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  • I don't have anything pticly interesting to add to the main thrust of this op-ed apart from it seeming like a reasonable suggestion. One thing I would suggest, though, is that I don't believe the community wishlist should be the only criterion for feature prioritisation. While the existing editor community is important, we are not the primary stakeholders in Wikipedia — the readers are. And we have other issues to deal with (systemic bias and the loss of readership to Google's Knowledge Graph search sidebar, to name only 2), which need addressing yet are less likely to seem important to the existing editor community (by definition, in the case of the former). One of the purposes of the WMF Board — or some part of the proposed Wikimedia Technology Foundation, rather — should be to determine which external tasks need prioritising over which community-defined tasks. That said, this is definitely a great starting point for discussion; let's hope a fruitful conversation starts from here... — OwenBlacker (Talk) 21:05, 13 March 2016 (UTC)Reply[reply]
    • The overriding question is who gets to speak for "the readers"? They are hopefully the reason why we are all here and I spend much of my time thinking about this question. The WMF definitely does not get a monopoly when it comes to doing so. IMO these decisions need to be made jointly by the movement as a whole and hopefully based as much as possible on evidence.
    • With respect to "losing readers" our pageviews per the most recent data from Feb 2016 has been flat or with a slight decrease. While we would all like to see it growing we are not becoming insignificant. Doc James (talk · contribs · email) 21:34, 13 March 2016 (UTC)Reply[reply]

She's an Aquarius ten years older than me! Wikipedia is young! --violetnese 23:08, 13 March 2016 (UTC)Reply[reply]

    • Speaking of whether the community-defined tasks should be unequivocally prioritised... “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” as Henry Ford famously said. Some of the best things were invented or created by doing something that hadn't made sense to anyone at the time. Like Wikipedia. Instead of asking people, would they like an online encyclopaedia that any person on the internet can edit anonymously, you-know-who just launched one. And it worked, phenomenally. Google is everything it is now because it keeps investing into things that don't make sense at the time of investment. Some of them work (like YouTube), some don't (like Wave). If we want Wikimedia Foundation to innovate and come up with great stuff, we should give it a mandate to try stuff and fail at it, too. If we ask the community that formed, culturally, in early 2000s, how can a website, which was designed in early 2000s, be improved, we will never get a website that can work in 2020s. And more importantly, we won't attract people who would have been able to build such a website. I think that a significant portion of that huge budget should go towards fostering startup and innovation culture, globally, to support people who want to build "a better Wikipedia", or "a different Wikipedia", or "not at all a Wikipedia", to finally figure out, as a movement, what Wikipedia should be in the next 15 years. --SSneg (talk) 01:12, 15 March 2016 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Your own opinions, but not your own facts

Dear William,

so, I realize that the tongue-in-cheek headline indicates (at least to those who get the cultural reference or click through twice from the image) that these ideas and thoughts are not entirely serious. And to your credit you are candid ("won’t let that stop me") about a lack of expertise in the matters for which you are positing these solutions. Plus I happen to think that such a lack of expertise can be mitigated by keen observation and a good memory. Unfortunately though, the sheer amount of factual errors, distortions, omissions and misquotes in this piece makes me think that these mitigating factors are absent here, leaving these sweeping opinions and proposals on a very shaky basis. To highlight just a few examples:

