant-making institutions, cultivating major donors, developing business deals, and running various forms of online fundraising including our annual campaign, mobile giving, and so forth.

The stand-out winner was online fundraising.  It makes perfect sense: Wikipedia has 371 million unique visitors every month, and if even a tiny fraction of those people donate, we will easily cover costs.   And that’s exactly what happens.  New graduates give us 50 or 100 dollars for helping them as they go through school.  Little kids donate, or their parents donate on their behalf.  And all kinds of ordinary people around the world give every day, because they used Wikipedia to help them plan a trip, or understand a medical condition, or settle a bar bet, or get a job, or satisfy their abstract intellectual curiosity.  People use it and they like it, so they want to make sure it sticks around.

So, the “many small donations” model makes sense for Wikipedia, because it aligns fundraising with the rest of the Wikimedia movement: it makes it global, and it empowers ordinary people. It also enables us to stay focused on our own mission and strategy, rather than being pulled off-course by large funders’ needs and desires.   It makes us independent. It creates the right incentives: it supports us being accountable and responsive to readers.   It reduces the risk that donors will grow (inappropriately) to be more valued by us than editors. It’s scalable, it minimizes risk and it’s replicable and transferable – so, it enables us to help equip our chapter organizations to fundraise too.

So, newly this year, the Wikimedia Foundation is reorienting our revenue generation strategy towards small donors, away from institutional support and earned income. This is good: there are lots of happy consequences.  One is that I personally will have more free time.

Practically all Executive Directors complain that they spend way too much time fundraising. I never really felt that way.  Wikipedia has never spent a single dollar on advertising, and so it hasn’t necessarily been well understood.  I find people have all kinds of misconceptions about Wikipedia, and there are lots of interesting things about it that they don’t know: I’m happy to help them understand it better.

But there is an opportunity cost to fundraising – essentially, any hour that I spend thinking about donor cultivation, is an hour I’m not spending thinking about the work we’re trying to get done.

So I’m happy that beginning this year, I will have more time to dedicate to talking to Wikimedia editors, and thinking about the work Wikimedians are engaged in. This blog is part of that.  I plan this year to do more “office hours” on IRC, to have more unstructured time to talk with Wikimedians, and to spend some time writing here.

I’m looking forward to it :-)