Year One at the Wikimedia Foundation

Hairy, scary, and quite contrary.

What a year. When I published my two month reflection we had our Executive Director recently leave the organization after concern and frustration over their leadership, a sizable number of co-workers left related to the internal difficulties, and a sizable chunk of our bigger communities were rightfully antagonistic toward the foundation. It’s amazing we got anything done. 🙂

But we did, in spite of it all. I look back at just the teams I work with and can see a marked improvement in the trust in leadership, community relationships, and the actual products we develop and deliver to help folks around the projects.

I’m also encouraged by the formalization of the support community liaisons offer communities and product teams. We’re learning from our mistakes – not all the time, not everywhere – but we’ve built up some intrinsic knowledge on what to do, what not to do, and how to succeed when working with volunteers in the movement.

This is another reflection – mostly a ramble – to help me see what has happened and prepare for what is next. Enjoy, if that’s your sort of thing.

Scope

One of the complexities of the Wikimedia movement has recently dawned on me. The movement is vast, like ALL OF HUMANITY-level vast. Anyone with Internet access can be part of it. That’s a lot of voices.

Within the movement there are groups, some tightly affiliated like chapters and user groups, other loosely affiliated around a subject or interests (like maps or COI concerns), and then the multitude of affiliations any individual can muster in their contributions. From wiki gnomes to adopters of typos, to uploads of freely licensed cultural artifacts, to folks to take thousands of photos of video game paraphernalia.

A lot of time these are not separate groups. They overlap and intermingle. There are also editors that are not self-defined members of any group(s).

Then there’s the Wikimedia Foundation. About 285 people trying to understand and respond to the needs of all the above. And prioritize, and accomplish constantly progressing goals.

The scope of needs from the community is inherently diverse – we are a diverse movement and richer for it! 3D files, maps, better vandal tools, anti-harassment, GLAM, reading, mobile, editing, translation…the list goes on.

I sometimes worry that we (the foundation) are small, making it hard to focus on what to take care of next. I grapple with my own agency in the organization and the responsibilities to the teams I support. There’s so much to be done.

To compound that there is a feeling that we have hired volunteers from the community to work on things that interest them, further exacerbating the disconnect between what the communities wants and what we can deliver. What individual engineers like may be different that what the community wants. I’d like to think that the overwhelming majority of the work we do is a direct result of what the community needs and wants, but every once in a while I hear of something that doesn’t make sense to me – I fully admit this could be due to a simple lack of understating on my part.

What the community wants might even be, dare I say, boring and hard to rally the troops around. That can be tough to take on when there are so many shiny and interesting things just in arms reach.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we’re maturing in many ways and initiatives like the Community Tech team are a marked improvement. This is just a little thing in the back of my mind I’m bringing forward here.

An aside, I sometimes worry about us shying away from work that appears to be impossibly challenging – like say a single responsive design for MediaWiki. I also worry, as I myself have discovered, that once we hire volunteers it is rather hard to keep being a volunteer! I know my own participation in the MediaWiki Stakeholders’ group has waned in the last year, with the only significant contribution being attending and presenting at a few conferences.

It’s like anything you enjoy becoming your work, at the end of a long day you sometimes just want to put that aside and do something else.

Transparency

I think the way the grant information (and project in general) around Structured Data on Commons is an exemplary case of openness, proper early communication, and quick honest reply to community inquiry regarding details of the grant and otherwise. I think since our new ED has settled in we’re starting to be a little more open and less “gun-shy” in how we operate. I’m encouraged daily by particular staff and community members that keep us honest and remind us of the value of transparency. Many of the folks I work with know how to push on this facet of our movement in a constructive and collegiate way that makes taking that step into the open possible.

Toward a Healthier Community

I still am worried about folks who closely identify their sense of identity/self-worth/value with their contributions to the movement. I think we have many folks who are less than satisfied in other areas of life – or solely find satisfaction in the movement – who persist in our projects. I feel no ill will toward these folks, but genuine concern for their well-being. 1

Sometimes conversations can be frustrating. People on both sides can feel like they’re explaining something to a teenager – lots of talk, trying to make a convincing argument, but sometimes they listen and sometimes they just have to experience the situation themselves before learning.

