Fire Prevention and Fire Fighters

There’s currently a request for comment on English Wikipedia that I feel is a good step toward addressing harassment. 1 The proposal is to, by default, prevent editors under a certain threshold (anonymous editors included) from being able to edit a individual’s “User:” page. 2 I have a few thoughts about the nature of the proposal and the comments that have arisen in the discussion.

Many folks have said, and I’m paraphrasing, “we have stuff to handle this” already. Everything we have is retroactive – after the fact. We can clean up horrendous stuff, but first we have to expose ourselves to it – particularly exposing new people and those that are underrepresented in our project and society in general. This request is proactive. A simple step of progress toward addressing harassment.

For the data seekers, how much harassment are you willing to tolerate? Is is the same for everyone? How do we know folks leave the project because of harassment – even that they merely witness? What number gives it justification to allow it?

Not addressing harassment, even in a small step like this proposal puts forth, is like saying Wikipedia has a litter problem, but we’re very proud that we are so good at cleaning it up.

We can prevent a big chunk of litter from ever touching the ground. There’s a strong indication that it might even make the place a little nicer to habitate.

We talk about new folks being impacted most, but as a small-potato contributor who works and volunteers in these spaces, I don’t want to deal with bullshit either.

We talk a lot about defending the wiki from vandalism, conflict of interest, neutral point of view, all things that are a threat to the project. Well, here’s a chance to protect it from another threat – assholes.

 


  1. A request for comment (RfC) is a method by which a volunteer contributor presents and idea that will change a part of the project (frequently administrative) for feedback. Other editors leave notes of “Support”, “Oppose” or a myriad of comments about the topic. After a period of time, if consensus is formed, the proposal moves forward and becomes part of the project. If not, it disappears into an archive – to possibly be brought up again in the future.

  2. A page on Wikipedia that editors use to share information about themselves and their interests. Sort of like a profile page.

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

Notes from the first Enterprise MediaWiki Conference

On May 22 – 25 I attended the first Enterprise MediaWiki Conference (EMWCon) in New York City. It’s a continuation of the similarly named SMWCon, but with a strong emphasis on all flavors of MediaWiki and how it is used in organizations large and small. I was able attend in my capacity as a staff member of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), but have had a personal interest in the MediaWiki community for a few years now. I thought it would be helpful to write down a few notes on my experiences and share those with folks within the Wikimedia movement.

At the conference I learned how folks are using MediaWiki, what difficulties they face in their use, and their concerns for the future of the platform. 1

Quick Take Aways

A few large points that struck me as worth mentioning.

  • There are many people using MediaWiki in interesting and unique ways. This is the 4th MediaWiki-focused event I’ve attended in the last two years and at each one I’ve discovered new uses in new industries. This time around? Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, a large banking company, and a large oil company all use MediaWiki in some capacity to help document and share knowledge within their organizations. This is on top of groups like Circ du Soleil, MITRE, NATO, and NASA that I was already aware of. I was also impressed by the half a dozen independent developers who support organizations in using MediaWiki. Some folks have smaller organizations with smaller wikis – which is impressive. It’s even crazier to think that this bit of open-source software can be used inside so many large, well-known, organizations – often to great success.
  • Users of MediaWiki – specifically those that write their own code – want acknowledgment. They want to know that the folks who are pointing MediaWiki toward its future are aware of these diverse use cases and keep that in mind when making decisions that would impact non-WMF-supported use.
  • They also want to know what the WMF’s plans are. They want to be reassured – and to be able to reassure others within their organizations, that MediaWiki will be around. A simple, high-level roadmap would do wonders here. There is a large ask of the foundation to make a decision on what sort of support will be offered – even if the answer is an uncomfortable “nothing” it would be better than the current strain of “Eh, we really don’t know.” At one point during the conference I made the joke that the WMF had ‘cookie licked’ MediaWiki. :p
  • I had one attendee, a long-time MediaWiki admin and community member, ask me, “Am I a volunteer? A contributor?” This is from someone whose organization has no less than 14 extensions on MediaWiki.org and who has contributed code to the core development of MediaWiki. They were not certain if their contributions were as valued given that what they work on has a much larger impact on third-party users than Wikimedia projects. People within the MediaWiki community want equal treatment and respect as developer contributors.
  • Lastly, the WMF should consider the impact this community has had in the development of MediaWiki as a popular and healthy open-source software. There is an incredible financial worth in the patches and extensions contributed by third parties. I mean, to be frank, we have people working at NASA and MITRE (among others) sharing their work with the MediaWiki community. The time and talent alone is something that should be considered a strength within our community.

