Eloquence interview

Interview with Board member Erik Möller

This week, the Signpost caught up with newly-elected Board of Trustees member Erik Möller, who won the elections held last month. (See archived story.) We asked Möller a few questions pertaining to both his role in the Board and his thoughts on the election in the interview.

1. Congratulations on your election! First, is there anything you would like to say to all Wikimedians? Those who supported you in the election? Those who didn't support you? The other candidates?

I would, but given that this is the English Wikipedia, and the Wikimedia Foundation is an international, multilingual organization with many projects, I've already done so in a message on foundation-l instead. :-) I suggest that anyone interested in working on the Foundation level subscribe to that mailing list, as this is the place where important organizational announcements are made and key discussions take place.

2. Reflecting back on the elections in retrospect, what changes would you have made, if any? Do you think the elections were fair? As a Board member who will indubitably influence the next election, what changes do you think can (or should) be made next time?

The three candidates with the most votes all have Foundation-level experience. Indeed, Oscar, who came in third, is not an English Wikipedian at all. The two elected members of the Board are not native English speakers. All this indicates to me that the process is reasonably fair and open, and the frequently expressed fear of a total dominance of the English Wikipedia, the United States, or the English language was not truly justified.
We do have the core problem of operating with a very small Board, and I remain committed to expanding it very soon, with a majority of the Board members being community-elected. A Board size of 9 has frequently been cited, and that is going to be my position at the Board retreat later this month in Frankfurt as well. It is not clear at this time who will elect future Board members: anyone with enough edits, some defined group of legal members, delegates? I'm biased against delegation of votes, but am somewhat supportive of a legal membership model, if we can minimize the risk of a hostile takeover.
I will push for an extensive security review of the election process before the next election. This review will focus on minimizing the risk of results being leaked or tampered with. I also believe that the process itself needs to be managed by an independent third party with no interest in the outcome. Angela and I have already discussed this with Benjamin Mako Hill of the Debian project, who is interested in advising us on this issue.
As for the election method used, some people have fairly strong reservations about approval voting. Personally, I tend to be in favor of this method, though I will listen carefully to the objections people have. It might be interesting to examine anonymized result data to determine the extent of strategic voting that took place. I think we need to be a little more rigid in enforcing standards regarding the official election statements, while allowing and encouraging candidates to post their own campaign platforms linked from the official statements.

3. You've had a long history of contributions to Wikimedia projects, including a number of disputes, most significantly your resignation as Chief Research Officer, stemming from what you called "personal differences and a fundamental disagreement about the nature and scope of the role", a "personality conflict" between yourself and current Board member Anthere, as well as tensions between you and Jimbo. Both Jimbo and Anthere are still currently on the Board. How well do you think you will work with them this time as a Board member? What has changed since last time? How will the past affect your relationships with both Anthere and Jimbo?

In August 2005, the Foundation was still entirely run by its Board of Trustees, which at the time really mostly meant Jimmy, Angela and Anthere. This is fairly unusual for a non-profit -- see this typical definition of Board duties, which draws a sharp distinction between the oversight role of the Board and the role of executive staff. Effectively, at the time I was the CRO, the Board was the executive of the Foundation. This only began to change months after my resignation as CRO, with the creation of the committees in January, and the decision to hire Brad Patrick as interim CEO in June. Even now, we have not identified who our long term CEO is going to be.
Under these circumstances, it was inevitable for anyone taking on executive responsibilities to clash with the Board. As CRO, I tried to build partnerships and get serious development projects going. I was asked not to pursue such partnerships anymore. Ideas without a strategy for implementing them are pointless, so I resigned and greatly reduced my involvement in the Foundation until the first reform steps were taken.
I believe that these reform steps have already greatly reduced the risk of Board-level conflicts and Board member burn-out. However, as Angela's resignation has shown, there are still conflicts and tension. To reduce them further, I believe individual Board members need to focus on their personal strengths, and primarily work through those committees where they can make the best use of them. For myself, that would be (speaking tentatively) the Special Projects committee, the Technical Committee, and to a lesser extent, the Chapters Committee.
I do think that the Board and the organization have changed in such a way that I can fit in. This is, of course, thanks to the Board itself -- Anthere, Jimmy, Angela and Michael have together taken the steps necessary to make the organization more functional and more scalable. Of course, there is a personal side as well. To this end, I have been communicating a great deal with Anthere and Jimmy, to better understand their positions and to build a positive working relationship. I'm confident that we will be able to work together well if we treat each other as equals, and so far, this seems to be the case.

