Wikimedia Foundation Chief Executive Officer/Maryana’s Listening Tour/The Puzzles

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Puzzles and Priorities | Reflections from Maryana’s Listening Tour

Section 1: The Puzzles[edit]

Puzzle 1: What does the world need from us now?[edit]

Maryana Iskander Listening Tour at Wiki Naija

The only topic in all of my conversations with unanimous consensus was the urgent need for our work – and now more than ever before. As misinformation grows and polarization intensifies across societies globally, the Wikimedia projects remain committed to principles of open knowledge and neutrality. There is no doubt about the necessity and urgency of our contributions. The world needs us to succeed.

“We are the world. What we do is… big. And yet, we are extremely small. We need to assess our impact, and work on getting more people to believe in our cause. Here, there and everywhere. We have been bad at this, at being here, there and everywhere.”

I was not surprised to find that the consensus narrowed once conversations moved beyond the importance of our mission. I heard some say they “live in fear that we are going to be left behind” and others express alarm that “we are in a bubble that impedes innovation.” Nearly every conversation touched on our social purpose to advocate for free knowledge while also staying focused on core technology projects to write an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit – in ways that truly represent the sum of all knowledge across the diversity of our societies.

Our mission has never been more critical for the world: knowledge and information are more weaponized than ever before… we can fight this in the right way.

I noticed that it can be convenient to say that our mission is too big and too complex for any meaningful consensus or action…on anything. Yet, I heard a shared sentiment that the 2030 movement strategy can light a path: “I went from thinking that the Movement Strategy process was total madness to now believing it is the only way it can be done. What was done was remarkable.”

As we move into implementation, the collective puzzle to solve is how to make sure that what we decide to do now is what the world needs from us, not what we think is needed. Our priorities must match and respond to what we see and learn from the world around us.

A worrying number of people shared with me that “we have a very insular view of the world” and that we can be “too inward looking…a false oasis that is not engaging enough with the outside world.” Many said that we need to ask more hard questions like: “Are we still relevant compared to so many other online platforms? Why would people come to us? How easy is our technology to use?” When I probed further, I heard: “On some very emotive issues, we have no baseline data.”

Every movement engaged in societal change faces this same dilemma. How to be inventive, relevant and responsive to what the world actually needs? How to accelerate the pace of testing, failing, learning and repeating? How to measure impact, not initiatives and activities?

Our work is more important now than ever before. How can we ensure that our priorities and goals respond to the needs of the world we serve?

Puzzle 2: Making all contributions count[edit]

Wikimedia projects represent a global movement with diverse and varied community-building investment and activity happening every single day, all over the world. I asked whether we had an equivalent metric, like the edit count, to understand the value of this contribution?

“We don't and we should… I don't think the movement has ever established a principle of parity among all kinds of contributions, or if we ever did, we sure did a terrible job at proving we believe in it.”

Maryana Iskander's listening tour stop with Portuguese and Spanish speaking communities

Volunteers, especially from emerging communities, spoke about their struggle with the “tradeoff between editing and investing time in community creation/formation.” Mechanisms for trying to share community-building contributions are described as manual, time-consuming, and not scalable: “For my user group and as a community organiser/coordinator, we always documented our activities and projects on Meta by creating ‘landing pages’ that document work done and state people's roles in projects. It is so much work to do this, and somehow it still boils down to edit counts in Meta.”

For me, the puzzle is that so much of our 2030 strategy implementation – to advance knowledge equity, innovate in free knowledge, grow our global reach, diversity and impact – will require contributions that take many different forms beyond edit counts. Yet, we don’t seem to have a highly movement-aligned understanding of how to measure and value these contributions. Without this, how will we know if our significant investments are delivering results? What to scale further because it is working? What to stop because it is not working?

“We have the same shared struggles across communities: it is difficult to recruit, retain and keep people motivated. [Yet] our experience is that experienced editors are actually not good at recruiting new editors.”

Volunteers who contribute by inviting newcomers into the movement, especially newcomers who may be in the margins, describe these challenges:

Poster from Wikiarabia Algeria 2021

“Providing open information is a radical act. Anyone from marginalized communities can recognize the importance of having representation in content… But we need to approach this from the perspective of the ‘needs of the society’ – we are competing with other social movements that capture people’s time and attention. Neutrality doesn’t mean we can’t have a view on anything… we can stand for our values in a more active way.”

“Too many women have left the movement because they have felt uncomfortable…This cannot be left to the communities.”

“Globally, acceptance of the LGBT+ culture and community varies… Generally it isn’t safe for everyone to contribute on queer topics. We need to be clear on the bias and where it exists.”

“We need a long view here because people need to know we exist before we can ask them to be contributors. But also awareness will not lead to more editors if the experience of harassment is what people come into when they decide to join.”

“Volunteering in our context is so different. How dare we present our work as ‘urgent’ when people are dealing with much more difficult issues like the basics of food, water, safety? We don’t make our work relevant by connecting it to these more urgent issues – like using our platforms to highlight a relevant social issue first, and then inviting people into our movement through that, not just saying it is important for them to edit in general.”

This complex puzzle will require our best thinking along with the bravery to try radically new ideas. How do communities shape the capacity and support they need for growth, impact and sustainability? How are volunteer leaders at all levels empowered to chart their trajectory of skills training and professional development? How do we make the trust and safety of every single contributor a foundational pillar, not just a project to be implemented?

We are the possible factor of change here, by giving new data and tools to communities, to just go beyond the edit count.

Puzzle 3: A human-led, tech-enabled movement must be strongly ‘tech-enabled’[edit]

Our projects are founded on the revolutionary idea that anyone, anywhere can contribute collaboratively and in real-time to the sum of all human knowledge. 20 years later, hundreds of thousands of contributors have delivered on this promise of the Internet. This has powerful lessons and insights for society’s leaders, policymakers, and other online platforms around the world.

