Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Wikipedian-in-residence, a proposal
For many years, a "Artist in residence" or "Writer in residence" position has been used as a means to provide financial support to creative types. These positions last anywhere from a few months to a lifetime, and the financial support ranges from the obviously minimal (for example, a desk and a phone, or studio space) to providing access to necessary resources (studio space is one example, but the equipment that a printmaker needs to practice her/his art can be prohibitively expensive) to something close to a living wage.
At the same time, dedicated Wikipedians find that it's difficult to balance the need to make a living with the demands of contributing to Wikipedia. Further, access to the resources we need to make useful improvements to Wikipedia can be expensive: my alma mater's library offers an alumni card (I'm allowed to check out five books at a time), but they raised the cost from $25.00 to $50.00 a year; and there is the cost of internet access -- in effect we are paying someone to contribute to Wikipedia. These needs leads me to wonder: why shouldn't we create a "Wikipedian-in-residence" program, and at least receive some form of subsidy for our work?
I have though long about this (admittedly with the goal of understanding out how I could pitch this to my university's library and avoid that $50.00 charge, and perhaps even gain access to their database of periodicals in electronic format), and have developed a plan that lists the groups involved and the problems that need to be handled.
First, the Wikimedia Foundation would need to be involved because they own the Wikipedia trademark and have an interest in its use: the reputation of anyone who called himself a "Wikipedian-in-residence" would reflect on the reputation of the entire project. They would need to establish the basic guidelines of this project, which include qualifications, and administration. Let me address the problem of administration first: I don't think that the Foundation itself should administer the program itself, it should be one of the local or national chapters. However, there are several nations -- most promently the United States -- which does not yet have a national chapter. This lack of infrastructure means either the Foundation determines the minimal qualifications and administration needed to create or obtain a "Wikipedian-in-residence" when there is no national chapter, or that these positions cannot exist without the existence of a national chapter. (This may be just the prod to get a US chapter created.)
As for the qualifications that a participant must meet, while I could throw out my own specific suggestions, I'd rather point out that any qualifications would embrace one of two approaches. One could be described as the "minimal" or "inclusive" approach: set a specific quantity of edits, a minimum of time as an active member, or other qualifications (perhaps having contributed to one or more Featured Articles) that any serious contributor can reach. The other approach could be described as the "maximal" or "excellence" approach: set standards that only Wikipedians who are the best active members can meet. Either approach has its benefits. The first set of standards would reach out to a large number of Wikipedians, and if combined with a requirement that the "Wikipedian-in-residence" make a reasonable effort to remain active for a period time after this position expired it would help fight the obvious brain-drain Wikipedia suffers from valuable contributors leaving. (This is a real problem on the English Wikipedia that has often discussed on various talk pages.) The Foundation may want to settle on this defintion, while allowing the local chapters to add requirements that would make their "Wikipedian-in-residence" programs more like the second approach. The second set of standards would be limited to a select few, and would benefit the Wikimedia Foundation by offering proof of the project's excellence.
Next item to consider is how this program (or programs) would be administered. At the very least, someone needs to keep track of which Wikipedians are resident in which organizations, and provide a minimal check on its potential abuses -- either by individuals or organizations. As I said above, ideally this should be the job of the local chapters, who have the knowledge and interest in local practices and laws. But if the Foundation permits a "Wikipedian-in-residence" program to be set up in countries where there is no local chapter, then they need to also establish guidelines for which Wikipedians could qualify, and how a motivated Wikipedian or benefactor could create a program for himself or another person -- and also the contractual understanding between the Wikipedian and his benefactor organization. The idea is to allow a Wikipedian to make the same kind and quality of contributions in this program that she or he would without it, only more: there would be no conflict of interests or coersion on the Wikipedian.
That last point is an important one. Even if only non-profits could participate in this program, there are enough political think tanks and industry marketing groups that would otherwise qualify to belong -- and the potential of abuse should be apparent. Yet I believe should not be a problem. There are enough active Wikipedians with a variety of points of view that (let's say) any industry group should be able to find a veteran editor who agrees with their goals. Being paid to edit Wikipedia in the manner one would edit otherwise should also not be a problem: many kinds of professionals (teachers, librarians, doctors) are paid for their work, and do so without violating commonly accepted ethical standards. Where this has become a problem on Wikipedia is when someone who does not understand the Wikipedia culture tries to advocate for a particular point of view, they far too often violate the community norms and expectations, and these people have managed to poison the well for those who want to advocate for their employer -- but in a way that benefits Wikipedia.
I can't help but believe the primary reason any organization would want to have a Wikipedian-in-residence program: to learn how Wikipedia works, and how they should work with it. (The prestige of being associated with Wikipedia is just not benefit enough.) While we proudly proclaim on our entry page that Wikipedia is "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit", some kinds of edits are more readily accepted than others -- and a Wikipedian-in-residence should make it her or his priority to explain why this is to another group of potential Wikipedians.