  • "As detailed by recently departed veteran staffer Oliver Keyes in The Signpost last month, systemic problems with hiring, promotions, and human resources in general were an issue at the WMF well before Tretikov’s arrival."
Um, what? Nowhere did Oliver's linked article say that. In fact it pretty much stated the opposite, i.e. that these work environment problems (not really mainly about HR in general BTW, but much more about executive leadership style) started after Lila's arrival: "In most respects, Sue was just an ED, but she instilled values of transparency outside the organisation and transparency inside it. She created an environment where you might disagree with a decision, but you could still respect it, because you were there for it. She created an environment where everyone, even executives, were answerable for the work they did and did not do. She created an environment where dissent was expected and valued rather than classed as unprofessional. [...] The things that always distinguished the Wikimedia Foundation as a workplace are gone [...]. Because of that, I am leaving."
As OwenBlacker already indicated above, these are not "community-enumerated goals" for the Foundation's software development as a whole, but proposals limited to "discrete, well-defined features and fixes that will directly benefit the core community, in line with the scope of the Community Tech team", which explicitly excludes "large, long-term development projects" such as the one the Discovery team has embarked on. In other words, this doesn't support your claim at all.
Who said that this will be a five-year plan? It seems you just made that up. In reality it was acknowledged in public a while ago already (e.g. in late 2014 IIRC) that the previous 2010-15 strategy had been too long-term and rigid and that the new strategy should not again be a fixed document covering five years at once. Consequently, the current draft page (that you link in the blog version of this sentence) emphasizes that the new strategy will be "iterative".
You take one single example where things went wrong, and extrapolate it to a sweeping overall judgment. Those $250k from the Knight Foundation represent about 0.5% of the money raised in a single year, but it seems you can't be bothered to even look at the other 99.5%, or past years, before you jumping to extremely strong conclusions about WMF's fundraising capabilities. And my impression has been that many or most people in the movement would agree that WMF has been quite effective at fundraising (separately from concerns about size of the targets, and about the messaging in some banners, which that team has worked to address).
Like in other examples, you fail to make the case why a specific problem that many staff and community members have called out as this particular ED's failure (and cited as a major argument for her removal) should be considered a structural issue of WMF instead.
  • "The WMF should keep only what is mission critical—fundraising, grantmaking, legal, and communications—and spin off the rest."
This must be the first time ever I've read the opinion that operating the actual Wikipedia website is not mission-critical. And that aspect alone shows how shoddy the thinking behind this proposal is: Of course whichever organization operates one of the world's largest websites and takes all the liabilities that come with this will need a legal team of its own.
  • "In the business world, this has been seen in the arrested development of agglomeration, once large corporations realized they had become slow and bureaucracy-laden."
Sounds erudite, but as the lede of the linked article clarifies, this refers to a situation that is not comparable at all ("A conglomerate is a combination of two or more corporations engaged in entirely different businesses", my emphasis - think Samsung building both smartphones and ships while also running theme parks and selling life insurances).
  • "This is also an operating principle at Amazon, where they call it the 'two-pizza rule': 'Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group."
Hello? Amazon has more than 200,000 employees, so it's very strange to invoke this as an argument that 300 employees are too many for a single organization.
  • "An early initiative of this spinoff should be to think about how to position Wikipedia for the mobile web and even to consider partnerships with today’s media orgs—not so much the New York Times and CNN, but Facebook and Snapchat."
You create the impression that WMF has so far neglected these two tasks. However, regarding "to think about how to position Wikipedia for the mobile web": The mobile web version has in fact been a major focus of WMF engineering work for about half a decade (not just the separate mobile apps that you link earlier in the article and commented on favorably), combined with a lot of thinking, experiments and research. I happen to think that these engineers did great work, but then again I'm partial here as a member of that department, and of course you don't need to agree with me here - a criticism like "I think that the mobile web version of Wikipedia created by WMF engineers sucks for reasons A, B and C, and that a spinoff will be do a better job for reasons X, Y and Z" would be an opinion that can be reasonably discussed. But it appears that your proposal is based on no such factual arguments.
About the second task, the Foundation actually has a partnerships team (part of the Advancement department) that is exploring such partnerships in general, of course mindful of the issues that collaboration with commercial partners can bring.
Again, you don't have to agree that they are doing a good job for the amount of resources they are given, but the problem is that you don't seem to be aware of their existence at all.
  • "a kind of intrigue—“Montgomerology” (a word coined by Liam Wyatt, referring to the WMF's address on New Montgomery Street) —that plays out daily on Wikimedia-l, a semi-public mailing list populated by Wikimedians, and lately the semi-private Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group, which this blog is frankly obsessed with. Which, I acknowledge, isn’t exactly healthy."
Here we are getting somewhere. You are intelligent enough to realize that obsessively following the drama, controversy and speculation in these discussion venues is not sufficient for getting a full picture of how this organization at the center of the free knowledge movement is actually performing. But you are not taking the consequence of taking a step back and trying to get a more solid picture from other sources. And such sources exist. As opposed to the Soviet regime that Liam's slighly snarky epithet evokes, WMF is actually a very transparent organization (objectively so, compared to most other nonprofits), some recent shortcomings notwithstanding. For starters, how about actually reading its activity reports? For many people that would seem like an obvious first step. As luck has it, the most recent one just came out. I would love to read a thorough critique of it on your blog, instead of permanently rehashing secondhand opinions.

