User:The Land/Why do They always do It wrong

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This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of one Wikimedian and may or may not have wide support. Feel free to use the discussion page to discuss the contents.
Why are They always doing It wrong? – A reflection on community dynamics

In every community-driven organisation I have worked in over the last 15 years, the relationship between “centre” (the paid staff and the board supervising them) and the “community” has been a challenging one. Even when relationships between individuals are friendly, angry discussions in public fora are common, and trust between different groups gets eroded over time.[1]

This essay aims to set out some fundamental reasons why this is so often the case, even at times when it is no-one’s fault in particular; and makes some suggestions on how to handle "WMF-Community" discussions to mitigate it.

The basic dynamic[edit]

Volunteers in a movement spend a great deal of their spare time and energy working towards the movement’s goals. They do this because they care about the success and the impact of those projects, and usually because they share the vision the movement has[2]. For the most committed contributors (and usually, it is the most committed people who take part in community-level discussions), Wikimedia is an important part of our lives.

So volunteers care a lot about many decisions within the movement, both small and large. Personally I care about issues ranging from the Wikimedia Foundation's strategic direction and the likely state of the movement in 20 years, through issues like how well the Visual Editor works, right down to whether to use a hyphen when naming articles about classes of warships. To use the language of Stephen Covey, all of these issues are within my "circle of concern".[3]

However, some of these decisions are (in whole or part) the responsibility of either the Wikimedia Foundation board or their staff. I have less influence, for instance, over what WMF strategy is than what articles I'm working on are named. I have even less ability to affect how well Visual Editor works. These issues are outside my "circle of influence".

This mismatch between what I care about and what I have power over is pretty inevitable. This naturally produces negative emotions, when I disagree with what is happening or when I am concerned about what I think might happen in future.

In summary: The WMF causes worry and frustration for Wikimedia volunteers, simply by existing.

In case anyone thinks this is a specific criticism of WMF - I think the same dynamic underlies relationships in many comparable organisations. Also I think it is true regardless of the objective quality of the decisions that are being made.[4]

It is also the case that some staff often have quite different perspectives, experiences and communication styles to many community members. This probably complicates things and occasionally contributes to problems - though it's probably mitigated by the fact that many staff members also contribute in volunteer roles as well. However, I don't think this can be the main reason, because attitudes towards (or assumptions about) individuals change very sharply when they cross over from being a 'regular community member' to being a board member or staff member.

A spectrum of motivation levels[edit]

A volunteer's opinion about the behaviour of the staff (and board) on any particular issue can probably be found somewhere on this spectrum.

  1. Actively enthusiastic: “This is great! Good job guys!”
  2. Accepting: “I guess that’s OK. They probably know what they are doing.”
  3. Questioning decisions: “That’s not how I would have done it.”
  4. Questioning competence: “Whoever thought THAT was a good idea, clearly knows nothing about X.”
  5. Questioning values: “Clearly they think we should be more like Google – that’s the only way to explain what they’re doing.”
  6. Assuming personal rejection: “Clearly they don’t care about all the effort we put in to this project! We mean nothing to them!”

Because of the basic dynamic, it’s very easy for volunteers' views to slide down this scale with alarming rapidity.

This might seem silly, but on occasion in my role as a nonprofit staff member I’ve fielded calls and emails from volunteers assuming that I’d done something that I thought was perfectly innocent, but they interpreted as a great personal slight or even an attempt to get them to leave the organisation. And sillier, given the benefit of that experience, I have at times found myself making similar assumptions about WMF staff (like the occasion when I threatened to tear up my Eurostar ticket before the 2012 fundraising & funds dissemination summit...)

I have also noticed that negative expectations can be a big problem in their own right. Thinking back to the big fundraising & funds dissemination debate in 2011-12, I can remember (otherwise sensible) people in Wikimedia chapters concluding or assuming that Sue Gardner not only wanted to stop chapters processing payments (which she did) but also that she was planning to remove the chapter-selected members from the WMF board (no sign that I ever saw) or indeed abolish Wikimedia chapters entirely (pure fantasy). "What are They going to do next??" is often a strong and irrational question occupying peoples' minds.

What to do about it?[edit]

How can we keep a positive relationship between WMF and community in the face of this inherent challenge? What can we possibly do?

Well, quite a lot actually.

For community members[edit]

This essay isn’t aimed principally at community members, but still, here is some advice.

Where possible, try to think (and express views) at a higher level on my list above.

It is not very likely that a member of WMF staff or Board has got out of bed today with the objective of making volunteers’ lives miserable. It is equally unlikely that they no longer care about the values of the movement they’ve chosen to work in.