I think we value too strongly contributions over behavior. While the traditional ‘workplace’ analogies have many flaws in an open and expansive movement like Wikimedia, I do think that if you’re not someone I can work with, I don’t want to work with you. Regardless of how smart, capable, experienced, etc. Life’s too short.

I think about my own experiences as a volunteer in other capacities. I’ve been part of a few communities for only a short time not because I wasn’t interested in the cause, but because the individuals participating were not kind to others – new comers in particular. That removes any emotional energy I could be using elsewhere.

However, I’m often commended by community and staff for remaining level-headed even in some of the challenging conversations that have ensued in the last year. That’s not to brag, but to say that even after a year I’m not yet a cynical husk of my former self. 🙂

The nice folks that I can get along with outnumber any grumps. I’ve even been surprised by how ‘the brightest burn fastest’ – that folks who skew toward extremes often burn out faster than those who follow the slow and steady.

My involvement in the Code of Conduct has been small, but sometimes frustrating. Some folks don’t like it. A lot more do. I recently caught this video from Raph Koster as he talked about the responsibilities involved in hosting online communities. It’s pretty much exactly why I think the behavioral side of our movement is so important.

Diversity

It’s interesting to me, as a college-educated, straight, white, dude in the mid-west, how often I find myself in conversations with folks not like me. It’s incredibly refreshing. I grew up in a poor, rural, very white county. The diversity in backgrounds, experiences, and voices is amazing. I’m using the meaning of that word in the literal sense – “Fill with astonishment”. It makes my own work better, the output of my team more nuanced, and the impact we have shows more care.

We need more of it and I’m happy to see that not only is my employer committed to it, but many efforts across the movement are as well.

Strategy

In the last year (and in particular the last few months) I’ve tried to be more aware and involved in discussions about strategy. From our quarterly goals, to annual planning, to strategy-wide discussions on the future of the movement. I have what I think is a decent understanding of what strategy is and why it is important, but never fully felt involved in how strategy is developed in any of the past organizations I worked for.

It’s not my strong suit. I feel like I’m very much a tactical “keep things running smoothly” kind of person, so expanding my knowledge on strategy and annual planning has been challenging. We have an internal study group and one of the suggestions was to read a book called the Starfish and the Spider. I thought it was a good read and helpful to understand the conundrums of being part of a spider organization that supports a starfish organization. 2

Work is Weird

I still struggle with understanding the norms of professionalism in the organization. I’m encouraged by the organization’s support of allowing employees to contribute to participate as volunteers – even when that means expressing options tha counter staff-lead initiatives or work. There are still occasions when I am pleasantly shocked that a co-worker responds in such a public matter. In my experiences at more traditionally organized ‘top-down’ organizations folks wouldn’t even consider speaking so openly and with the fear that the result would not be kind. I’m happy, but still baffled sometimes, that folks speak up regardless of hierarchy.

The diversity of initiatives and voices can make things seem a little like a cacophony. There is a lot of agency, if you’re willing to put in the effort, of defining the work to be done and how to approach it.

Working remotely from home has its ups-and-downs. I’ve started not going out as much with the cold weather over the last few months. I’m hoping to change that as the prospect of leaving my cozy little hole increases with the change in seasons. My wife is currently involved in about a dozen different operations, most of which afford her the ability to work from home as well. Having my family in arms reach can be helpful when having a stressful day. Hugs from a two-year-old a few feet away is a must in any future work arrangement.

I also need to start bugging friends to get out for lunch. I haven’t been very good about that as of late.3

Travel is something I’ve always enjoyed – especially when I have the privilege of doing so for work. I really enjoy meeting new people, listening to their interests and frustrations and learning more about how things work. It’s exhausting, tough work to be “on” for many hours in a day (and many days in a row!) as a representative of the foundation. I don’t take the responsibility lightly and try to get as much out of any event as possible. But I will be honest, I really love it.