With all that said, I agree that WMF should not be doing all possible work on its own. This has actually long been recognized, see the "Narrowing focus" strategy change implemented under the previous ED (a change which BTW has not been uncontroversial in the community, many felt that the Foundation should direct more attention to e.g. supporting GLAM work instead of just funding chapters to do so). The spinoff of the US and Canada education program in form of Wiki Ed is consistent with that, and they are doing excellent work. And the German chapter's success with Wikidata proved that some software development areas can be handled well by separate organizations. But cooperation between organizations comes with challenges of its own. Speaking of Dunbar's number (which BTW does not actually imply that successful organizations can't have 300 or more employees), it's worth being aware that successful cooperation between organizations in the movement has relied a lot on personal contacts too, facilitated by conferences, hackathons, site visits etc. E.g. I guess the Wikidata team would confirm that a good working relationship with WMF engineers - who operate the site their software runs on - has been quite important for Wikidata's success.

Disclaimer: My views here, while personal, are of course informed by my perspective as WMF employee, but also as a longtime Signpost author and former editor-in-chief who covered WMF activities from the outside (as main writer for "News and notes") for an extensive amount of time before joining the organization myself. Having written from a similar perspective, this make me appreciate that you are reading a lot of information, and processing it - which is actually not too easy a task. I have been reading your "The Wikipedian" blog at least since then, and linked to it myself repeatedly. That said, this is also not the first time that it contains glaring misconceptions that would have been evident to anyone familiar with the matter - such as when you informed your readers in 2013 that Jimmy Wales would leave the Board of Trustees by the end of the year (an error you graciously corrected after being notified, but I can't help seeing a similar pattern here of reading things into your sources that just aren't there. It makes me itch for the edit button to add lots of [failed verification] templates ;)

And speaking of the Signpost: I anticipate that the decision to syndicate this piece here will be defended with arguments like "but it was just meant to stimulate discussion" etc., and of course the Signpost should not shy away from publishing strong opinions and well-argued thought-provoking pieces. But even with op-eds, a certain minimum standard of factual correctness should be maintained. These topics are too important for the future of our movement to be covered at an accuracy level resembling that of a supermarket tabloid.

Regards, HaeB (talk) 00:37, 14 March 2016 (UTC)Reply[reply]

I have to agree that there has been too much tabloid material in the Signpost lately.
I disagree with the all too common characterization of the WMF as a bloated money-waster that needs to be broken up. It's difficult to find comparable organizations, but if we look to the "knowledge industry" we can try to judge the WMF's bang-for-the-buck. All figures are approximate. WMF annual budget, about $60 million. Khan Academy, $35 million. WBEZ public radio in Chicago, about $25 million, WGBH public radio and TV in Boston $200 million. Slippery Rock University in PA with about 9,000 students $125 million.
I'd say Khan Academy is doing pretty well, spending its money very efficiently with good results. WMF probably has a much larger audience and is doing pretty well also. The older technologies don't really have the reach or audience. Yes, these organizations are difficult to compare, but the WMF hardly looks bloated here. Smallbones(smalltalk) 03:02, 14 March 2016 (UTC)Reply[reply]

