Thursday, July 05, 2007


I didn't think I was contributing to the Wikidrama

Last Monday night, I received an email from Gmaxwell urging me to vote. It was a well-written letter, so with his permission I republished it on my blog, and went on with my life. Had I known that it would cause the controversy that it did, I would have made an effort to follow events on Wikipedia; instead, I did such silly things like see Ocean's Thirteen with Yvette. And play a game of Carcassone -- especially since we had bought a couple more expansion modules.

So late last night, I thought I'd make the time to catch up on the always running commentary around Wikipedia, and was surprised to find Berto ed Sera writing that he had never "heard anything about Greg Maxwell and his emails until I read this" with a link to that email. Apparently, a number of people didn't like the fact that Gmaxwell (I call him this, and not as "Greg" or "Greg Maxwell" because I think of him by his Wikipedia user name, not his legal name) took it upon himself to ask people to vote. (The first shot was this letter to the Foundation-L mailing list. From there, you can follow the controversy.)

Gmaxwell was accused of such crimes as (1) spamming a lot of people, and (2) seeking to strengthen an alleged US-centric agenda in Wikipedia. In response to the last allegation, his focus on the English-language Wikipedia does not logically lead to the conclusion that he was promoting a US-centric agenda, despite the fact the majority of English speakers happen to live within the US (according to Wikipedia statistics, about 215 million US inhabitants claim English as their first language vs. a little over 100 million in such places as the UK, Ireland, Canada, the Caribeean, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa; maybe if we include the English speakers in India, the rest of the world might reach parity). With only a username to go by, it is very difficult to determine where a Wikipedian lives in the world. Further, even if his intent was to get more US Wikipedians to vote, this is a good thing: if we go by his guesstimate that only 5% of all eligible English-language Wikipedians vote, right now that tiny number is very vulnerable to being mobbed by a small, organized faction who has decided that they want to elect some notorious vandal to the board. It's not entirely unlikely: based on having stared too long at the statistics, I would say that the English Wikipedia has 2000 members qualified for voting and 5% of which would be 100 -- a number small enough to be vulnerable to this kind of gaming. Hey, rest of the world: you want the crazies here to come out and run things? Then discourage "get out the vote" efforts like this, and you'll find that it allows our true lunatic fringe to take charge -- the folks who make the Shrub look reasonable.

But what bothers me more is the claim that Gmaxwell "spammed" his request for people to vote -- not to vote for this candidate or that one, but simply to vote. Now I clean out about 60-80 pieces of my spam from daily from one of my email accounts, so I think I know what spam is -- and this email was not spam. Further, when I responded to the letter he sent me, he wrote back. When was the last time you had a normal conversation with someone who spammed you? (I don't consider playing with a Nigerian con artist a normal conversation.)

In a humorous note, in this conversation there was one person who begged to be unsubscribed from this mailing list, because she was getting "50 emails a day which does not concern me at all". I wonder if someone wasn't just making a joke here.

Lastly, there was the proposal that only the Wikimedia Foundation should be allowed to encourage people to vote. In the long run, this would be counterproductive. I believe that much of Gmaxwell's success came from the simple fact that he was Just Another Wikipedian -- admittedly, one who's been around for a while -- contacting and connecting with people. Getting an email from a Foundation server asking people to vote would not create that kind of connection, and would have the same effect as a piece of spam -- ignored. Why shouldn't the various local chapters, WikiProjects, and other groups be allowed to encourage people to vote?

Feh, I'm probably thinking like a citizen of the United States. And just because I was born and bred here is no excuse.


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You're off by a factor of ten. The number of en-wiki eligible voters is at least 20,000. And that's just those who have edited since March, which isn't a requirement for voting. There could be several tens of thousands more total accounts that are vote-eligible.

By the way, I'm with you. I just don't understand the claims of spamming. I get twenty emails in my inbox and hundreds in my spam box every day, and I'm lucky if ONE of them is as relevant as a once-yearly email reminding me to vote in an important election. One guy on foundation-l from nl-wiki was threatening to remove the email address from his account if he got so much as one get-out-the-vote message. What the hell is wrong with these people?

LOL you shouldn’t be surprised that I had never heard about Greg’s emails. The reason is simply that the whole business was limited to Foundation-l, i.e., to a list I’m not subscribed to. I’m trying my best not to make WMF the centre of my universe. Yet, these elections are really interesting. Yes they could be better, but when I think of the load of rubbish I saw and still see in countless Italian and Ukrainian political elections I really feel proud of us all.
Cyde: my estimate was based on the figure of 1,000 active contributors to EN-Wikipedia at the present -- or so what I've read tells me -- then doubled that. I learned 5 minutes before I saw your comment that I was off by that much.

Still, 5% of any number can misrepresent what the majority believes should be elected.

Berto: I try not to make WMF the center of my world either. I only read Foundation-L thru the archives, & then only a few times a month -- which I feel keps me informed enough.

As for elections, maybe it's this fear that WMF Board elections will start to resemble the ones in the Real World(TM) that drives some of the pushback against Gmaxwell's attempt to get more people to vote. However, when elections matter they often turn nasty; I need to look no further than the last two presidential elections here in the US.

Hehe. Interesting that people claim this rather bold action by Gmaxwell to be a US-centric action in order to rule them all TM.

Well I am German and I for example did write to wikide-l several times that people may please vote for their favourite candidates (and don't complain afterwards that they are not recognized by "the evil US-Wikimedia-Foundation" if they didn't vote).

I wouldn't write such personal messages to people via the wiki (and would have feared such a drama in advance if I did) but we should face the fact that an election with little votes isn't a good election and that the Wikimedia Foundation is as good to regional groups as the local people that gave their vote. A point some critics don't seem to care about.
The last month I have solid numbers for is September (or is it October?) 2006 - 4330 editors on en:wp with >100 edits, 43,006 with >5 edits. So I use the "4330" figure a lot talking to press.

Mr Maxwell could have announced his actions before he did it and found out if his actions were backed-up by the communities. He could have included all Wikimedia projects. Instead he notified only the English Wikipedia contributors. Do you think that this is right?

I think his intentions were right, but in fact he did actively influence the board vote in a non-neutral way. His action was wrong and uncalled for. I feel very bad about this and certainly don't hope that this will cause for the future the active campaigning like is normal in US-politics.

I certainly hope the boardvote is about getting the right people on the board and not about what country or the project the person represents.
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