Maryana Iskander speaking with Wikimedia CEE community

Yet, our actual product and technology struggles to keep up. This puzzle may be the most frustrating because most people I heard from agreed about the problems, not the solutions:

“Every day the gap is getting bigger between our technology and what is cutting edge in the world… it can take years to onboard someone in our technology, which is absolutely crazy compared to how fast the rest of the world is moving.”

“We have 20 years of technical debt. We could spend the next 20 years just fixing what we have… I have watched the budget continue to increase each year, but the technical debt doesn’t get dealt with, despite more resources.”

“We have not unlocked the true power of being ‘open source’ – how to get the benefit of third parties contributing to speed and innovation.”

“We aren’t accessing the places where real intellectual debates are happening (e.g., Facebook, Whatsapp, WeChat) because our platform isn’t modern/flexible enough for it. Big loss.”

A history of prioritizing ‘New Feature’ development over ‘Existing Feature’ maintenance means we have constantly competing priorities between cleaning up technical debt and focusing on the future of our technology.

On these issues, there is no shortage of opinions about our priorities, resource allocation, and roadmap. I heard that we may be ‘too unique’ for industry benchmarks, and that we have ‘too little data’ to really assess the return on our investments. Some said that the “undercurrent of why we can’t move on technology innovation is that volunteers are basically saying: ‘I am used to doing it this way. Leave me alone.’” While others believe that poor product and technology rollouts have created “resistance to change and friction.”

I understand that the Wikimedia Foundation has a central role to play in shaping and enabling the product and technical infrastructure that is core to every aspect of our mission. While we can’t solve this puzzle alone, I can take accountability for the leadership, focus, and clarity that is needed to begin closing the gap between where we are and where we need to be.

Puzzle 4: Multilingual in name only?[edit]

Remarkably, Wikimedia supports more languages than any other online platform in the world. I met volunteers from all regions of the world who are innovating across so many dimensions of language – from the digital preservation of endangered languages to developing tools that can scale knowledge across languages.

The massive multilingualism of the movement is a great strength that is often overlooked. Some of the best insights are from people who aren’t speaking English.

Yet, the puzzle is that our movement runs almost entirely on the dominance of the English language. While we are not the only group to face this challenge, it comes with opportunity costs to our social and encyclopedic purpose:

“As long as we don't have live translations into at least several major international languages at each of our meetings, we're cherry picking the existing human capital.”

“‘We listen to the ones ‘who shout the loudest’ means that we tend to listen more in English than in other languages. If we point out that there is a discussion at [a non-English] Wikipedia where people are upset, this doesn’t have the same weight as … the sentiment in the English conversations.”

Maryana Iskander meeting with French-speaking community

“It has now become extremely difficult to create a new article related to our parts of the world, and many/most of the admin/bureaucrats (especially of the larger, more-significant Wikipedias) seem to be unable to understand what is the relevance of the themes we are trying to create articles on. This pushes a lot of us into wanting to stop contributing, as deletionism seems to be getting the upper hand. It is very demoralising…”

“There seem to be unaddressed problems of systemic bias, because of one-size-fits-all approaches like print-based or online citations needed… How does the bulk of the planet come up with citations, print references, online entries to back up its knowledge, when most of humankind hasn't even seen a reporter enter their village, doesn't have a printing press for maybe a hundred or more kilometres away from them, and has never been ‘researched' by any academic – global, national or local in all their history?”

“The balance of control of the knowledge flows globally is getting increasingly skewed … because if decisions are primarily taken through the eyes of North America and Western Europe, the result as a whole is not going to be very globally representative. I am not suggesting merely taking on more decision-makers from the so-called "Global South" (they could be a privileged lot themselves), but the whole process through which information flows are mediated and controlled needs to be made more neutral and open.”

How can our movement better reflect the language diversity of our projects? How can we open our doors widely to more equitable decision-making?

Puzzle 5: Projects and organisations[edit]

Early on, I asked for help to learn more about the founding pillars of Wikimedia projects, about the organisational values of the Wikimedia Foundation, and about what led to prior successes and failures throughout our 20-year history. What emerged for me is the circular puzzle of how best to run and manage the centralised institutions of a decentralised, volunteer-led movement?

This question gets asked in many different ways: is the Wikimedia Foundation more like a non-profit development organisation or a technology company? What is the role of affiliated entities like chapters or user groups? How do we account for the majority of ‘unaffiliated’ volunteers who power our projects?

These issues then become layered with views about the power and trust relationship between movement actors, including (but not only) the Foundation and communities. How should decisions be made? How should resources be shared? In my experience, these are familiar debates across many volunteer-led social movements around the world.

In our context, I am learning that some dynamics are about fundamental values, structure and power-sharing: “We operate by the tyranny of the majority – consensus – this is not good enough.” “Transparency is a tool, not a value. What is the end goal of what we need transparency for – to build trust or to what end?” “Capacity is the issue, not resources. We are volunteers – giving us money doesn’t give us time.”

While other issues are about performance and execution: “Too much focus on governance, not actual enablement of people and projects.” “What is the focus of the Wikimedia Foundation today? It is totally unclear.” “We are never willing to turn things off, shut things down or stop doing anything.”

The puzzle is how to build convergence between our divergent organisational forms and in support of our movement strategy. How do we draw on similar pillars and principles even though our organisations cannot be run like our projects? How does our diversity (of every possible form) remain the catalyst for what it takes to create – not just imagine – a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge?

These five puzzles represent complex challenges that can only be solved through shared commitments and joint action. They are not a manifesto or a to-do list – instead, they form the basis for my incoming priorities listed below.

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