Posts Tagged wikimedia

A story of success, and its curse

(TL;DR: Wikimedia UK has had many successes throughout the last four years, but it has moved too fast and this has caused problems. We need to stop and think. To give ourselves time to do that, we need to rewrite the 2013 Activity Plan so we’re not doing too much.)

Wikimedia UK celebrates its fourth birthday in about a month and a half. For all of us involved, they have been an exhausting four years, but they have been an immensely successful four years as well. Born out of the remains of the only Wikimedia chapter to date to disband as a failure, Wikimedia UK quickly developed a habit of success stories. In its first year, it formed a partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum and participated in Wikipedia Loves Art, a joint British-American initiative to photograph hundreds of museum exhibits.

Early in its second year, it participated in its first fundraiser, raising nearly £100,000, providing the financial security to hire its first member of staff on a temporary, part-time basis. It built on its success with the V&A with Britain Loves Wikipedia involving museums from across the country. It also supported the first ever Wikipedian-in-residence at the British Museum, a model which has been embraced by the global Wikimedia family with dozens of similar partnerships around the world. It expanded beyond museums, hosting two conferences, an international summit and various 10th birthday celebrations. It also developed a very successful relationship with the British media with the 10th birthday involving more positive news coverage than the Wikimedia movement had ever seen in the UK before.

Our third year began with an even more successful fundraiser, raising over half a million pounds. This allowed the chapter to begin planning a larger, permanent staff team, with an Office Manager and Chief Executive working full-time for the chapter by the end of the year. The year involved more excellent press work, with Wikimedia UK playing a pivotal role in communicating the reasons behind the SOPA blackout to the world while our American friends were still tucked up in bed. We also made serious inroads into educational outreach, with the first Campus Ambassadors training, and continued developing partnerships with museums, libraries, archives and galleries.

This year, our fourth, has also had many success stories: another amazing fundraiser, this time raising a projected one million pounds; another three permanent members of staff and two interns; and Monmouthpedia being voted the “coolest project” of any Wikimedia chapter by our fellow chapters. But, this year has also seen some of our darkest moments as a chapter. We’ve had our chair forced to step down after being banned from Wikipedia, resulting in the most serious negative press coverage the chapter has received to date. We’ve had another board member resign over accusations of improper handling of conflicts of interest. Private conversations I had with board members, staff and volunteers (who will all, of course, remain nameless) have revealed growing discontent and discord within the chapter. None of this, however, is surprising.

Wikimedia UK has grown so large and successful so quickly that it is, inevitably, experiencing growing pains. This is the curse of our success. We have got ahead of ourselves and, while our projects have largely been very successful, we have tried to do too much. We have grown tall without establishing the necessary foundations, which has made us unstable. The board is still getting used to working with staff and the staff are still getting used to working as part of a unique community. We have success story after success story, but they are too often successes put together at the last minute and, once complete, we pat ourselves on the back and then start working on the next success because suddenly it is the last minute there as well. Too much happens without proper thought and oversight, which has resulted in serious mistakes being made.

We began putting together a five year plan back in March, but after some interesting discussions, lots of healthy disagreement and debate and several redrafts, the whole thing stalled with no progress since July because everyone is too busy with this year’s activities. A 2013 Activity Plan and budget is being finalised, but it has jumped from an initial brainstorming session (with lots of very interesting ideas being proposed) to a final plan with very little development in between. This has resulted in a plan that is insufficiently detailed, poorly thought out and will inevitably lead to the same kind of problems next year as this year’s insufficiently detailed and poorly thought out plan led to this year (a lot of the tension between the staff and board has resulted from no-one really knowing what the chapter is supposed to be spending its money on).

I urge the board, staff and volunteers to stop for a minute. Let’s not try and apportion blame for us being in the position we are now in – this was inevitable. We do, however, need to give ourselves the time to think about where we are and where we are going otherwise everything will spiral out of control. Let’s slap a big {{hang on}} tag at the top of the 2013 Activity Plan. The deadline for submitting plans to the FDC is only a week away, but let’s not worry about that. We can request an extension, or negotiate an alternative arrangement with the WMF – they’ll understand. We can’t allow this deadline to force us into making a big mistake. We need a new plan: one that is detailed and thorough, but also one that doesn’t try to do too much. Time to stop and think doesn’t just happen – we need to schedule it. If we’re going to do that, we need to make sure we don’t have hundreds of other things we need to do. It will be hard, but it’s time to pick up the red pen and start crossing things out.