I still struggle with confidence in my work. I work for a well-respected organization, with many smart people with impressive professional experience – and that applies equally to the folks I work with in our communities! I’m much more confident now a year later in knowing how to get stuff done, what to pay attention to, who to include, and how to organize discussions, but I’m still very much the “Gee golly, I’m sure glad to be here!” kind of guy.  I’ve been a little more bold in asking for help and leading conversations when I think necessary. So far? No one has complained. 4

Things they don’t tell you when you join the foundation

As a small aside, I was recently asked what sort of items would I include in our existing on boarding materials. I found out after the fact that many of my thoughts here are already shared in our documentation, but I must have missed them! Here’s my short list:

  1. Understanding the relationship between the foundation and communities. It’s different from other open-source/knowledge organizations. The communities came first, then the foundation. That might be different for folks use to a more ‘traditional’ model of org first then volunteers. Especially around decision-making and when and where the WMF becomes involved (or purposefully does not).
  2. Be okay with asking for help and proactively reaching out to folks with questions. We’re a good-sized organization, with a larger volunteer base that a single person could not be fully be aware of all the things all the time. We are also very remote friendly. These two things can lead to feeling a little lost – especially when new.
  3. I think this is understood as a certain level of professionalism regardless of your employ, but the movement has a low tolerance of BS. I don’t mean outright lying – which is inexcusable pretty much anywhere – but in over-promising with good intent. Just state the facts, don’t make assumptions (again, even with good intents), and make sure any claims can be backed up with data, experiences, community discussion, etc.
  4. Many folks are drawn to participate in the movement by ideological goals set forth in our mission and values. These are good, inspiring goals to aim toward. We also live in a world limited by time and space. 🙂 I think it’s prudent to help newcomers understand that the way forward is a balance between the two. Some community members (like any member of society at large) are strongly ideological, others more pragmatic. Being able to understand the two and how to navigate the conversations between is the only way this all works.
  5. Change is a constant. Sometimes it’s slowly, sometimes quickly. Being OK with that and having a healthy balance in the gaps in between is important. Perhaps not specific to foundation work, but remote work, with multiple responsibilities and efforts (spinning plates) you can sometimes start your day feeling underwhelmed/overwhelmed and end the day with the exact opposite. Ok, maybe it’s not that dramatic, but the fluctuation is noticeably more present here than in past experiences. I think that the fact that our movement is so global, or products/technology so diverse (mobile, to data analytics, to editing, to search to…), and our projects so active that it can be a little jarring.

Projects

Wow, I somehow ended up supporting more than just Discovery over the course of this year, and successfully at that! I’ve been helping the Reading department with a few of their products. It’s interesting to see the differences in style between the teams and how they approach organizing their work. So far my plate is full, but manageable.

The search team is almost ready to share some of the really impactful work around search engine results page. Bringing in content from sister projects to the results and showing richer metadata around the results I think will really help folks trying to find information “on-wiki”.

Reading has a new feature that we’re slowly rolling out called Page Previews. It’s currently the most popular beta feature on the English Wikipedia (and pretty popular elsewhere) and will soon be available for all folks as a default setting. While not revolutionary, it’s an evolutionary approach to quickly surfacing more information to folks who visit the site. 5

Something Like a Conclusion

I like the folks I work with. They are some of the most compassionate and supportive folks I’ve been thrown together with. I’m impressed with the leadership folks I work with in trying to keep things organized and well understood across teams and departments. We’re not perfect, but we try to assume good faith at every turn and are genuinely caring in how we work with one another.

I think I’ll stick around.

 


  1. See this article about mental health and Wikipedia

  2. I’m being purposefully obtuse in describing the book. You should read it.

  3. Local friends, if you are reading this, please call. 🙂

  4. Which means, to me, that I should be a little more secure in knowing I’m doing the right thing.

  5. Oh, and don’t worry. You can turn it off.

Sammus – XOXO

“Balancing a full-time hip-hop career while pursuing her PhD in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell, Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo’s been producing beats and rapping under the moniker Sammus since 2009, a powerful voice at the intersection of music and technology, covering subjects as diverse as video games and cartoons to social justice and mental health.”

Oof. Sammus’ talk was really strong, and then she started performing and all the feels came out. Watching this again, on YouTube, at my computer, still gives me chills.