PS, I could go on and on, but just one more example of hyperbolic catastrophizing combined with an apparent misinterpretation of sources:

  • "... the precipitous decline in staff morale that sent more than two dozen key employees and executives for the exits. The loss of talent, relationships, and institutional memory is devastating, and it is not something the Wikimedia Foundation will recover from soon."
OK, without doubt that decline in staff morale happened. And yes, some very highly valued colleagues have left because of the since departed ED.
However, that number of "sent more than two dozen key employees and executives to the exits" seems quite exaggerated to me. You appear to have generated it by counting entries on GorillaWarfare's timeline. Which is an awesome source of information (and has quite frankly helped many within WMF too to get a better sense of what happened). But it prudently doesn't actually make the claim that all of the listed employees left because of the ED as main reason. That claim would be incorrect. It's obviously difficult to demonstrate this in public for every example where I know it to be wrong without violating people's privacy. But for example in Terry Chay's case you just need to click through one of the links helpfully provided by Molly to find him stating that he had already drafted his resignation letter long before the new ED joined. In other examples, the main reason why a person left may have been issues within their team rather than at the executive level, or because a time-limited employment ran out, or because they were let go for performance reasons. Also, most of those on the list - which, again, contains many awesome people that are missed a lot - were not actually executives (C-levels) or "key employees" in the only concrete meaning I am aware of.
According to the actual numbers from WMF's HR department, "Looking at turnover trends since 2012, beyond normal seasonality, the trend line is flat and our turnover is lower than market average." (as of January)
The Signpost's own ResMar confirmed this in an independent analysis (I have some slight misgivings about the details of the method used there, but the overall conclusion about churn seems correct to me): "employee survival rate today is the same it's always been!" The exception, as ResMar also correctly pointed out, has been the C-level team which indeed had some bad retention and large gaps in the last 1.5 years. But as important as this group of 7-9 employees is, the departures there do not even come close to justify these claims of a "devastating" "forest fire" that the entire Foundation could not hope to recover from anytime soon.
Granted, there was a real risk that without action, there would have been a more substantial loss fairly soon, as my colleague Ori warned shortly before that action occurred. But as he also showed with many concrete and convincing examples in the same post, a whole lot of excellent work got done even during these times of low morale, quite contrary to the picture painted in your post.
What's more, I feel confident reporting that staff morale has already much improved in the last two and a half weeks, further boosted by Thursday's announcement of the interim ED decision (and a separate HR-related staffing decision announced internally on Friday - to be reflected on the public staff page soon, as usual - which was greeted with unanimous expressions of happiness on the staff mailing list).

