"We have to move away from the idea that voting is the right way to decide software issues—voting doesn't lead to good software and it doesn't give rise to consensus—it gives rise to bad and unusable software such as what we put up with every day around here." Jimmy Wales, co-founder, Wikipedia
"I'm just not ready to save the project by knuckling down before the WMF. I want victory over the WMF, or at least a very good compromise. I want the WMF to shudder when they remember this case ... . I want respect for the community. I want the WMF to see itself as a servant. I want an apology to the community, I want honest assurances that they understand [their errors], I want their pledges for a better future." User:DaB., administrator, German Wikipedia
The Wikimedia Foundation has withdrawn the temporary "superprotect" it had created and invoked on 10 August to prevent DaB., an administrator on the German Wikipedia, from continuing to wheel-war to disable the new software feature, Media Viewer. In her announcement, the Foundation's executive director, Lila Tretikov, made it clear that the WMF "needs to be able to make an ultimate determination after receiving community feedback regarding production changes that impact all users." The superprotect action has brought to a head a steadily rising drama on three WMF content sites: the German and English Wikipedias, and Commons (the last significantly driven by German-speakers).
The wording in the English Wikipedia article on Media Viewer belies the storm that has engulfed parts of the Wikimedia movement. It states simply that "this multimedia browser displays images in larger size when you click on their thumbnails, as an overlay on the current page. To reduce visual clutter, all information is shown below the image, and can be expanded at a click of a button." The commotion from the launching of this product on the last three projects—perhaps those with editors who feel the greatest investment in their now well-established workflows—has ricocheted around a confusing array of issues. On the surface, there are two flashpoints: one is the superprotect itself, and how it might have impacted on the relationship between the Foundation and the editing communities—especially the German-language community, which has a long-standing and justifiable pride in its achievements and an aversion to US-based centralisation. The other is the timing of the opt-out launching of Media Viewer, and whether the software should have been opt-in by default until editors' concerns about certain features were resolved. However, the drama reaches into yet more complicated and sensitive matters, with implications for the technical and social aspects of the Foundation's software development and release, and the status of local community RFCs in relation to software development.
Aside from the Foundation's history of less-than-ideal product launches, there are several important precursors to the current technical–social polemics. One occurred after the Foundation's launching of Visual Editor in mid-2013 (now generally conceded as premature, and still in development more than a year later). On 23 September, English Wikipedian Kww edited MediaWiki:Common.js to disable the newly rolled-out software. The action—which was at least consistent with the results of an RFC on the English Wikipedia—broke what had been an implicit taboo against community administrators injecting code into the MediaWiki namespace, unilaterally modifying the interface for all users of a project. This appeared to establish a precedent: in November 2013, DaB. edited the German Wikipedia's site-wide CSS to disable the link to the newly introduced Beta Features, a program that allows users to test new features on WMF sites. His intrusion, without RFC support, has only just been reversed.
DaB. is a longtime Wikimedia Germany functionary who gained wide respect for his almost single-handed technical stewardship of the chapter's Toolserver (2005–14); that suite of servers, physically located in Amsterdam, gave the whole WM movement access to a range of functionalities developed by the volunteer technical community. When the Foundation decided to displace Toolserver two years ago with the WMF-run WikiLabs, DaB. spearheaded an unsuccessful push to keep the existing infrastructure.
There was furious reaction on the German and English Wikipedias, and Commons—nowhere more vehement than on the German-language site, where the Foundation's blunt overriding of a local administrator action seems to have unleashed long-held feelings of interlinguistic frustration. The Signpost understands that many German Wikipedia editors agree with DaB.'s actions, although there is evidence that this is not a unanimously held opinion.
