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Chapters Association self-destructs

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By Tony1, The ed17, and Emily Temple-Wood

Wikimedia France pulls the plug on Chapters Association

The logo of the chapters association, including the contested Wikimedia in its name
The elaborate proposal for the organizational structure of the Chapter Association, as agreed by chapter representatives in Berlin last year
Sebastian Moleski (former chair of Wikimedia Germany) presents the proposal for the "Chapters Council" in March 2012 in Berlin
Ziko van Dijk, historian, president of Wikimedia Netherlands, and now former vice-chair of the Chapters Association
Christophe Henner, vice-president of Wikimedia France
Participants at the Education Pre-conference.
View from the observation deck of the Sky100 observation platform during the welcome party for Wikimania 2013
A buffet table at the party after Wikimedian attack

The opening days of the annual Wikimania, referred to as the "pre-conference", are not typically newsworthy. This year's pre-conference in Hong Kong looked like no exception, with meetups scheduled for education, Chinese-language Wikipedians, and developers, along with registration, a roundtable discussion, and various chapter meetings.

This changed dramatically when the Chapters Association council met on Thursday. The Association was proposed at Berlin in March last year and set up "to serve as a central organization ... to promote coordination and accountability among the chapters, represent the chapters on common interests, facilitate the exchange of knowledge and experience, and provide assistance and support in organizational development". In its year-long existence, the Association has been mired in controversy, seeing the use of the trademarked term Wikimedia in its name contested by the Foundation; dithering on proposals to recruit a so-called secretary-general and several other employees, and to incorporate the Association and set up a physical office in a European country (Brussels and Geneva were mentioned as locations); and the resignation of its inaugural chair, Ashley van Haeften ().

The Association's council meeting—with 48 in attendance, according to the etherpad records—opened with a statement from vice-chair Ziko van Dijk, who read a lengthy prepared address on the "failure" of the Association:

Van Dijk's address contained a series of references to a "fictional Johnny" (which he decoded later in the meeting—Johnny "spoke with a French accent"). There were suggestions that Johnny "doesn't take the Association seriously" and "hated the WMF", and that Johnny said "the big chapters, those with the resources, want to dominate the movement and cannot be trusted". Van Dijk said: "please explain this to me: who should take the WCA serious[ly], if even Johnny doesn't? Those questions kept coming to me." Even his own board, of the Netherlands chapter, had discussed whether supporting the Association is "flogging a dead horse".

"I don't want to end this speech in the same bitterness as when I started to write it on Wednesday's early morning", he said. "Of course, when you are pointing with your finger at others, three fingers of the same hand point to yourself". He concluded with a quotation from the Bible concerning "the power of sharing".

Wikimedia France vice-chair Christophe Henner then announced the chapter was leaving the organization. Henner denounced the current state of the Association, saying that its structure was "untenable", since "too few people are involved". He declared that Wikimedia France would instead be supporting volunteers in specific Wikimedia-related tasks, and called on the other member chapters to follow their lead in departing the Association and directly supporting volunteers. Several chapter officials told the Signpost that Association heads were informed of this pre-planned maneuver only the night before.

Van Dijk and Association chair Markus Glaser then resigned, "effective now", stating that they see no future in the Association. In subsequent discussion, participants debated what to do, but the records reveal no clear direction. Glaser said: "The movement is not taking us seriously. We are perceived to be working on our internal structures all the time. Both chairs resigned and then the solution is to rework charter, this is a death blow." He was convinced, it is recorded, that the chapters will now abolish the WCA. In Van Dijk's words: "The Wikimedia Chapters Association is no more. The Council did not abolish it, but on the Thursday meeting Markus (the Chair) and I (Ziko, the Deputy Chair) stepped down. A discussion followed that demonstrated: an early revival seems to be highly unlikely."

Asaf Bartov, the Foundation's head of the Wikimedia grants program and global south partnerships, was present as an observer. Emphasizing that he was expressing his personal views and not those of the Foundation, he introduced a different tone. What has been missing in the discussion so far, he said, is "gratitude and appreciation for the people who have been trying to make it work. It's frustrating, thankless work, and deserves appreciation all the more." Bartov said he was "intrigued but not surprised that the conversation has focused so far on recriminations and blame, ... this is not the best use of our time in this rare and expensive opportunity where we are all in one room."

Bartov said he originally saw the Association as the combination of a Wikipedian, democratic instinct coupled with the dream of "a league of chapters that would give equal representation, do conflict resolution." But some basic facts were overlooked: in his view, a lot of chapters are still not interested in participating in global movement-wide policy or planning, and there was a lack of clarity on what the Association would achieve.