4. Another conflict you've had is when you were temporarily blocked and de-sysoped by Foundation employee Danny Wool, both here and on Meta-Wiki, in April of this year for unprotecting two articles and allegedly violating "Office Action" policy, although you were unaware of the actions at the time. (See archived story.) The action by Wool was later overturned on both the English Wikipedia and Meta. Do you think this conflict will affect your dealings as a Board member? How do you think it will impact your workings with Danny?

Danny and I discussed this issue at Wikimania. As Greg Maxwell's photo documents, we made our peace with each other when Michael Davis sneaked up on us and tried to eat us both. The issue was, essentially, this: There was a complaint regarding the NewsMax article in Wikipedia. Some people felt that the best way to resolve it was to use an office action that would not be labeled as such to avoid attracting attention (which, as we know, it usually does). In fact, an attempt to label it as such was reverted. Not having the full picture, I saw it as a personal act by Danny as a Wikipedia sysop. I considered the possibility that it was an explicitly unlabeled office action so unlikely as to not be worth investigating (as, in my opinion, such an unlabeled action would only attract more attention than a labeled one). I did not revert the "stubbification" of the page, but unprotected it so others could work on improving it. The documented reaction followed.
Danny did, of course, try to do the right thing, and I should have communicated with the office before unprotecting the page. That said, I do believe there is also consensus that there was a bit of an overreaction, and that the course of action that was being followed was not exactly optimal. I have already thought a lot about ways to reform the office process, and will have an in-depth discussion about this with the Board, Brad and Danny at the Board retreat at the latest.
One thing that is important to me is that nobody should be worried that they will be punished drastically unless they are explicitly going against a Foundation-level decision. We should not edit in fear, one of another. :-)

5. In an interview with the Signpost last month, you commented that it would be critical to "establish a high level of transparency and low barriers to entry," and in your platform, you expanded on this theme by advocating more openness within committees and the Foundation in general. Would you mind clarifying this? How would you accomplish this?

The first step is to just see what is going on, so I am subscribing to many different mailing lists and observing wikis I previously did not have access to. After 4-8 weeks of observation, I will propose some first steps of reform, probably in the direction of changing some access policies and defining a process by which previously confidential information can be made public when it is no longer so. Watch foundation-l for a posting from me on the matter. I've also taken a first step in reforming (or more accurately, implementing) the access policy of the internal wiki by creating and testing a process through which existing members can nominate new ones.
In the committees, I think we need to distinguish between the right to know what is going on, and the right to participate. We also need to make a distinction between work processes, and potentials and outcomes. I believe all committees must be held to a high standard of reporting both potentials and outcomes, but processes with well-defined short term results are sometimes best left closed so people can actually get work done without having to constantly justify what they are doing to outsiders. But this is just my current thinking and likely to change after observation.
One of the big, big issues that has already become fairly clear is that we need advertise much more clearly in what areas of the Foundation volunteers can help and how they can do so. The first step in this direction could be a well-organized "Volunteer tasks" page on Meta. The Foundation itself also needs to become a bit more visible to the community. Here I've already proposed, for example, having a little sidebar box on the projects that links to pages on the Wikimedia Foundation website, allowing people to easily discover what the organization is doing and how they can be part of it. When the community seeks ways to get involved proactively, the pressure to make processes more transparent and participatory will become bottom-up rather than top-down.