 

Reflections on XOXO

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I want to take what remaining energy I have after an amazing week to put some thoughts on paper – to talk about how the gathering of new friends has put some recent events in my life into perspective. This isn’t a review of the talks, how great the food was, and what new thing I learned about. Maybe that will come later. For now, I want to reflect the honesty I saw on display with a few things that have been happening in my life as of late that I have not talked about.

I was impressed by how many presentations challenged the status quo. Speakers asked us to not just think and talk more about these hard things (working independently, relying on others, racism, sexism) but to actually do something about it – making an effort in hiring, getting involved in what is happening locally, calling out assholes, and whatever else gets your ass out of a chair.

At XOXO I was able to see people I admire stand in front of a huge group of people – total strangers – and tell the most honest and open truth there is: one full of vulnerability and openness that is both overwhelming and welcome.jsj

I wanted to do something to echo the outpouring of humanity I saw at XOXO. So, here are a few things that are on my mind at the moment. This is the first time I’ve written about any of this. I see my time at XOXO, the sharing of information, the connections being made between people, and the bravery in talking about how things really are – even when it’s not glamorous – to be a call-to-action.

Instead of ignoring injustices and being comfortable we need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and stand up for what we believe in. To keep moving forward. Writing this is extremely uncomfortable. I freely admit it is not a giant leap, but a small step. Writing this down and sharing it holds me to figuring these things out, to taking action.

Enjoy, or whatever the appropriate reaction to this is.

The Reflection

Earlier this year I had a small blush with Gamergate. Nothing personally threatening, but rather quite sad. It’s not resolved in my mind. I’m still not sure what to do.

I was reading Twitter one day when an author I admire made a reference to some GG’ers surprisingly making a positive comment about him in one of their forums. Out of curiosity I went to the forum to see what was being said. I was immediately struck with the headline of a thread. There would be a presentation on Gamergate hosted by an active GG’er at a local convention near my home.

I was like, “What the hell!? Who is actually giving someone in this group a literal stage to talk about their shitty tribe?” So I did what any normal human would do: I Googled the crap out of this person to learn as much as I can about them. Totally not creepy, right?

What I found was a local young dude with a similar background as I, but 10 years apart: same neighborhoods, same school, same college, male, white, young and lonely. I found an old Twitter account, where he gushed about his girlfriend at the time, family life, and his emotions and feelings. It was beautiful and all too familiar.

I thought, “Here’s a local young man with a similar background who was suckered into the fold of GG and their ideology. Why didn’t I? What could I say to him? How could I reach out to him?” 1

I created an account in the forum, and reached out to him. I asked if we could meet to talk before his presentation, if I could better understand where he was coming from, and what he was trying to do.

We met in person and chatted for an hour or so. He genuinely seem concerned with video game journalism and “censorship” of imported games. I asked him why use the Gamergate banner? Why identify with a group that has a terrible reputation? His response was that it wouldn’t matter. That the Gamergate he was part of was not the harassing part.

He was very dismissive of any arguments I brought up. It was frustrating. I kept my patience. I paid the fee to go to the conference and see his presentation. It was focused on the history of Gamergate (smoothing over all the false accusations and harassment) and restated the same rhetoric about bias, censorship, and journalism. No citations, no research, just more of the same Gamergate rhetoric.

All I heard was a scared lonely young man who found a sliver of power and self-worth in a group.

I reached out. I tried to understand. I am still thinking about this young person. I don’t have a clue what to do, if anything. I want him to be successful and happy. I worry that he won’t be.

The Parents

My in-laws recently bought a handgun. My wife and I are against guns. 2 My wife and I expressed this to her parents months ago. We did not want a gun around our children when they visited or stayed the night. They assured us they would not get a gun.

They got a gun. Months later we found out.

Two of the most compassionate, helpful, and loving people have been driven by fear to carrying a gun for “protection.” Since their retirement they rarely leave the house, they do not meet new people, they do not explore. Instead they watch 24/7 news that has led them to believe that ISIL is going to attack our small town, and that the terrorists are among us.

