Archives for posts with tag: Wikipedia

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 :-)

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.

I spent this past weekend with Wikimedia trustee Phoebe Ayers at the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, California, attending a workshop called Business Among Friends: Clerking as a Spiritual Discipline.

Neither Phoebe nor I are Quakers, but we’re curious about them. I first read about the similarities between Quaker and Wikimedian decision-making practices in Joseph Reagle‘s excellent new analysis of the Wikipedia community Good Faith Collaboration – and since then, I’ve read a dozen or so Quaker books and pamphlets. I’ve been especially interested in the practice of “clerking.”

The job of the Quaker clerk is to facilitate Quaker meetings – to create the agenda, set the tone, traffic-cop the discussion, listen, help resolve conflict, and understand and document agreement. It’s a role that reminds me a lot of leadership (both formal & informal) at the Wikimedia Foundation, and so I’ve been curious to learn more about it. The purpose of this post is to share some impressions and identify a few Quaker practices that I think Wikimedia could usefully adopt.

Disclaimer! Experienced Quakers will probably find that my grasp of some practices is shaky, and I may have mischaracterized things. People who attended the workshop may remember things differently from me. And, I am going to use words like “consensus” in the non-Quaker sense, so that they’ll make sense for readers who aren’t familiar with Quakerism. My apologies for errors and misunderstandings.

Based on what I’d read, I expected the Quakers to be mostly middle-aged or older, mostly white, and really, really friendly. They were exactly that.

But I was surprised to discover also some unexpected commonalities with Wikimedians. Both speak in acronyms (WP:NPOV, meet M&O, FCL and FAP). Both are really proud of their work, and yet tend towards self-criticism rather than self-promotion. Both talk a lot, and are precise and articulate in the way they use language (the Quakers I met spoke in complex sentences, studded with caveats and parentheticals). Both resist speaking on behalf of their group. And both have a strong individualistic streak, and describe themselves as skeptical about leadership and authority.

(To that last point: On Saturday night, Quaker adults and teenagers played a game called Big Wind Blows, which is kind of like musical chairs. Everyone’s in a circle and the person in the centre, who doesn’t have a seat, calls out “Big wind blows for everybody who [has X characteristic].” Everybody without the characteristic stays in their chair; everybody with it runs around looking for a new seat. On Saturday night, the first person in the centre said something like “Big wind blows for everyone with brown hair.” Second was “everyone who’s wearing blue jeans.” Third was “everyone who’s gone to jail for a matter of conscience.” Four Quakers in the group had chosen jail rather than, say, serving in the military or paying taxes. And doing that was considered ‘normal’ enough to be fodder for a game.)

Tomorrow, once I’ve cleaned them up, I’ll post some detailed notes I took. For now though, I’ll elaborate on a few Quaker practices that I think we Wikimedians could learn from. Most of this will be applicable for face-to-face meetings (i.e., our board meetings, Wikimania, meet-ups), but there may be relevance here for on-wiki work too.

Everybody who’s part of the movement shares responsibility for helping it succeed. Nobody gets to sit on the sidelines and watch things fail.

The Quakers talk a lot about “clerking yourself,” which basically means taking personal responsibility for the group’s collective success. People are expected to behave in a disciplined fashion, including managing themselves emotionally. They’re expected to be open-minded, open to learning and changing their minds. They’re expected to pay attention and listen carefully to each other. They’re expected to avoid the temptation to get mad or show off, and to instead speak “with love rather than judgment.” They’re expected to restrain themselves from talking too much, from interrupting other people, and from repeating the same arguments again and again. Quakers are expected to be willing and able to calmly, thoughtfully, explore areas of disagreement. If they’re feeling shy or reticent or silenced, they’re expected to say that, so that other people can find ways to support them and ensure they’re heard. And if other people are behaving badly, everyone is expected to try to help them behave better.

All this, obviously, is aspirational. As someone at the workshop said, Quakers aren’t paragons, and they’re just as likely as anyone else to be childish and whiny and egotistical. But they’re expected to try really hard not to be.

Setting the right tone is critical for success.

All weekend, I was struck by the Quakers’ skill at establishing and maintaining a rich, healthy emotional tone.

The most obvious example of this is the Quakers’ use of silence. Quakers really value silence: it’s built into all of their religious meetings and their discussions, and during the weekend, we probably spent a combined total of two or three hours together in silence — sometimes for long stretches, and sometimes just for a few minutes. That does something really interesting: it makes everybody more judicious. You have time to reflect, to organize your thoughts, to calm down. You get to listen to other people, rather than using their speaking time to plan what you’ll say next. What you say is smarter and more thoughtful than it would’ve been otherwise.

That’s just one technique the Quakers use: there were lots of others. Elizabeth and Eric, who facilitated the workshop, modeled warmth and patience and respect. They thanked people, a lot. They acknowledged and welcomed the new people. They opened the meetings in a circle, with everyone holding hands.

It reminded me of something Sal Giambanco of Omidyar Network once told me – that he recommends non-profit boards kick off their meetings with a recitation of their mission statement. It’s the same kind of thing – rituals and practices designed to remind us that what we’re doing together is meaningful, so that we can approach it in a spirit of love and respect.

Sometimes you have to kick out difficult people. Maybe.

The people attending the workshop were all experienced Quakers. And it was clear from the stories they told and the questions they asked, that Quaker meetings suffer from difficult people.

This reminded me of Wikimedia. Because it didn’t seem like difficult people were necessarily over-represented inside Quakerism. Rather, it seemed like a normal number of difficult people created stress and anxiety disproportionate to their actual numbers. Elizabeth says that many clerks have shared with her stories about a single problematic member in their meeting, who wants attention or influence and takes advantage of the consensus process to grandstand and delay or block action for months or even years. Quakers call these people ‘dissenting spirits’ or ‘chronic objectors,’ and characterize them as “needing to hold themselves out of alignment with the group.” Elizabeth describes them as people who, no matter how much trust is extended to them, are unable to develop trust in others. Their disruptive presence can drive away others, and sometimes even threaten the survival of the group.

Which sounded sadly familiar to me.

Here’s what I think happens. Where other groups might unhesitatingly excommunicate a person who repeatedly broke their rules, it seems to me that the Wikimedia projects and the Quakers both tend to agonize instead, presumably because both groups pride themselves on being highly inclusive and tolerant. (Remember I said the Quakers are strongly individualistic? I suspect that, like some Wikimedians, some Quakers have a history of getting kicked out of various groups, and so they have a lot of empathy for people having that kind of difficulty.)

But even the Quakers, it seems, have their limits. As Elizabeth wrote in her book on clerking, “A healthy meeting will provide spiritual nurture for the ‘difficult’ Friend, but will understand that protecting the safety of the meeting has priority. It will not confuse ‘being loving’ or ‘being Quakerly’ with tolerating the destructive behavior of an individual, but will understand that setting firm limits is loving.”

This was probably the most uncomfortable topic that got addressed during the workshop, and it was the only time I remember when Elizabeth and Eric seemed to disagree. It’s a tough topic, both for the Quakers and Wikimedians.

I want to thank Jacob Stone and Gretta Stone, directors of the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, as well as Elizabeth Boardman (Davis Meeting) and Eric Moon (Berkeley Meeting), facilitators of the workshop. Everybody at the workshop was enormously welcoming to Phoebe and me: we are really grateful. Seriously: it was lovely.

I’ll publish more notes –rougher, longer– probably tomorrow.

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.


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.