In practical terms, he said: "there were no more than maybe 10 people with the actual drive to do the kind of things that the WCA said they would do. ... this was something that very few people really cared about. ... People were fooled into believing that the WCA had a lot more volunteer energy than it really had. In Berlin in 2012, we spent the better part of that conference talking about points in the charter." Bartov said he wished more time had been spent on thinking about what the Association should actually do.

He drew an analogy with Wiki Loves Monuments: "Some of these things just aren't as exciting as WLM! WLM happens on an almost military scale of coordination of troops around the planet, ... because people want to do it. There are enough people to do it, even without a chapter, or without a WLM fiscal setup, ...".

As the meeting drew to a close, Glaser narrowed the options down to four:

  1. keep the association but discard the bureaucratic structure around it;
  2. form a new committee that will replace the association, allowing anyone to join;
  3. find local Wikimedia chapters to take over the association's current projects;
  4. continue and ignore what has happened.

Votes were taken on dissolving the Association and abolishing its charter, but both failed. Only three chapters supported the former (against six opposes and two abstentions), and while a small majority voted in favor of charter abolition (four supports, three opposes, four abstentions), it failed due to the association's requirement of 66% support. One major open question is if other major chapters will pull out during Wikimania's remaining days—a chapter official opined to the Signpost that the association would fully collapse if this occurs. If not, the question will morph into if the chapters association will be able to continue functioning.

The etherpad ends with an intriguing comment: "The charter requires having a chair. The pool to select a chair from consist of the council member who voted to keep the charter. My question: which council members voted to keep the charter?"

Other events

The Chapter Association's death throes were not the only event of the pre-conference. The education program held a day-long session on Wednesday that covered important topics for the future of the program. The first session was led by Peter Gallert, who explained how to overcome fears and setbacks in an education program, including challenges with editor retention, technical ability, communication between the community and the class, and adherence to wiki norms. The Foundation's LiAnna Davis gave a presentation on best practices for starting a new program at a university. She suggested that Wikipedians start on a small scale and organize early, taking a lesson from the disastrous Pune experiment in India. Davis also discussed the aims of the Wikipedia Education Program, which have shifted from previous iterations: "We do not care about [editor] retention—we care about adding quality content to Wikipedia." However, she encouraged people involved in the program to focus retention efforts on course instructors.

Speaker Martin Poulter drew on his experience as JISC Wikipedian-in-Residence to teach participants how to "pitch" Wikipedia to educators. Other presentations given included an overview of the training materials available for students, instructors, and ambassadors; recruitment of ambassadors (both Campus Ambassadors and Online Ambassadors); a tutorial on the Education Program software extension; and a discussion of different target groups. Davis summed up her view of the conference in an email to the Signpost:

The welcome party on Thursday night was held in the Sky100 conference centre, known for its striking view of the city ("up the elevator to the 100th floor—impressively, it seemed to take less than 60 seconds", according to Hong Kong resident Ohconfucius). The normal entry fee of US$21.50 was waived for party-goers as part of the hiring cost for the party.

The venue was crowded and the food did run out, but there was delight among some people at the high-quality Cantonese offerings, and appreciation of the free alcohol. We were unable to determine whether there were relatively high levels of gate-crashing, given that there were no proper checks of registration at the door of the party venue (one source told the Signpost: "no questions—just put your name on a label and you're off").

Among comments we have received were that "the lights were too low" and the venue was "good for appreciating the view, but pretty useless if you wanted to look for people". According to Ohconfucius: "the PA was a damp squib for the size of the gathering, and I don't think more than a handful of people even heard the introduction and welcome from Jimmy Wales. I heard the welcome, but I was at the front. People at the back didn't stop talking."

The Signpost did not have the necessary information at publishing time to give in-depth coverage to the developer camp, but the WMF's James Forrester told us that it went "very well", although the "short timeframe involved means that we will need to wait to see what comes out of it." More information will be available in episode 96 of the Wikipedia Weekly, when that is released.

The next edition of the Signpost will provide coverage of key presentations at Wikimania.