6. You also advocated a need to invite more experts as one of the most pressing issues for Wikipedia, saying that "we need to make a serious call to the scientific community to participate, and provide them with easy channels to do so." How important is this? As a Board member, what actions would you take to ensure that this happens?

Once Brion has completed his work on single login, I want us to have a focused discussion to define very precisely what functionality we will implement to identify "stable" versions of articles. Solving the well-known problem that we don't distinguish between an unreviewed edit from 5 minutes ago and an article that has grown over 5 years should be pretty high on our agenda to gain credibility with academia, I think. Only when this is done should we approach experts seriously, in order to have a good answer to the inevitable questions. An answer of the "We do" type, not the "We are thinking about .." type.
When we are happy with our toolset, there are all kinds of outreach programs we can pursue. We have Wikimedians in universities, libraries, archives -- we only need to "activate" them and give them a message they can disseminate. This must be an international effort where chapters can play an important role. Beyond contributing to Wikipedia and its sister projects (as community members, or as reviewers), we can help the scientific community to use communication tools like IRC and, in the process, discover Wikimedia. A Wikimedia Expert Network which we build and organize (without a need for the experts to necessarily be part of our projects) seems like a good idea to me.
Beyond calls for help, one of the best ways to get scientists involved is to work with their data. There are some very specific efforts in this direction. You may want to keep an eye on WiktionaryZ, but do keep in mind that I'm currently managing that project on the technical level and get paid for doing so, so as Board member, I have a conflict of interest and must recuse myself from Foundation-level decisions about it.

7. What other issues do you plan to address right now as a Board member? How so?

Pretty much the ones I described in my platform. I'm working on better sorting out the various priorities. I will post a first report on foundation-l about my activities and plans soon.

8. You've also worked as a developer in the past and contributed to MediaWiki. From your perspective as a Board member, how important are technical changes and advances in the software? What is the most significant update to date in MediaWiki? What do you think is the biggest change that should be made? Do you plan to continue working on the technical side while serving on the Board?

MediaWiki 1.3 and 1.5 were pretty big upgrades respectively. 1.3 added a completely new look and feel (the current Monobook skin with all its spiffy features like user JavaScript) as well as parametrized templates and categories, and 1.5 included very deep and important changes in the database, which allowed us to have permanent links to the current revisions of articles, for example. It also finalized the transition to UTF-8 in all wikis.
Technology is absolutely critical to everything we are doing. Prioritizing future developments is very, very tricky, especially with only two full-time developers. One of the questions I want us to answer at the Board retreat is how much development we want to do in-house, and how much we want to delegate to other individuals and organizatons. Right now the biggest pending definite changes are single login and the aforementioned quality assurance functionality. There is some other cool stuff in the works, but none of it is definite enough to mention here yet.
I intend to continue my work around WiktionaryZ, but will probably not have time for much additional work on MediaWiki.

9. What would you say to the Wikimedia and more specifically, the Wikipedia community, right now? How do you think your role as a Board member will influence Wikimedia and Wikipedia? What changes do you project to Wikimedia and Wikipedia at the end of your term in July 2007? Do you plan on running for re-election?

Please get involved in Foundation work. Tell us about your qualifications, and we will try to find areas for you to help. You can do this publicly on foundation-l, privately by speaking to a Board member, or even by contacting the Wikimedia Foundation office or one of the chapters (see contact information). I don't know what impact I can and will have, but I will do my best. I appreciate and invite feedback on what I should spend my time on.
I hate making predictions, though I will make one. I do anticipate that through 2007, Wikimedia will make huge gains in credibility and build some very powerful and successful partnerships around the world. More broadly, I believe the next year will, very much, be "the year of the wiki," and that open collaboration will be widely recognized as essential to solving global problems.
I'm very likely to run for re-election, after all, my term is only very short to begin with. But if I can help it, there will be a few more open seats on the Board by the time.

10. Finally, is there anything else you want to mention?

I fear I've already talked too much, as usual. But thanks for asking. :-)
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