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Outgoing Wikimedia Blog manager Fabrice Florin this week published a meta-post to the Wikimedia Blog highlighting its recent progress and future trajectory. As he explains, the Wikimedia Blog is a half-and-half mixture of communiqués from the Wikimedia Foundation (or its affiliates) and from the community, one which aims to "inform people about Wikipedia ... connect our communities around a shared narrative, and amplify their voices ... [and] convert casual visitors into supporters". The occasion of Fabrice's departure (and the tidbits he has shared with the community about the health of the blog) seems like a good time to discuss the various communications channels available to community members.
The first avenue of communication in the Wikimedian community is one that I expect most of our readers are rather too much familiar with at this point: talkpages. They have been around from the very beginning, but having never really substantially improved in almost a decade and a half they are today often regarded as something of a technical black sheep. There's already been one failed initiative to replace them, LiquidThreads, and another effort, Flow, has now been underway for some time, with a small number of pages currently serving as testbeds on the English Wikipedia and elsewhere. Communication using talk-pages is conceptually easy, if often messy in execution. Yet few talkpages are widely watched, and therefore, read, and so despite efforts like feedback request service there remain only a couple of on-wiki discussion points with an audience wide enough to get a point across: the village pumps come to mind, as does Jimmy Wales' talk page.
The greatest advantage of the talk pages is the fact that, being the basic venue for inter-user communication, they are accessible to all Wikipedians. The greatest disadvantage is one of presentation: lengthy posts are quickly snowballed by other lengthy posts in response, some of which are insightful, many of which are not. The lack of a visual distinction between the original author of the post and replies thereof, the blowback of the community's antiquated discussion model, causes talk page discussions to quickly degenerate into unreadability. The first and last few replies in a comment chain are far and away the most important ones, no matter the weight of their actual content, for little reason more than that they are what is most immediately read.
The first channel of expression available to Wikimedians in the community outside the talkpages on Wikipedia itself were the mailing lists. The tone of the early mailing lists closely matched that of the early movement: several of the first wiki project's paper trails end with Brion Vibber having created them for no apparently stronger reason than "someone on the mailing list asked for one" and Jimbo Wales freely intermingled with community volunteers and bestowed on several editors mock holidays as an award for the work they'd done (the most recent Brion Vibber Day passed just this June 1—the Signposttook note). A good example of the tone of this halcyon era is a personal favorite post, "I am Danny", dealing with early "office" actions.
Today the Wikipedia mailing lists are a miasma of overlapping board and sub-boards and sub-sub-boards: over 370 of them. Not all of the lists are active or even open, but most are or pretend to be one or both, and mailing list contributors seeking to find which one will best suit the needs of their particular communiqué are left to their own devices. Outside private mailings for boards (the English Arbitration Committee, for instance, maintains its own mailing list—which, yes, the Signpost has scooped—important discussions generally take place in one of a few high-volume places: the busiest and by far most-subscribed of them is the flagship Wikimedia-l. The trouble is that the mailing lists don't have much appeal to anyone aside from hardcore Wikipedians: subscribing to lists not meant explicitly for announcements only is like attaching a fire hose directly into your inbox, and the "digest" feature meant to make reading the lists easier is in variable states of repair. Nor is there any easy way, currently, to reply to an email in a mailing list to which one is not already subscribed. Nor are the lists intended for long-form content (though linking to a piece hosted elsewhere is an easy way to drive discussion).
Another medium with very similar strengths and weaknesses is the community IRC channels. They're like mailing lists, except more temporal: conversations are had and then forgotten, as many channels are not logged and most logs are never read. IRC provides a quick way of accessing one particular group of Wikipedians in particular—technicians—who, in fact, seemingly always been present on IRC, are far and away the most easily reachable of all the Foundation staff.
In the heyday of the blogosphere, many longer and more thoughtful ideas found expression on private users' blogs. The Foundation launched an RSS accumulator for such blogs in 2007, and called it Planet Wikimedia, which is now in its second iteration. Some blogs even run onwiki—the Bradblog comes to mind. For the most part, however, these posts do have difficulty finding a wider readership, since personal blogs are both relatively rare and somewhat detached from the movement; the impactful ones get re-posted to other channels or garner impact by appearing somewhere they can’t be ignored—like, for instance,
Andrew Lih's recent op-ed in The New York Times. Essays were originally meant to try and bring some of this traffic back on-wiki. A few have garnered an impact, but most have remained thoroughly unread.