Superfast elevator to the party (picture by Polish Wikipedian Adam Kliczek)

In brief

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  • Good riddance to the WCA. While there's a fair bit to be said for having a person/people to act as a point of coordination across the Wikimedia Chapters, the WCA made the rookie mistake of focusing on internal issues, including setting up grandiose structures and positions, which wasn't in line with how Wikimedia chapters or equivalent organisations actually operate. Nick-D (talk) 23:23, 9 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
    • Agreed. There's enough chapter bureaucracy already. For all the good work chapters do, they do often seem to be a magnet for drama, bureaucracy and minor-league politics. Seeing some of the chapter bureaucracy disappear is actually quite refreshing. —Tom Morris (talk) 06:55, 10 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
    • I tossed up whether I should reply to this or let it slide, but this WCA meeting was going to be about various programs (such as the Chapters Exchange, WCA Journal, Chapters Manual, and so on - all of which were started in the past twelve months and are at various levels of progress), until, ironically, the announcement by WMFR - with "too much bureaucracy" being the main issue - turned it into another meeting about bureaucracy. A self fulfilling prophecy.
In addition, perhaps the contributors to this piece should have listened to the stream/recording of Jimbo's keynote before writing that headline. -- Chuq (talk) 15:26, 10 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
Jimmy's headlining keynote is going to be covered next week. We ran out of time to cover it in this edition, unfortunately. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 02:29, 11 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
Just to clarify, I was referring to taking heed of what Jimmy said about over sensationalist journalism, not the reporting of the speech itself. -- Chuq (talk) 03:30, 13 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
  • If the WCA is to unband then I wish that there could remain a central unfunded project or on-wiki space and communication channels to facilitate communications between chapters. Right now, the majority of chapters have no regular communication with other chapters and I feel that if this were easier to do and encouraged as expected behavior of chapters, then this would happen more often. I do not like the Wikimedia Foundation being the de facto hub for connecting community members who want to collaborate with other community members for projects which are unconnected to the Wikimedia Foundation. I have a proposal for this at meta:Peer review in which I simply say that chapters should review each other's work. This would be in contrast to the current practice of primarily depending on the WMF for reviews of their work. Blue Rasberry (talk) 21:57, 10 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
  • Asaf Bartov's comparison to WLM is interesting and I would like to point out that the success of WLM has to do with the fact that without a heritage list, it is impossible to participate. For some countries, their heritage list is posted in more than one Wikipedia project because its member states have more than one primary language. That means that more than one chapter may be involved with parts of the WLM process of any particular WLM national project, such as listmaking, jury duty, organizing "Wiki Takes ..." meetups, or prize donation. What goes undisputed however, is the unique code given to a monument by a list holder. No matter what the politics of the photographer, if the photo looks good, both leftwing liberals and rightwing conservatives will vote for it. When you look at the Chapters association, the demarcation lines are nowhere near so clear. Jane (talk) 06:35, 10 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
  • hmmm, perhaps the inevitable consequence of the fact that the WCA never found favour with the WMF. I would be interested to read a more NPOV account of all this.Leutha (talk) 10:07, 10 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
  • I find too much bureaucracy in Wikimedia and hoped for chapters to bring things closer to my needs. I have supported WCA but I disliked when they intended to form a bureaucracy of their own. I'm more interested in getting knowledge from other wikimedians than on getting a budget. For me, many of the documents supplied by the central structure in Wikimedia are a quite complex mixture of English, Legalese and Technoblablabla, three languages and don't master enough. I know the Poles have organized a tour of their railway system to take pictures: I wish I could talk to them so I could learn how to replicate that in my home town. What has it to do with chapters? Well, there's a Polish chapter, to begin with, and a Spanish chapter I'm a member of. They have the knowledge we could use. Some kind of common platform (WCA for instance) would help. Does it mean we need a budget and an administrative estructure? No. A complex procedure isn't needed. What we need is some easy connection that allows the average Pablo to ask the average Pawel. B25es (talk) 13:42, 11 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]

"...and possibly feature a hybrid community-paid journalist model" I'm not sure if I'm reading this correctly, but if Jimbo is doing an about face on paid editing, then that's a big deal. Many people—myself included—are opposed to paid editing on WMF projects. (talk) 01:03, 10 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]

Who says this is going to be a WMF project? Powers T 01:17, 10 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
Powers is correct. Also of note is that Wales requested that people email his Wikia account—i.e. not something affiliated with the Wikimedia projects. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 02:24, 10 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
Thanks for clarifying this. I wasn't sure if I had it correct or not. Best. (talk) 03:06, 10 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
No worries. Also, I'm not trying to insinuate that it will be a Wikia project. My read of "from the ground up" is an entirely new site with a new domain name. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 07:29, 10 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]
I believe Jimbo uses the Wikia address for all communications; at least, it's the only email address he lists on his userpage. — PinkAmpers&(Je vous invite à me parler) 07:43, 10 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]


I was wondering if Wales's suggestion was going to be a repurposing of Wikinews in order to resolve the problems it has been having. — SMUconlaw (talk) 10:10, 14 August 2013 (UTC)[reply]


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