More likely, they are a reasonable person who has broadly the same ultimate objectives in mind as you do. Ask yourself what problem you think someone is trying to solve – and if you can’t see something, ask them directly. There is plenty of scope for discussion about what the problems actually are and how to actually solve them. You are more likely to change peoples' minds if you put your points across in a thoughtful and calm way.

Also, please don't get too hung up on the wording people use. Occasionally people who live in California say things like "I want to reach out to you on my personal journey of transparency": it might read like corporate nonsense speak, but there is a positive intention behind it that deserves to be recognised.[5]

For the WMF staff and Board[edit]

I believe that how WMF (both board and staff) approach conversations with the community is crucial to the overall success of the movement. The WMF has a greater level of power in the relationship, and also usually has more time to think about things.

Sometimes one hears criticism of “the community” for being particularly difficult to work with, and it's certainly true that some community members do not express disagreement constructively, and sometimes individuals go well over the mark of what is acceptable. But don't forget that for every one hostile person communicating in an angry manner, there will be at least 10 with more nuanced views reading with great interest but not posting. One of the best things you can do to influence those people is to follow these principles.

So how to do it?

Essentially, you need to make it as easy as possible for community members to follow the advice I’ve just given.

More specifically, here are some concrete steps to take in handling community discussions. I have certainly seen the WMF do all of them at various times but not always consistently or taken together. So far as I can see,

  1. Recognise that “oxygen” in community discussions is limited, and that you should only take it up with things that matter.
  2. When you identify an important conversation to have, be as clear as you can about what problem you are trying to solve. What is currently not working, or not working as well as it could?
  3. Be open to alternative solutions, and indeed to alternative formulations of the problem. You should probably propose a solution (or at least a direction for a solution). However do not become too personally invested in your proposal as it should really be a starting point for a conversation. Generally, I suggest approaching any issue in the Wikimedia movement as an integrative negotiation[6]. When someone is saying “no” to a specific change you are proposing, it may well be that they are equally unhappy with the status quo as you are but differently unhappy.
  4. Take ownership of the need for change. It is much less intimidating to disagree with a named person on a particular issue, than to get the vague sense that Someone Over There Is Planning Something Bad.
  5. As a corollary of 3), create adequate time and space for the conversation to happen. Clearly signal where this discussion should happen and why. Then participate in it. It is always helpful to contribute at least a little, just to make it clear you are reading what is being said.
    1. It is generally helpful for staff or board members to contribute with their personal views and perspectives on an issue. Sometimes people are nervous about doing this because they feel they should only be talking to communicate the WMF's agreed position (which is, after all, how most people would be expected to behave in many organisations). In our situation, this kind of non-signed-off dialogue is vital because a) real people having an actual conversation avoids the WMF turning into the amorphous Them, b) it helps bring to light what the real issues that need to be addressed are, and c) simply responding (even if with polite disagreement) validates the contribution that community members are making.
    2. Avoid dominating the conversation. You do not need to respond to every point made.
  6. Be clear about what formal decisions will be needed and by whom. Some things will end up being decided by the WMF Board, others by staff members, others are entirely driven by community consensus. There is no harm saying "after this conversation has happened, X will make a decision informed by the results" if it is in fact X's responsibility. Some people would probably prefer it not to be X's responsibility, but even so this is certainly better than leaving the decision in the hands of a nebulous Them.
  7. Avoid using the power you have to simply impose an outcome. This triggers every bad response imaginable from volunteers.
  8. Acknowledge the value of other peoples’ contributions (both to the debate and, if necessary, to the whole movement). If you are following the advice I'm giving then you will be behaving in a way that does this, which is more important than simply stating it. But there's no harm stating it occasionally either.

Specifically for the WMF Board[edit]

The Wikimedia Foundation Board has a particularly important role in supporting the WMF-Community relationship. Essentially, a strong Board acts as a sort of reservoir of trust for community members. If WMF staff are (or appear to be) getting It wrong, then it is reassuring to feel that the Board are more in touch with community feeling and ensure that They won't ultimately do anything too stupid.

This makes it particularly important that the Board itself follows the principles I set out above wherever it can.

Of course, Board members face particular challenges in doing so. You are trying to do this in your spare time. You are trying to balance the need to scrutinise what the executive leadership are doing, with giving them the space to do their job. You don't want to be intervening in operational discussions. You are quite a diverse group of people operating across different timezones and many of you are not working in your first language. The issues you deal with are more likely to attract legal liability for the Foundation if you get them wrong, which makes it more difficult for you to speak openly about some of the things you are doing.

