After a five month long search process Maryana Iskander was selected in September to succeed Katherine Maher as the CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation. She then started a "listening tour" to hear the views of Wikipedians across the world. On January 1, 2022 she began her official duties as CEO.
Iskander was born in Egypt, grew up in the United States, and now lives in South Africa. She presented her thoughts in September in her Welcome letter and summarized the results of the listening tour two weeks ago in Puzzles and Priorities.
Signpost: Welcome to your new job at the Wikimedia Foundation! I hope you’ve settled in a bit and have a good idea of your “routine schedule” and basic responsibilities. Has anything surprised you so far? Will you be working out of San Francisco? Do you intend to fly around the world on a regular basis or has COVID put an end to that?
Maryana Iskander: Four weeks in, one thing that's clear is that there is no "routine" in this job! Although South Africa is my home, I plan to be where I am needed until I figure out what the job requires. I am spending a lot of time in the US (West and East Coasts) to meet with staff, partners and volunteers who are there, but will also be traveling (COVID willing!) to many other parts of the world. One thing that maybe shouldn't have been a surprise is how weird and wonderful the Wikimedia Foundation office is – as quirky and brilliant as our people!
SP: The COVID pandemic has forced the whole world to change the ways that we work. Do you see permanent changes to how WMF employees, affiliates, and volunteers will work?
MI: Even before the pandemic, the Wikimedia Foundation was already moving to more remote work. This was certainly accelerated by COVID-19. A very positive consequence is that this has enabled hiring an even more diverse and multilingual workforce (as of now about 43% of staff are from outside the US). I don't think anyone in the world is heading back to "life before the pandemic", but I also believe that people who can crack the code on hybrid events will point the way to the future. We'll have to figure out how to bring people back together safely without losing the inclusiveness and accessibility created by virtual formats. I definitely see an opportunity for the Foundation to learn from communities that will also be bridging virtual and in person formats for future events.
SP: In your Welcome letter on Diff you've written "I am driven by the question of what it will take to create—not just imagine—a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge?" This is a very big question! I've always thought of Jimmy Wales's statement "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge” to be a wonderful inspiration, but impossible to create in practice. But look how far we’ve come toward achieving that goal! How would you ever know if we have even temporarily achieved that goal? Would 100 million articles in each of 300 languages within 20 years possibly achieve the goal? How do you think we could do that?
MI: You are right that quantifying the sum of all knowledge is an impossible question! BUT the very existence of this unexpected community as a digital wonder of the world is proof that impossible ideas can be created, not just imagined. I am not sure if success will be a numerical number of articles or also other data assessing the health and vibrancy of our global movement. I do know that these metrics will have to be responsive to what the world needs from us now, not just what we think matters. In my listening tour letter, I shared some reflections about how we make many different kinds of contributions 'count' in building online and offline communities that are committed to our mission. Even as I’ve started making my first edits, I can see that there are many types of ways of contributing to the movement. I don’t have all the answers, but know this is a puzzle we have to figure out collectively.
SP: In the Welcome letter you also said you want to use your "position of leadership to champion often unheard voices." Please pick just one of the following groups – indigenous people throughout the world, or more specifically First Nations in Canada; or Chinese living on the mainland; or incarcerated people in the U.S. How can you – or Wikipedians in general – help these people participate in Wikipedia?
MI: Let's pick "indigenous people throughout the world" as that is a very large and diverse group to name! I am confident that there is so much culture, history and perspective that these groups can add to the sum of all human knowledge. Indeed, without them, it literally can't be the "sum of all human knowledge". I think we can enable these communities to participate in Wikipedia by opening the doors more widely – through many of the things volunteers are trying now like preserving endangered languages or innovating across language dimensions – but also by targeted outreach, and by listening and learning what they would need to walk through those doors and join us. We should never assume that we know. I also think we can build creative partnerships with other organizations who can help us connect more authentically to indigenous communities they know well who also want to contribute to the mission of free knowledge. This helps to bring our movement strategy to life, as there are Wikimedia volunteers who already work closely with indigenous groups in their region.
SP: Wikipedia has created a new hobby over the last 20 years. Thousands of people throughout the world now write encyclopedia articles on a regular basis for fun. Are Wikipedians some special type of person who were born with this idea of fun, or perhaps developed it early on? Or can we help people develop into Wikipedians by special programs and training?
MI: I have met enough people now to know that ANYONE can become a Wikimedian – there is no obvious list of characteristics or traits. One thing that has struck me about most of the people I’ve met is their deep curiosity – this feels like more of a shared value than an attribute. And our challenge is how to make ourselves an easy place for the many deeply curious humans out there in the world to get involved and contribute.
From a Signpost reader: What is your understanding of disinformation on Wikipedia, how are you going to tackle this problem? How would you determine an adequate level of resourcing?
MI: I think there is broad consensus that disinformation poses a threat to societies around the world. What should be done about it – and what is our role in that – feels that it has a lot less consensus. I have been trying to learn more about past approaches, like how the movement dealt with COVID and also the 2020 US election. I am also trying to first understand what current Foundation resources are being allocated to this issue, so that we can determine what more may be needed.
From a Signpost reader: Many people assume that the WMF CEO is a key link in the chain of command of the WMF, a manager working under the supervision of the Board of Trustees who supervises other managers and ultimately helps decide how WMF employees "on the shop floor" spend their working time. Others say it hasn't worked this way at the WMF. The CEO has been busy consulting with volunteers and chapters, and potential partner institutions (like GLAMs) and even donors. In short the CEO has been flying around too much dealing with external stakeholders, to have the time to deal with the internal situation at the WMF. What type of CEO will you be?
MI: I am not sure there is a "type" of CEO in a role this complex. As I shared in my Puzzles and Priorities, this job requires balancing the needs of many stakeholders within the Foundation and the movement, without losing sight of what the world needs from us now. While I am certainly formally accountable to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, I also see myself as accountable to many of these other stakeholders, internally and externally. I think people often focus on how much "power" is in a role, whereas for me it is often the case that more "power" really just means a lot more accountability.
SP: Thank you for your candid answers. The Signpost wishes you well in your new job, and hopes that you help lead the Wikipedia community to new successes.