Regards, HaeB (talk) 06:34, 14 March 2016 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Tilman, I appreciate the in-depth response, even if it's not precisely the reaction I was hoping for. Indeed, this piece was intended to be provocative, and I am glad it is receiving strong responses on either side. And though I think our disagreements rely more on emphasis and interpretation than you suggest, I do want to address a few things:
  • You got me on the Keyes blog post. I had originally intended to link this Wikimedia-l comment of his, which does argue the WMF "is not good at making sure that the recognition of employees is fair and treated equitably", among other issues. I changed it at the last moment without realizing the error.
  • I acknowledge the "wish list" cannot be the sole barometer of which projects deserve funding, and as OwenBlacker says, the reader needs an advocate, too. Still, I'm hardly the first to suggest a problem with the allocation of considerable resources to this project without community discussion (beginning with Risker in May 2015).
  • Regarding KE / KF and the "Tretikov disaster"—as a matter of community relations and public relations, that 0.5% overshadowed the rest, and that is a shame. Perception isn't always reality, but it can shape what future realities are possible. You may dislike my characterization, but these are issues that Katherine and any successor (perhaps that being herself) will have to deal with.
  • A few other things: I chuckled at your distress that I suggested the website wasn't "mission-critical". To clarify, it wouldn't be mission critical for the WMF as a linchpin organization to keep in-house, as the Wikimedia Technology Foundation would do this just fine. About the "five-year plan": I did acknowledge it wasn't currently listed as five years, albeit in a footnote; still, the additional information is helpful. Finally, I think you're reading the "conglomeration" and "two-pizza rule" comparisons too literally. They were intended as illustrations of concepts, although it is possible I may have followed them a little far afield.
Anyway, I did say in the piece that it was radical, and early in development, so it surprises me not at all that my summary will not satisfy everyone. And while I likewise disagree with plenty in your comment, this is exactly the kind of response that helps clarify the discussion, so thank you for that. Despite our differences, I appreciate that you do see some value in the suggestion of spinning off (and then building up) some of what WMF does now. Best, WWB (talk) 17:18, 14 March 2016 (UTC)Reply[reply]
  • The call to decentralise: A significant portion of revenue comes from institutional donors. Imaging telling them that we just parcel out their money to devolved units. They'd not be happy. Tony (talk) 05:34, 15 March 2016 (UTC)Reply[reply]


"The WMF should keep only what is mission critical —fundraising, grantmaking, legal, and communications— and spin off the rest.

The larger an organization becomes, the harder it is for everyone to know everyone else and understand what they’re doing.

The WMF itself is a conglomerate, of a kind. Creating more community space around its current departments would make each more accessible.

A small constellation of well-funded Wikimedia Foundation spinoffs, each with a strong sense of mission, focused narrowly on the movement’s needs stands a better chance of working more efficiently among themselves and offers many more touch points for the community itself to be involved."

The reasoning sound fine. As the WMF has more roles, it could be wise to have small organizations focused on a specific task.

However, this design can also have negative effects. It could be hard to know which activity corresponds to which organization. If power is too divided, the constellation could lack strength.

Also, if we have more organizations, who controls each? Currently the WMF is controlled by the Board of Trustees, a few of which are community-selected. With more organizations, would we have more Boards of Trustees? Would they report to the WMF? Would they be controlled directly of the Wikimedia community?

I'm not opposed to the proposal, I just want to prevent issues.

"Among the WMF’s first major grants should be to the new Wikimedia Technology Foundation."

I agree. The technological requirements of the Wikimedia movement can be managed independently of the other tasks. Although, as we saw with the VisualEditor and Flow, the team must respond to the community.

"More complex would be the evolution of Community Engagement, encompassing grantmaking and outreach. While the core function of grantmaking should stay with under the provost at the slimmed down WMF, the bulk of its activity should happen outside the WMF. And the way this would happen is by the creation of a more ambitious grantmaking operation whose mission is to nurture and develop mini-foundations. Rather than there being one new foundation, this needs to be a core capability of every mini-foundation that receives WMF funding."

That model is interesting, as the decision of which organizations to support is kept at the WMF, whereas any organization can apply to funds. It's not unlike the affiliates network.

"Wikimedia chapter management: the model of volunteer support currently practiced focuses too much on geographic concerns at the expense of thematic topics, with considerable overlap."

I disagree: there is too little focus on "geographic concerns". Thematic organizations are great, but having only them would risk the worldwide coverage. Without Wikimedia Uruguay, nobody would care about the promotion of Wikimeida projects in my country.

For example, Wiki Ed covers Untied States and Canada only. Wiki Med does highlight the importance of multiple languages, and has members from multiple countries. But that seems more like an exception.

--NaBUru38 (talk) 20:33, 15 March 2016 (UTC)Reply[reply]


I like the idea of a provost or Chief Educational Officer. Bearian (talk) 19:23, 11 April 2016 (UTC)Reply[reply]


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