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Independence in Wikimedia

Over the last few days there has been a lot of discussion on foundation-l, internal-l, in person in Haifa and, I’m sure, within the Wikimedia Foundation and within individual Wikimedia chapters. I’m not going to go into the details of that discussion, but what it boils down to is the Foundation deciding that its legal and ethical responsibilities do not allow it to sit back and allow Chapters to handle funds raised through wikipedia.org irresponsibly. Since several chapters have not demonstrated that they are able to handle the funds responsibly, they will not be allowed to participate in the next fundraiser. While the Foundation could have handled the whole situation a lot better, something did need to be done and, since it owns wikipedia.org, it had to be the Foundation that did it. Even if the Foundation had handled everything in the best possible way, there would still have been a lot of resentment and ill-feeling. That’s because the Wikimedia movement is set up wrong.

Back in 2004, the first Chapter, Wikimedia Deutschland, was founded. It was decided back then that it would be an independent entity that partnered with the Foundation to achieve their mutual goals and every chapter since has been founded with the same intent. However, that has never actually been the case. As I’ve already mentioned, the Foundation owns the wikipedia.org domain name and the trademark “Wikipedia” (and various others, but “Wikipedia” is the valuable one). That means it controls how the website is used for fundraising and, since we’re a top-5 website, that will probably always be our main source of funds (why spend time doing anything else when we can make $30m was a couple of months of banners and hardly breaking a sweat?). As long as chapters are dependant on the Foundation for funds (either through direct fundraising on the website or through grants) they will not really be independent and the Foundation will always be obliged to oversee everything and make sure those funds are being used appropriately.

My proposal for resolving this is as follows: Create a new legal entity, which I’ll call the Wikimedia Trust, and transfer ownership of the Wikipedia domain name and trademark to it. Ownership and responsibility for the servers running the site will remain with the Foundation, but it will do so as a service to the Trust. The Trust will have a board consisting of the chair of the Foundation, the chairs of three Chapters (chosen by some kind of rotation system, making sure there are always a variety of chapters of different ages, sizes, budgets, etc.) and five people directly elected by the Wikimedia community. Its mandate will be to uphold the values, principles and vision of the Wikimedia movement.

The Trust will then decide who is allowed to fundraise on wikipedia.org (although it will be the Foundation that actually implements those decisions). It will probably do so based on very similar principles to those the Foundation board decided on a few days ago (they are very sensible principles) and will have responsibility for auditing the Foundation and Chapters (and any other entities that may be created in the future that handle movement funds) to make sure those principles are met and that the organisation is acting according to the values and principles of the movement.

I don’t propose that the Trust take on the role of giving grants, since that would over-complicate things. I suggest the Foundation continue with its plans regarding grants and also that chapters increase the grants they issue (as their revenues increase), both within their countries and internationally.

The Trust will require only a very small budget and will be funded by donations from the Foundation and, perhaps, the Chapters. The budget will be spent on legal costs and on the audits. The cost of those audits will hopefully be fairly small, since most of the time they won’t need to be very detailed. The Foundation already has to do much the same thing, so this would not be an additional cost to the movement.

The day-to-day activities of the movement would be virtually unchanged (which is where this proposal differs from the others I’ve seen recently for breaking up the Foundation, and also means this proposal can be considered separately to the Movement Roles process that is currently ongoing – it’s a little late to add new proposals to that process now). The Foundation would still run the servers and various global programmes and Chapters would still run local programmes and whatever else they currently do. It would just be the oversight role the Foundation currently has that would move. That oversight role is one the Foundation has taken on only reluctantly, so I don’t expect anyone there will mind too much if they don’t have to do it any more. I should make clear that this proposal isn’t intended to punish the Foundation for doing a bad job. They should never have been the ones doing the job in the first place.

By moving that responsibility away from the Foundation, a lot of the resentment the Chapters tend to feel whenever the Foundation tries to take charge should be removed.

While people may, at times, resent the Trust, they will at least accept that it is doing the job it was created for. At the moment, the Chapters tend to resent the Foundation taking charge regardless of whether the Foundation is making good or bad decisions. Also, a lot of the legal risks will be moved from an entity with lots of cash to one with very little, which is probably a good thing (I’m not a lawyer, so I may be missing something there).