However, none of this means it's impossible. On important movement issues (the ones that take up Board and Executive Director time) I urge the Board to take as much of my advice as the situation allows.

Some examples[edit]

I intend to come back to this list and expand it in future - suggestions to improve this section are welcome. But here are some examples to illustrate why this is important.[7]

Image Filter. This was a 2011 proposal to give readers the ability to turn off various images on Wikipedias that they might find offensive.

This failed spectacularly on point 1. It wasn't necessarily a silly idea. However, it was very poorly aligned with the WMF strategic goals so was a poor conversation to enter.
It also failed on point 3. Many people in the community felt it wasn't actually a problem at all (indeed, many felt that the proposed solution itself went against some important community values). Even after this was clear, the WMF launched a consultation about "what kind of image filter do we want" that didn't react to concerns about whether it should be done at all.
Also didn't score highly on 5. The WMF approached it initially as a case of the Board makes a decision and the ED implements it. Then once the scale of opposition became clear, the Board and ED had no option but to ditch the whole thing.

Fundraising and funds dissemination This was a conversation about whether Chapters should participate in the annual Wikimedia fundraising campaign. For me (and many others) this conversation was eye-opening, and the movement collectively learned a lot from it.

This scored quite well on point 1. There were two important issues. Firstly, were dozens of chapters operationally well-placed to conduct fundraising activity; secondly, was the chapter-fundraising model doing a good job of allocating funds in the Wikimedia movement. It was a conversation that definitely needed to be had.
That said, the conversation started off very badly with months of hints that Something Bad Was Going To Happen, followed by the "Haifa Letter". This confirmed that Something Bad was indeed happening, but without any clarity as to what exactly, or indeed how that conversation was going to progress, or whether the WMF was going to pay any attention to anyone else's views.
Actually, looking back on it, the letter is fairly good at defining the problem and establishing ownership (points 2 & 4). It does however look like a big violation of point 7, and it lacks any sign that steps 3, 5 and 6 and 8 were going to be followed.
However, things got better. In particular, subsequent communications from Jan-Bart (the then Chair) and Sue Gardner (the then-ED) made it clear that a) there was a conversation to be had and b) there were a range of possible outcomes under consideration[8]. Board members started talking about their personal perspectives on the issue (point 5.1). There was even a special mini-conference about the issue. It did feel at times like the WMF staff were trying to bury everyone else's views with lengthy documents containing arguable facts (dominating the conversation - 5.2) but generally people came out of the conversation feeling there were stronger relationships between WMF and Chapters than there were when we all went into it.

Superprotect - the 2014 feature that stopped the German Wikipedia admins working around the WMF's desire to enable a new Media Viewer feature. This is particularly important for point 7. Sometimes while you can force something through, it is a really bad idea to do so.


  1. Like many people in our movement I have worn many hats. In case you're curious, mine are as follows. Within the Wikimedia movement - editor since 2004 and chapter board member since 2011. Outside of it - I started volunteering for a political party in 1997, joined their staff as a local organiser for them in 2002, and worked in their head office from 2006-2010, all the while serving on one or more volunteer committees. I've also worked for a number of membership organisations as a staff member since then.
  2. People are complicated, so volunteers usually have other motivations as well - for instance, feeling that writing articles or taking photos is rewarding creative self-expression; valuing the recognition they get from other community members; and so on. These things contribute towards someone's sense of involvement in the movement, not replacing it
  3. This language was introduced in Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". A summary of this particular point is here.
  4. I am part of a political party that was doing fairly well ten or fifteen years ago but has done really catastrophically badly over the last five years; the tone of comments from volunteers has got no more positive or negative over that time that I can see. Indeed, in more than a few cases the same people are making almost exactly the same comments and criticisms as they were 10 or 15 years ago. I won’t claim this is conclusive proof, but it does lead me to believe that what we are often seeing is a fundamental dynamic of community organisations, not passing incompetence by staff members (and equally not some uniquely difficult culture among Wikimedians).
  5. If you do find yourself writing like this (perhaps you've been taught to) then I recommend George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language". Modern corporate-speak is different in detail but not in essence from the phrases Orwell critiques. Also, because Orwell was writing before social media was a thing, the TL:DR version with the five simple rules is right at the end of the essay.
  6. The Wikipedia article on this isn't great, have a look at this essay as well.
  7. I'm not claiming all of these are new observations. Much of this section just describes ways the WMF has learned from some of these situations and done things better in consequence.
  8. Jan-Bart's statement here and Sue's here