What has probably caught most Wikimedians off-balance has been the emotional ferocity that now swirls around both the temporary superprotection and the Media Viewer release—sometimes in ways that make the intercultural and the technical hard to disentangle. DaB., for example, has written: "my action has shown how mendacious and power-mad the WMF is". Co-founder Jimmy Wales was sufficiently concerned that he wrote on his talkpage, inter alia:
MV is not going away. If it is "presently" a nuisance for editors, then the solution is to fix it, not to have some religious opposition to it for no reason. "Keeping face" is not a factor here at all—what is a factor is that modernizing what happens when you click on an image to provide a better experience for both readers and editors is going to happen. ... We have to move away from this model of panicky rights battles and mass petitions in a tone of adversary, and move to a position of remembering that we are all there for the same reason: to build something amazing. ... The Foundation under Lila's direction is committed to radically ramping up investment in engineering and product. So yes, I am confident that things in the future will be different from things in the past.
Among the first-day responses to Jimmy's call for "constructive dialogue" on addressing editorial concerns about Media Viewer were: "you are completly blind to the facts", "Your autocratic vision will destroy Wikipedia", "all the new garbage the foundation is introducing ... The foundation only gets more abusive as their software gets worse", "throwing dust in the eyes of the fools", and "ditch Möller [vice-president, Engineering and Products]". Despite the invective, Wales persisted in his attempts to persuade participants that dialogue between the engineering and editorial sides is the way to go—marred only by a less-than-diplomatic reference to "climbing the Reichstag".
Pete Forsyth—whom Erik Möller threatened to desysop when he tried to disable Media Viewer on the English Wikipedia—has authored and promoted an anti-superprotect petition (now the subject of an application for a banner advertisement). But in a clear separation of the superprotect and software-development issues, he wrote on Jimmy's page:
I would very much like to see something very similar to the Media Viewer deployed as the default option; and I know this to be true of many (but not all) of the other people who signed the letter. But it must be a mature product first. At present, I have misgivings about the processes the WMF has created and maintains for evaluating the maturity of the product. Permitting local communities to roll back the default state, at present, would be a practical and clear acknowledgment that the present state of the software may not be sufficient, even if WMF is not (yet) capable of fully grasping what is needed.
He continued: "It makes no sense in the long run for us to have a situation where hundreds of wikis each have a completely different configuration based on local voting. That is not a viable process and we already have huge problems to the extent that it has happened. ... We need to be pushing hard for reunification of software features across the projects."
User:Pine told the Signpost that "the WMF is not the only big organisation that has products blow up on the launching pad: just look at Microsofts's Vista, Windows Me, and Office 2007 for Windows." Nevertheless, the Foundation and its new executive director, software expert Lila Tretikov, face a challenge to the cohesion of the international movement and the ongoing credibility of the WMF's software development program. There is now evidence of a flurry of activity among staff to consult with editors. Among this is the suddenly more obvious presence of the Community Engagement (Product) staff, who were assembled on a temporary basis to assist with the roll-out of Visual Editor in mid-2013. These staff now appear to have longer-term presence, and late last year were transferred to the "Product" part of Engineering and Products. Rachel diCerbo took up the senior position to run CE (P) in May, and if this group of staff succeeds in their mission, the Media Viewer dispute might be the last time matters get out of control. On 29 August, the staff set up a page specifically for Media Viewer consultation, although regrettably the talkpage seems to be dominated by broadsides; and a draft of a process ideas page for community–engineering discourse appeared to mark the arrival of the new senior staff member, "inviting users to brainstorm ideas to improve how software components get build [sic] and delivered to communities".
The Signpost will provide future coverage of how the WMF intends to revamp its software development process, including its liaison with editorial communities, and whether attempts at user requirement documentation such as the Media Viewer roundtable last year can be vastly improved. Among the issues that may become important are the WMF's unique situation as a technology organisation that has little control over "local innovation space" such as templates, which appear to be nothing short of an international mess; a proposal to create a WMF Board volunteer technical committee; and the ways in which engineering documentation and testing might serve to deliver products more smoothly to the movement, including an examination of the relationship of the WMF's software product engineering to models such as Agile and Waterfall.
Editorial note: The author interviewed Pine, a regular Signpost writer, along with three other Wikimedians, to gather background information for this article. Pine had no role in drafting the text.