These are the questions that the candidates in the 2010 Chapter seat selection process for the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees received (in early June 2010), and my answers (I checked with the moderator, who said it was fine to post these publicly). Though this is a closed process, I welcome feedback and community ideas.
- needs moar links! this is from my email
- opinions? comments? more questions? post 'em on the talk page
- also, how would you answer these questions? let me know on the talk page.
- also see my long-winded statement
question 1: strategy participation
As you probably know, Wikimedia has gone through an extensive strategy process in the past year which is approaching completion . Could you please indicate whether and if so to which extent you participated in the strategy process?
I participated but not to the extent I would have liked. My participation included: early on, joining a small workshop in SF with Bridgespan and WMF that mapped out the project; adding two proposals to the strategy wiki; and keeping up with the project. I also tried to add news about the project to the English Wikipedia Signpost, so that more people would learn about it and participate. I intended to but did not ultimately contribute anything to the task forces.
I liked the idea of the strategy project, though I hoped that it would be even more interactive than it was, with strategic goals growing organically out of existing formal and informal groups with a broad array of contributors. I would have liked to have seen much more multilingual and international participation. (I found the mass of text on the strategy wiki wearying, so I can only imagine how difficult it might have been for a non-native English speaker to participate). I do appreciate the research that was done, both by Bridgespan and by volunteers, and hope that such iterative research becomes an ingrained part of how the Foundation approaches problems in the future.
Strategy should not be something that we only work on every five years. I hope that we can somehow keep this process going -- particularly the forum for ideas and proposals, which seemed to be particularly well received.
Question 2: opinions on strategy
Could you indicate what your opinion is on the WMF five-year strategy plan as summarized by Sue Gardner?
The strategic goals, as described in the summaries I have seen, are:
- Growth in readers, particularly in the global south; corresponding growth in editors and quality of articles;
- Growth of the support structure within the Foundation to make this possible.
The final plan, as I understand it, will include both a strategic plan (the vision for the network/movement) and a business plan (what the Foundation should actually do with budgets and staff, which may not include every priority in the strategic plan).
The first part of the strategic goals seem worthy and in line with our mission, and I support them. Increasing readership implies making our projects available in new and less-developed places, and we should be creative in how we do this. To make more content in many languages available, we need more editors, and we should be creative in how we achieve this, also. Finally, to really be a good educational resource our content needs to be higher quality across the board.
I am concerned, however, about some of the steps the Foundation wants to take to reach these goals, particularly regarding the Foundation's rapid growth in staffing. Many of the employees who have been added are working on temporary projects (Vector, Strategy, Flaggedrevs, the Stanton Grant) but many are not. The Foundation has added several permanent staff recently and is focussed on building the structure -- as noted in the strategic plan -- to add many more, particularly in the outreach and programs department but also on the technical side.
There are two things that concern me about this kind of growth:
1) It may not be financially stable over the long term; while we've had two very successful fundraisers in recent years, will this trend continue?
Because of this danger, I would like to see our financial priorities emphasize building an endowment that could fund the basic operations of the site over the next 10, 20, 50 years. While I know this can be a fundraising challenge -- people like to see their money being put to immediate use -- it should be a priority; our projects are too important to be left to fundraisers alone. An endowment should be one part of ongoing Foundation-wide contingency planning.
2) Far more importantly, there is a more subtle change that I have seen as the Foundation increases its professional staff. There are many things being done by the Foundation that could easily be worked on by volunteers along with (or instead of) staff.
This is a problem, because there is a danger in losing the community's sense of ownership and pride over Wikimedia as a whole when some jobs are taken over by "paid professionals." It is this pride that keeps people motivated, and makes people want to spend their time on the projects. I want to see the Foundation facilitate, not take over, and not raise the expectation that some things will be done "professionally" and some things by "volunteers," with the implied qualitative difference.
There is a divide that we have not adequately discussed or examined as a community between the expectations that come along with assigning someone a job -- whether paid or not -- in contrast to the self-assignment that most of us practice on-wiki, and I believe that this difference leads to many conflicts. I have spent quite a bit of time in the San Francisco office, and there is a general sense there of urgency and anxiety that things aren't getting done. Instead of this situation, I would like to see a Foundation environment that is focused on distributed work (so many people can easily join and help lead the work on Foundation-level problems), and on strengthening and supporting community structures, including chapters.
question 3: chapter knowledge
'How detailed is your knowledge of the issues affecting chapters?