I am posting this on my (revived) blog, rather than on meta or a mailing list, because a) it’s ended up being rather long and b) I’d like to encourage people to give long, thought-out responses that I think are easier to do through the medium of blogs. Please also feel free to leave shorter comments below. Please try to avoid apportioning blame for the current situation and concentrate on how we can do things better in the future. This proposal will obviously take time to implement, so it will not have any impact on the ongoing negotiations and preparations for the 2011/12 fundraiser.

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The Wikimedia Foundation office

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, but I finally have something to blog about! Tomorrow, I head off to San Francisco for a little over a week to visit the Wikimedia Foundation office. I am looking forward to finally meeting the staff members that weren’t in Berlin last year and finally getting to have that chat with Sue that never happened in Berlin.

I will try to keep you informed about what happens and, if people let me, will provide photographic evidence that the staff really do exist and that the new office really is as fantastic as we’ve been told (particularly the new wall-mounted puzzle-globe!).

Wish the WMF luck! 😉

PS Follow me on Twitter for more frequent updates (maybe!): http://twitter.com/tangom42

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My new blog and foundation-l

Welcome to my new blog! I have decided to create this blog to give me somewhere to express my thoughts and opinions, as has been suggested to me by several people. Those thoughts will mostly be able Wikimedia, but it is entirely possible that I’ll branch out in future. It is also entirely possible that I won’t get around to blogging much and this blog will end up dormant (as my Twitter account has done, for the most part). We’ll see!

Now, on to the main topic of this post: the Wikimedia mailing lists, and foundation-l in particular. A month ago foundation-l came off general moderation. You may have noticed that, during the last month, I have not sent any emails. I decided to voluntarily abstain from posting to all Wikimedia mailing lists except the UK list (I’m Head of Fundraising for Wikimedia UK and not posting on that list would make it difficult to do my job) for a month to see what happened. It was an entirely unscientific experiment, but I have learned a few things.

Firstly, on a personal level, I found it surprisingly easy not to post. I was reading the lists the same amount I always do but there were only a handful of occasions when I felt I would have liked to post something and had to stop myself. This isn’t actually too surprising – I’ve only ever posted to a minority of threads, it’s just when I get involved in a particular thread that I post a lot. By not getting involved in any threads, I had no reason to post a lot.

I also don’t think not posting really cost me anything – I certainly can’t think of anything that I wasn’t able to do because I wasn’t posting. After giving it some thought, I think I know why: foundation-l (and the other mailing lists) don’t actually serve any real purpose beyond announcements. The discussion that takes place is generally between just a handful of people that have no way to actually do anything as a result of it. Such a small proportion of the community post to the mailing lists that nothing useful can really come out of the discussions. For them to be useful the volume would need to increase enormously and the medium doesn’t work with such large volumes.

I have previously argued that discussion on the lists shouldn’t be stifled since I thought discussion was their primary purpose (they are often called “discussion lists” after all!), but having now thought about it I don’t think the discussion serves a purpose, so perhaps the lists should be changed to announcement lists with minimal discussion taking place on them. Discussion can take place on the appropriate wiki where everyone can get involved.

As for the effect of the posting limits that were implemented last month – that’s slightly strange. The limit of 30 posts a month is high enough that very few people would go over it even if they posted normally. There are, perhaps, 4 or 5 posters (including me) that used to go over that threshold more than very occasionally. Those 4 or 5 people have all significantly reduced their posting, but so has everyone else. During the first half of December, nobody has posted to foundation-l more than 5 times and most people that have posted have done so only once or twice. However, that may not be significant since during the latter half of November (after the list ceased to be moderated), posting was at a fairly normal rate (the low end of normal, but still normal). So, I think that, as with before the posting limits, the existence or not of controversial topics of discussion determines the number of posts far more than anything else.

So, in conclusion: Foundation-l is largely useless for discussion, regardless of how much people say, and there is little to gain by me posting there. While I am no longer going to stop myself posting, I expect I will post a lot less after this realisation. My suggestion to others is to start discussions on the wikis and use the mailing lists just to publicise them and for people to go to the wiki to respond. That way, more people can get involved in the discussion and it is far more likely that something will come of it. The one thing that may be lacking from those discussions is WMF involvement – I suggest a “WMF noticeboard” be created on meta so there is a specific place for WMF staff and board members to monitor. The WMF may want to appoint a couple of clerks (either from among their own number or from the community) to remove useless sections and notify relevant staff and board members of the useful ones.

Thank you for reading my first blog post – comments are, of course, most welcome.

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