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A personal statement on WMF development issues[edit]

I originally posted a version of this elsewhere in 2017, in a 'How to measure "Wiki projects requesting beta features and other early deployments" ' thread; but that discussion was closed without any resolution or action.

As a new Tech Ambassador (between WMF and en.Wikipedia), though a Wikimedian since 2005, there are some concerns I expect to be trying to mediate (and which I may share to an extent). The dominant one is that much WMF attention and dev time is aimed at "new gizmos" when some core problems in basic functionality have been reported for a decade or longer and remain unresolved (e.g. task T6521 is high on the list of editor concerns, causing real problems and serious disputes, but apparently arousing very little dev or Foundation interest). The more Phabricator time is spent on "polishing chrome" and the less on making the basic functionality of our MediaWiki system work better, the less interest and faith the WMF community (and particular project communities) collectively have in what's being developed and offered to them. Even making the basic look-and-feel of the key sites [I mean that in a public userbase sense, not a value judgement one] like Wikipedia, Wiktionary, and Commons seem more 2018 and less 2004 is probably a higher priority to the average editor and reader than many of the development projects that are ongoing for new beta features. I have many of those features (and Gadgets that used to be Beta features) turned on, but few of them make a crucial difference to either my editing or reading experiences; I seriously doubt I'm unusual in this.

It's also not clear that everyone with "(WMF)" in their username who posts about such things to places like w:en:Wikipedia:Village pump is there to listen rather than just tell when it comes to what WMF is planning on the tech development side. Just the fact that part of one of the discussion among the WMF tech people on Meta was about "cross-wiki feature haters" is illustrative of the issue. That kind of characterization isn't helpful, both in that it's dismissive of the concerns raised, and it's a false dichotomy – for every feature that someone hates, they probably love a dozen, and would love to see a dozen more. The editors are not WMF's or the devs' enemies; they just don't think every idea that every dev or every WMF employee comes up with is automatically golden, nor that new feature ideas trump resolving long-standing problems.

One thing that's unclear even to tech-oriented Wikipedians and such, on average, is exactly how much input and influence the Foundation has over what the devs do. There's a general perception, for example, that WMF – with all its tens of millions of dollars in reserve – can throw some money at a problem or a want and get results. It's not well-understood to what extent this idea is valid, nor how to affect the process. Most of the coding work on MediaWiki and related software appears to be volunteer labor – Phabricator says so explicitly – though WMF has clearly devoted actual money to some projects, like Flow and Visual Editor. Maybe it's time to grease the wheels a bit.

I also think this ties into a long-standing WMF organizational lifecycle problem, of operating like a software company with a userbase instead of like public-interest nonprofit with a constituency. This is a common problem that I've see before in other tech non-profits like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and CryptoRights Foundation (and helped them get past – I worked at both during the key periods). It's primarily a symptom of the founders, the executives, the board, and most hires all coming from the software world. A vital change in tech-nonprofit management and development is to shift all of these things (aside from the founders, with whom we're stuck >;-) toward more diversity in experience and thinking.
 — SMcCandlish ¢ >ʌⱷ҅ʌ<  01:03, 7 July 2018 (UTC)

Update: As of April 2019, I am resigning as a WMF Tech Ambassador, because I don't feel the situation is improving, but worsening. It's gotten to the point where I feel my concern for – my allegiance to, if you will – the English Wikipedia community, and some others, including Commons and Wiktionary, and the work they produce for the world, is altogether more important than any interest I might have in helping WMF convince editorial communities like them to go along with the technical and other decisions the umbrella organization is making. These decisions are often made with insufficient community consultation, and often appear to be foregone conclusions, with any community input treated as rote noise entertained just to say that it was done. I.e., WMF is still (perhaps even more) behaving like a software company with customers instead of like an important NGO with a constituency, as outlined above. I don't think this will be any different until there's a sea change in WMF's board and senior staff, toward people with deep experience in the nonprofit world, and away from tech-industry backgrounds. (I say that as someone deeply steeped in both worlds; I'm advocating balance, not pointing fingers.)

In short, being a WMF TA has become a form of conflict of interest for me. I too often find myself agreeing with en.WP and other community critics of something that WMF is doing or proposing than willing to back up WMF and its choices.
 — SMcCandlish ¢ >ʌⱷ҅ʌ<  22:28, 23 April 2019 (UTC)