I would say that I have a medium level of knowledge. I am familiar with chapter issues in the broad context of being familiar with Foundation and general community issues; and I keep up with internal-l and my friends in chapters at Wikimania and elsewhere. For instance, I followed the discussions about fundraising issues last year; I know that there is a discussion about movement roles that was formally begun by board members at the last chapters meeting; I followed the conversation about Wikimedia Brasil. And I assume, from observing the kinds of comments that have been made over the years, that many chapters have issues around local bureaucracy, funding, member and officer recruitment, and communication with the Foundation.
But of course I don't know everything there is to know about chapters. I have not followed many chapter debates closely, since I have not worked on chapter issues or been a member of one; and some of these debates are not public or not very accessible.
Therefore, rather than assuming I know what the current issues are, I would want to simply ask. As a Trustee, I'd be interested in gathering ideas, comments and information from all stakeholders in the chapters process: the current chapter members and boards, the ChapCom, the WMF staff and volunteers who work with chapters, and members of groups who would like to become a chapter. I describe this process under question #11.
question 4: chapter issue advocacy
If you are appointed to the board, what changes would you push forward to improve those issues and when could we expect to see results?
Given that I want to find out what those issues really are, rather than what I think they are, I wouldn't speculate. And so asking when you could see results is a little disingenuous; there's 10 seats on the Board, at best I'd occupy one of them, and without knowledge of what others think or what else is on the immediate agenda I find it hard to predict how well, or how quickly, any such advocacy would go over.
Having said that, not everything important to the chapters is a Board-level issue, of course. For instance, I know fundraising agreements are very important, but I believe that this is an issue that can be solved between the Foundation's fundraising team and the chapters. (Of course, I might be wrong about that).
I think we should revisit the question of whether it is helpful or appropriate to have ChapCom and chapter creation issues be under the Board or not. I don't know if this has been recently discussed, but it seems like a question worth periodically revisiting.
I also think the Board, as the body responsible for Wikimedia's long-term vision, has a duty to make sure Chapter support is written into the strategic plan that it will shortly approve, and that Chapters have a fair chance to give their input into this document.
Also see my answer to question #12; one area where the Board could potentially support Chapters is in supporting community groups.
Finally, my goal as Trustee would be to do my damndest to improve communication in all directions (see question #11). I would love to hear more ideas on how to do this.
question 5: historical landmarks
From your point of view, what are the historical landmarks in Chapter-Foundation relations?
I feel like I'm being quizzed on my knowledge of Wikimedia history! For ten points, please answer the following... this should definitely be a part of Wikimania trivia night, which I intend to make happen. July 10th, Gdansk Philharmonic. See you there.
Anyway, here are a few (not all) important landmarks, not in chronological order.
- The forming of Wikimedia Germany, as the original model of a national chapter;
- Wikimedia NYC forming, as the first subnational chapter;
- WM-DE hiring staff;
- ChapCom forming;
- Trademark guidelines and subsequent iterations;
- The chapters grant process from the Foundation;
- Chapters gaining two board seats.
question 6: latest chapter-wmf developments?
What are the latest developments in Chapter-Foundation relations?
Better fundraising support; as I understand it there were some novel fundraising agreements and technical solutions last time around. These still need a lot of work but at least it's a start. Many chapters have gotten approved recently, of course; some have not. The movement roles discussion is new, and I know that this will be a growing area of conversation. The chapters themselves have done some absolutely amazing things in outreach and program areas recently (image donations, academies, building political relationships, ads on subways...) though my sense is that these were done independently or even despite the Foundation, not necessarily with it as a partner.
I would like to see chapter developments be more widely publicized to everyone in Wikimedia; it's difficult to answer this question as a general community member.
question 7: improving chapter-wmf relations
If you are appointed to the board, what changes would you push forward to improve Chapter-Foundation relations and when could we expect to see results?
The first part of my answer to question #4 applies here. Speculation on my part is not terribly helpful.
I will say that I think it makes a lot of sense to have someone on the Board who is specifically knowledgeable about chapter issues and operations, and who can speak specifically to chapter needs in Board discussions. While I may not be your choice for that role, my answer to question #11 describes how I would go about doing this.
question 8: sister projects
What is your position regarding the sister projects other than Wikipedia?