When Wikipedians from Commons, GLAM, and elsewhere came together to raise community awareness about an impending vote on anti-freedom of panorama laws in Europe, they chose to publish their appeal in the Signpost. The bill just was just defeated this week—an outcome you can read about in our report.
True neutral, lawful good, chaotic evil
The Signpost is where most community essays ought to try to garner publication. The Signpost, which you're reading now, is a community-oriented and -run periodical that has been published on a regular weekly basis since its foundation in 2005. As one of the three bullet points in our recently formulated statement of purpose explains, the Signpost actively solicits articles, op-eds, and special reports from the community (subject the approval of the editors-in-chief), and can immediately provide an audience to all of those essays that would otherwise continue to collect dust in the Wikipedia-space. We field a wide variety of such reports: outreach pieces by Foundation teams and directed at the community, research reports on article traffic, community announcements, and long-form organizational strategy analysis have all recently been aired here. The pages of the Signpost are easily the most widely read and distributed of the medias available to Wikimedians, and we accept and encourage a wide variety of material. It’s usually a better way to be heard than publishing something in your personal blog, but an important point must be made that the Signpost publishes pieces, not ramblings—it's a form of communication which requires a large investment of time on the part of the writer.
Another publication that accepts pieces of a similar caliber is the Foundation's Wikimedia Blog, which has experienced rapid growth in past year or so. The Blog's name was recently updated from the "Wikimedia Foundation Blog" to just the "Wikimedia Blog", and after renovations last year now solicits community posts from all parties. Nonetheless, the results of surveys both by the Blog and by the Signpost indicate the Blog's lower-than-expected penetration of the community—in terms of readership in the movement, the Signpost has the Blog beat by miles. There's a limited population of people interested enough in the day-to-day activities of the community to subscribe to a news source about the same, and the Signpost, being far-older and independently community-organized, has far more heritage to draw from.
Then there's the critical but mostly unacknowledged problem that the Wikimedia Blog is essentially a corporate blog. This fact blesses it with a small secondary audience of news hawks (and journalists) interested in current events divorced from the movement itself, but also curses it with the weight of carrying those same burdensome press releases and official reports "from the teams". They're not page-turners, frankly. Corporate blogs are first and foremost engineered for minimum controversy, in that corporate communications way; they usually lack critical analysis, often lack context, and will never publish truly critical material. While it's true that the Blog is now accepting community input, this must still satisfy the Foundation’s requirements for healthy communications, raising what appears to have become a fear of negativity: for all of its presumed openness, an essay like our recent one titled "What made Wikipedia lose its reputation?" could not possibly ever appear on the WM Blog of today.
Then there's the troubling strain of self-promotion in the blog's content: for Wikimedia teams and community organizations increasingly under pressure to deliver results, to publish a post to the WM Blog is to be able to say that you’ve "made it". So though as an overall platform the Blog has quite some merit, as a writer trying to get a message across you must be aware of how closely you must hew to the movement banner; and you need to be aware that the Blog is a general-interest publication written for an explicitly external audience assumed to have little knowledge of the particularities of contributing. Because the Signpost voluntarily republishes posts we like as a part of our own "Blog" section, if you feel that your piece is sufficiently topical and has the requisite feel-good texture to it, there's no reason not to submit it to the WM Blog and take advantage of their far greater (paid) editorial resources. But it doesn't accept critical commentary or dissent, which remains within the Signpost's scope.
There's one last channel of communication for criticisms too bellicose for publication in the Signpost: Wikipediocracy. It's a cesspool of bile, full of bitter trolls and their coat-tail riders; yet many serious Wikimedians seem to read it regardless—members of groups including community administrators, arbitrators, Foundation community teamsters, and even Signpost editorial board members. The problem is that as Wikipedia editors we're all implicitly supporters, and so Wikipediocracy's indulgences—its rants, triviality, and personal nastiness—are reluctantly tolerated for the sake of gleaning a sense of the magnitude of the issues facing the projects. It’s well-acknowledged that sometimes Wikipediocracy has a point; and as the saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. In terms of material accepted, Wikipediocracy is a Chaotic Evil to the WM Blog's Lawful Good: as long as your post is sufficiently negative, it will be accepted. Better and less speculative writings ought be tried in the Signpost first, though, since it, being a publisher with some repute in the community, would not make your writing immediately suspicious by its choice of venue.
Resident Mario is a Wikipedia editor and news hound who serves as associate editor at the Signpost.
The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author alone; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments. Editors wishing to submit their own op-ed should use our opinion desk.