Sunday, July 13, 2008


Sitting on an Opportunity

A couple of weeks ago there was a thread in the Foundation-l list that started with an announcement about the Wikimedia Foundation 2008/2009 annual plan, then led to this comment:

My reaction is motivated by your comment that "it is GOOD when there is some conservative bookkeeping", which I disagree with. Conservative bookkeeping shouldn't be the goal. Rather, we want effective bookkeeping that includes planned contingency funds but is on target more often than not. It is too early to say whether the WMF will ultimately have a good track record, but I would discourage a policy of intentionally overstating likely spending. Being conservative, with the intent of being consistently underbudget, would be a bad thing. It would imply that one is holding too many resources back and misrepresenting your needs to the donor community.

In short, The Foundation has more money than they know what to spend it on -- which is a good place for a non-profit to be at.

So what should the Foundation spend this windfall on? I won't repeat some of the suggestions offered in that thread, I'll just point out that that the discussion never touched on what should be the primary aim: to support the communities which are creating the content that makes the Wikimedia projects so useful. Wikipedia would not be one of the top ten websites (according to the opinion of some experts) if most of the articles were not so useful -- which are written by communities of volunteers. Reading this thread, I can't help but wonder if their vital role is taken for granted by the Foundation.

I think that this attitude -- which assumes that these volunteers will continue to come and donate their time and efforts without any effort from the Foundation -- is what is known as "crowd sourcing." It's an attitude that corrodes communities. Especially since every Wikimedia project is built on a very brittle foundation: tens of thousands of volunteers, who could decide at any moment to stop contributing and find something else to do with their time.

So how can the Foundation support the communities? I have a number of ideas, but an important first step would be for the Foundation to ask the volunteers. I am only one person, with a limited although extensive, experience on Wikipedia: there are a lot of volunteers who have had a different experience with Wikipedia -- or their own Wikimedia projects. I am a little surprised that no one at the Foundation, once the latest batch of generous donations came in, thought of doing this very thing. It can't be all that hard: set up a wiki, send out an announcement to the active members with a known email address, & watch what happens. Yes, there will be flame wars & vandalism -- but that's a problem most of the projects already are coping with, & might even give the staff at the Foundation another idea of what is needed.

As for my ideas:
  1. Help wikimedians gain access to information sources. Although there's a lot of information on the Internet, there's a significant chunk which is behind a paywall or restricted to "serious"
    researchers. Why isn't the Foundation negotiating with groups like JSTOR and Springer to gain access for Wikimedians? A simple way to do this would be to negotiate with these groups to provide this access to a certain set of Wikimedians -- call them scholars -- then based on need and excellence of work, make certain Wikimedians scholars for a limited period of time, say six months.
  2. Actually, access to information sources extend beyond sources like these: even in the First World, there are people without access to public libraries. I had this brought to my attention recently in a discussion with another Wikipedian over access to sources: when I suggested that he look into Inter-Library Loan services at his local library, he replied that his local public had been closed a year ago, and he was hoping that conditions would permit to be reopened soon. I suspect that his situation is not unique -- yet one would not think this from the usual pronouncements from the Foundation, which are far more likely to talk about that idealized child in Africa.
  3. Here is one idea that makes a lot of sense to me -- yet there might not be any need for it: a mailling list or web forum for the discussion and announcement of content sources. I did not find many of the online resources I have used to write articles about Ethiopia; rather, other Wikipedians with a shared interest in Ethiopia told me about them. However, a current attempt to meet this need -- Wikipedia:WikiProject Resource Exchange -- is amazingly underused. I have listed myself there for years as willing to provide access to some of the more useful works in my personal library, yet have never had anyone take me up on this offer. I hope the neglect of this resource is due to ignorance, not because that is how Wikipedians work.
  4. Promoting the creation or identification of images with free images. One of the nastiest conflicts on the English Wikipedia has been over the use of Fair Use images. Ignoring the ideological arguments, I think it is undeniable to say that there would be a significantly lower use of images under the legal concept of fair use if Wikimedians could find materials in the public domain. However as far as I can determine, there is no organized program to identify and locate these materials; it's all volunteer-driven, with little legal or archival guidance, and the results show this. Faced with the choice of spending countless hours in a possibly unsuccessful search for a public domain or free image, or use an available proprietary image and come up with a fair use rationale, I would tend to do the latter. Writing readable and readable prose is hard enough to do alone.
  5. Providing resources to fight cyberstalking and online harassment. The case of David Shankbone is not unique: productive editors and Admins are constantly driven off of Wikipedia for simply disagreeing with someone pushing an agenda. Usually the matter is laughably trivial: in Shankbone's case, it was over a phrase in an article about a male porn star. So far, the Foundation's response is to ignore it. Although this matches well the lassez-faire approach the Foundation takes towards the projects, over the long run it is going to harm the quality of the content: the kooks are already using this as a weapon to drive responsible editors from the projects and gain more control over their favored subjects. I believe this problem is more important to the Foundation than hiring a permanent
  6. Grants or other subsidies to individual Wikipedians. I've thought for a long time about being paid for my work on Wikipedia, and although the idea at first seems to be attractive I believe that it can easily be a bad thing. Simply stated, unless a writer produces a quality article (one of those rated "Good", "A-class", or "Featured") the person or company paying is not getting their full value for their money. Who wants that kind of pressure researching and writing an article? On the other hand, there is a crying need for experienced Admins to put in full-time presences on Wikipedia, not the current part-time, low level most currently do. If the Foundation had a program to hire experienced Admins to act as peace-makers over certain contentious topics (such as ethnic-based ones), it would improve the environment not only at these articles but in general. Many good editors stay clear of these articles because of this hostility, while other editors use the incivility manifested there as a model for how to get their way in other articles.

I'm sure other volunteers in the Wikimedian projects could come up with their own lists of worthwhile projects. However, I'm not sanguine about any of these being implemented: few of the people currently in the Foundation have much experience with how the projects actually work, and fewer seem interested in doing more than "spreading the gospel" about how wonderful Wikipedia is. They'd rather sit on this opportunity to fix problems in the communities.


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Your post has inspired me to write this comment although I am usually too lazy and it must be something really striking for me to post a comment. It was very interesting to me with several fresh and thought-provoking ideas. Food for thought, absolutely. One of the points that you have described in your post is especially exciting for me because we have set up a Wikiproject in the Polish Wikipedia that has a very similar goal to WikiProject Resource Exchange but takes a little different approach.

We also have a virtual library project Biblioteka = Library for all Wikipedians to share written resources and request a look-up. The difference lies in an additional activity - library acquisition requests. It is planned that Wikiprojects (biology, zoology, molecular biology etc.) should agree on a list of indispensable reference and source literature that is both valuable but also uncontroversial and generally accepted by a mainstream of experts - ours and outside. The proposed responsibilities of Wikiprojects would be doing reviews of featured and good articles, dispute resolution, voice in quality assessment and what have you. As you can see they will surely need good sources and sound reference positions.

The idea hasn't really taken off yet and this is more like a future idea because most Polish Wikiprojects are rather low traffic or stagnant and obviously not up to the proposed tasks.

It seems that there's a real need for that kind of thing if completely separate ideas with the same aims arise almost simultaneously.
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