My position is that we need to promote and support them more; many of the smaller projects are stagnating through lack of love. It is true that Wikipedia is by far the most recognizable and therefore the most resource-intensive and resource-generating project. That should only give Wikimedia further incentive to adequately support the other projects, however. If we cannot, someone else online with our values ought to instead.
Therefore, I think it's worth taking a community-wide look at the projects, and figuring out if we can adequately support them. For instance, I'd support at least talking about merging Wikispecies with Encyclopedia of Life, a similarly-oriented project with more resources behind it. For some of the projects, however, we have only just barely tapped their potential. The chapters and community should lead a "contribute to Wikibooks" campaign, for instance, and I certainly hope the Foundation would support it in the same way they might support a campaign for Wikipedia, complete with printing beautiful Wikibooks banners for press conferences, etc.
By the same token, I think we need to be cautiously open to new ideas for projects -- at a bare minimum, we need to improve and formalize the process for considering new projects (perhaps a petition on Meta, followed by discussion and refinement, followed by quarterly consideration of ideas by the Board, with a set list of criteria). While most of the projects I've seen brought up aren't really appropriate for Wikimedia, some might be. The most promising idea I've heard recently is for a children's encyclopedia, which I would support as fulfilling our mission.
question 9: global candidate
In what ways are you a global candidate and not only a candidate from your own language community?
I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with Wikimedians from all over the world at Wikimania and other settings, and as a consequence have seen the global diversity of the projects first-hand. I have learned (from many people, including a couple of our current Board members) how to work with people all around the globe, including how to contend with and be respectful of everything from time zones to cultural differences. This project has taught me what it's like to work in a truly international environment, and for that education I am immensely grateful.
On a larger scale, I think the multilingual and international nature of our projects is one of our -- perhaps our single greatest -- strength and accomplishment, and I very much support working on multilingual and small wiki issues. Other people (such as GerardM) are much more expert than me in what these issues are, and I would certainly want to talk to them. All I can say is I would try to make international issues Board priorities, finding out what the needs of the various languages are and acting to support them. (That goes for English too, by the way; thinking that I have a handle on what everyone on en:wp thinks, simply because it's my home community, is like assuming that all Americans agree about politics).
question 10: female participation
What can be done to attract more female participation to Wikipedia?
This is an important question that I don't have the answers to; I wish I did. There has been lots of speculation over the years as to why more women don't participate in Wikimedia; unfortunately most of what we have is anecdotal. It is not clear how many women do participate (the survey done last year said around 13% of editors are women) and it is not clear what implications that might have for the projects (site culture and systemic bias are two areas often brought up).
Suggestions for fixing the problem have in the past included:
- working on the site culture to stop tolerating (sometimes overt) sexism and harassment of female editors;
- actively recruiting more female editors to edit;
- along with this, building more of a support structure for female editors;
- working on article topics related to women.
We are hampered by a lack of knowledge, however, as to the causes for why more women don't edit -- undoubtedly some of the reasons are common to both genders of non-editors, but given the apparent disproportion some of the reasons may be unique. One way that the Board could address the issue is to commission research; there are a number of smart academic Wikipedia researchers (Andrea Forte & Joseph Reagle come to mind) who have thought about this question and how to approach it, and who may have insight.
I also think it would be helpful to raise awareness of the issue in the projects; this is a community-wide issue, and potential solutions can only be implemented in a widespread, bottom-up way. But solving this problem -- and other systemic bias issues -- is something we need to do, for the sake of strengthening our community and improving our content.
Supporting womens' involvement in Wikimedia is one of a class of problems that I'll call "grand challenges" -- problems that are difficult to measure and define, that impact all projects, and that have a multitude of potential, mostly untested, solutions. Grand challenges are complex, and cannot be solved by Board decree, Foundation staff involvement, or even community initiative if that initiative is not widespread. I would like to see the Board lead the way in raising awareness of these challenges -- perhaps beginning an open forum for research and discussion by many different groups, including outside researchers. We have discussed this idea in the context of WikiSym, and I hope that we can maybe begin such a project there with Wikimania participants.
question 11: how do you plan to work with chapters
How do you plan to work personally with chapters, planned chapters, and ChapCom?