My father-in-law has taken to wearing camouflage now. In the past 15 years he has never talked about his experiences in the military, now he is “prepared.” He is now talking about ‘them’ coming to get ‘us.’ He’s supporting Trump. He carries a gun to the grocery store: a Dierbergs that’s literally across the street from where they raised two daughters and their grandchildren.

He says he has a gun in case someone breaks in or he needs to act. It’s in a locked safe, unloaded, and he, frankly, has terrible vision. He’s more likely to shoot himself or a loved one accidentally than be the good guy with a gun.

They lied to us. Their actions are worrying us. They have not seen their grandchildren since that day months ago.

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WTF does this have to do with XOXO?

I don’t know how to fix these things. My heart wants to make things right. Whatever that means in each. Maybe I can’t. Maybe I shouldn’t. I just can’t fucking figure it out. It’s wearing on me.

I have not lost as much as others. I have not struggled for as long. I’m aware of my fortune and privilege.

When I was young we were on food stamps. I was embarrassed at where I grew up. 3 My poor grades. Old, unglamorous jobs.

Then I get the chance to go to this amazing and scary event. Where I’ll be meeting people who I find to be inspiring. I thought maybe they’d have it figured out.

The individuals creating and sharing  in this space – each with a new sense of honesty, intimacy and connectedness. They all came together and I was fortunate enough to be among them: my heroes.

Being at XOXO was cathartic. It made me feel like I was not the only one struggling with these types of issues. Hearing from other people – the humans of the Internet – working to make things better. That we’ve collectively figured that much out.

XOXO, the people and their stories give me hope. We are not alone. The world is getting better. We are in this together. We are doing good. It is making a difference. It is important. It is hard.

The world is getting more inclusive. It happens frustratingly slowly, but it is happening. We are on the right side of history – I have no doubt now.

We will be ok.

 

More reflections from XOXO:

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  1. At the time I was also worried about revealing too much about myself as Gamergate folks don’t have the most rational reaction to folks inviting criticism.

  2. Generally. I grew up in rural Missouri and was raised around guns. I am proficient in firearms thanks to my experiences as a youth and as a member of the Boy Scouts of America. I have an understanding of their practical operation and use. I do not see the need in the context of my life. [anyone else in suburban America.] I don’t hunt, live in the wilderness, or subscribe to the terrible excuse of a ‘bad neighborhood’.

  3. Still am. Which is why when folks ask me where I live I say St. Louis. I actually live in Fenton, a small town 20 minutes outside of St. Louis City known for nothing.

Outrage and Therapy

Keeping internet communities healthy is the job of the leaders and citizens of those communities.

Without conscious leadership these communities decay and destroy themselves and leach out into the real world where they harm actual individuals and our culture.

Hank Green on communities. I agree with him very much. In the Wikimedia Movement we are getting better at this.

Related, I enjoyed this rather long and nuanced approach to understanding how Wikipedia 1 and mental illness intersect.

To the hardcore editor who becomes enmeshed in the thicket of talk pages, admin noticeboard debates and never-ending arguments about every bit of minutiae ever conceived, it can reveal some of the worst aspects of human behavior, including abuse, harassment, and threats of physical violence. It can be difficult to separate the anonymous keyboard warriors simply amusing themselves by pushing buttons from those who intend to act on threats to harm others, or themselves.

Note: The subtext to the title of this post is an opinion of mine. That some people who lash out and express outrage online often are dealing with issues in their personal lives and their interactions online can complicate that. Success, or lack thereof, in life can make the distance of the Internet a place to take out your anger, reach out to help others, or seek solace among comrades – depending on your health and access.

If you are not feeling well and think you need someone to talk to, please find a mental health professional. It is the best thing you can do – it can literally save your life.


  1. Particularly English

Be Informed

You have a computer that can access all of human knowledge within seconds. Please don’t remain ignorant. Do a little research, read opposing views, learn more about something you’re not familiar with.

“Now, we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated; between the open platform of the web as its architects envisioned it and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob.

What is common to these struggles – and what makes their resolution an urgent matter – is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth. This does not mean that there are no truths. It simply means, as this year has made very clear, that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows.”

How technology disrupted the truth – The Guardian