My first goal and ongoing top priority would be to get a sense of what's actually going on in the communities (including the chapters), and what consensus exists around Board-level issues, needs and priorities. I would do this by:
- regular community IRC meetings (it would be cool to make this an ongoing community event, and I would try to get the other community Trustees involved);
- starting a place for general discussion, to go with these meetings; bringing regular discussion summaries to the Board's attention (I would need help finding and summarizing conversations from many communities; in an ideal world this would include summaries of mailing list discussions, village pump discussions, etc.);
- getting regular reports; I know many chapters do this, but from what I can tell (going by chapters-reports-l and the reports posted on Meta) not all chapters manage regular reports. It would also be nice to see some synthesis; for instance, it would be pretty great to see this page: http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikimedia_chapters/Summaries updated and given to the Board to provide guidance as to the types of issues plaguing chapters;
- meeting regularly with the executive boards of the chapters; you'dhave to advise me on the best way to do this;
- getting regular reports from ChapCom, and the other committees;
- and in turn, urging the Board to report the Board's activities much better and more quickly.
My great preference is to have as much of this be as open as possible; I don't want there to be a feeling of "an official meeting with constituents," but rather of improved regular lateral communication between our communities (this, too, is a grand challenge, but one I think we can meet with more structures and communication projects).
Having done all that, I expect to find:
- some intangible problems that Board decree or action might help with but cannot fix (like "communication"); consultation with other Board members would be needed to see whether the Board could or should address these issues;
- some need for specific Foundation actions that the staff can work on (such as fundraising agreements). These are not necessarily Board-level issues, but the Board can certainly present the results of its research and thinking to the Foundation, asking that concerns be addressed (the Board typically tries not to meddle in specific staff work however);
- a need for clarity and direction on particular issues that impact a wide group. In these cases (such as with trademarks) the Board may debate the issue, getting input from many groups, and finally issue a resolution directing the Foundation to take specific action.
I believe that the Board also has a core responsibility to make sure that various parts of the community have input into governance, including strategic planning.
Finally, of course, the Board does currently approve chapters and ChapCom membership; the Board should be in continual consultation not just with ChapCom but also with the chapters and chapters-to-be to make sure the process is working.
My guiding principle in all of this is that the Board's scope is limited; there are many, many decisions and issues that are resolved in the communities with no Board input. The Board needs to collectively look out for the big picture, and address the broad issues that affect everyone.
question 12: subnational chapters
What are your opinions regarding chapters that represent something other than a regular country (eg. sub-national chapters, language/culture-based groups, etc.)?
As a resident of a country that will probably only have subnational chapters for the forseeable future, I feel the need to take them seriously. I am less familiar with the discussions around language & culture based groups, but they could make sense for similar reasons, especially in large and diverse places.
I am also an advocate for thinking about other structures besides chapters that may be more appropriate in a particular location. We should consider alternate structures besides a formal legally approved organization -- perhaps organizations that are only recognized internally by Wikimedia. For instance, such non-chapter community groups could be an intermediate stage between a couple of Wikipedians getting together at a pub and forming a full legal entity in a country. There are many places in the world (Brasil, San Francisco) where the community may not yet be ready or able or willing to form a legal organization on a national scale, on the chapters model. But these same community groups have needs for resources (much like the chapters) that the existing structure can help with. Recognized community groups could, for instance, ask the Foundation for:
- Wikimedia-branded materials (stickers, etc) for the purposes of outreach, events, member gifts, etc.
- help with best-practices (in doing outreach, giving presentations, etc); and in turn recognition for their projects;
- small amounts of funding ("mini-grants") for projects.
These needs could be fulfilled in part by the community at large and in part by dedicating some Foundation resources to the project -- it's really easier if the Foundation prints stickers in bulk, for instance, and it is surprising how often I've found that small community groups simply need this kind of low-key support. This could be the kind of issue where the Board directs the Foundation to build a structure (such as devoting some staff time to working with these groups), in line with the strategic goal of increasing editor involvement.
Figuring out how to best support community groups is not strictly a Board or Chapters issue, of course, but the issue impacts both and should be important to both. For instance, if the goal is to build more chapters around the world (and I think it should be) such an intermediate process could be a way of developing the community infrastructure to make new chapters possible. If the goal is to strengthen the real-world community around the projects (and I think it should be) such small groups would also help with this.
Thank you. -- phoebe