MWF?

Another topic that has been gaining steam recently in the MediaWiki community is the idea of a “MediaWiki Foundation”. A non-profit organization that focuses on the core development of MediaWiki as an open-source software project – influenced by all parties equally. I think it’s going to happen in some capacity.

Generally speaking the MediaWiki community agrees it won’t be the big, giant, dramatic change like moving all of MediaWiki ownership out of the WMF.

Instead the focus will be on small deliverables. Right now the MediaWiki Stakeholder’s user group is looking for a small task on the wishlist, funding (passing a hat around!) and working to show that something was accomplished. Then, after being able to show their work, approach the WMF with a request for some of their time to discuss how they could work together. If you’re interested in following along, check out the MediaWiki Stakeholders’ wiki and the #mwstake room in the Wikimedia Phabricator.

A Real Community

While some wikis are internal and not public, the folks at the conference freely shared their experiences and knowledge for others to benefit from. One attendee described the community and our relationship with one another in an interesting way. We’re not competing with each other to ‘build the best wiki’ but we are competing together against closed, propriatrty systems of knowledge management that permeate organizations across industries. These systems have an antiquated model of documenting and sharing knowledge that is antithesis to truly sharing information to empower members of the org. For example, SharePoint sets permissions to be closed by default. You have to know the information exists, somewhere in the laybranith of SharePoint sites, before you can request access to it!

I think that this event acknowledges that we come together freely to share across industries and uses. It is endemic of having a natural community – not one forced out of branding, marketing, or sales departments within a for-profit organization.

Wikipedians in our midst

While the conference was focused on MediaWiki use outside of Wikimedia projects, attendees did have an opportunity to get to know more about the Wikimedia world and meet folks who are involved in related projects. One of our hosts, Pharos, is a long-time editor on English Wikipedia, president of the NYC chapter, and was a Wikipedian-in-residence at the Guggenheim Museum.

At the end of the first day the NYC chapter brought pizza and people together to talk about what they had been working on. I met no less than 3 individuals involved in Afrocrowd.org, a Wikipedia project I had never heard of until this event!

I also met a long-time MediaWikian, Frank Taylor, who was interested in the work the WMF was doing around emerging communities. He even offered to put the folks at the foundation working on this outreach in contact with folks he has worked with in Central and South America. Which is a kind and unexpected example of the communities sharing interests!

Conclusion

I encourage folks to attend future EMWCons (and SMWCons). They are a great opportunity to learn and share with one another, to create relationships beyond Talk pages, and to grow an already impressive community. In particular I would like to invite the following groups.

  • WMF staff who work on MediaWiki core development, planning, and developer relations.
  • People who use MediaWiki – or are interested in using a wiki!
  • People who want to encourage open-source software and free knowledge – even when the knowledge is shared not among the entirety of humanity. There is a very real halo effect in people using MediaWiki. The philosophy of the wiki changes organizations approach to sharing and working together. It breeds familiarity with many aspects of the wider Wikimedia movement. I know I’m only a factor of one, but my Wikimedia contributions are born out of the use of MediaWiki within a ‘closed’ organization. 2

See also


  1. Some may object to the word “platform”, but for many people using MediaWiki inside organizations, it truly is the foundation on which all of their process and strategy sit.

  2. Heck, my professional career as the ‘wiki guy’ has lead to my current role at the WMF!

One of the Hiring Questions

When I applied for the position of community liaison at the Wikimedia Foundation I was given a set of questions to answer. Here’s one that I think was important. The answer I gave is something I try to remember when working with people who have an approach to dialog that is unlike mine.

What might you say to someone whose feedback is unconstructive?

  • Listen, ask clarifying questions, encourage action.

Unconstructive feedback usually comes from passion. That’s good! We don’t want apathetic contributors. Sometimes that passion can manifest in misguided ways. Sometimes culture plays a role in interpretation and intent. So first I’d be patient and empathetic. Maybe the editor is having a bad day. Assume good faith and engage positively with the individual. Politely remind them that their behavior reflects on the community as a whole and ask them to remember to remain civil.

If people are sticking around – on talk pages, in conversations, Phab tasks – but frustrated, I’d like to know why. Is there history there? Past experiences? Can we use our own positive behaviors to shift those expectations? For example, if someone says, “Yeah right. You’ll never get back to me. People always promise to and don’t.” I’d be sure to make a note that getting back to people is a perceived negative and use positive behavior (getting back to people when I say I will) to negate that argument.

Another big part of engaging with folks in the wiki way – transparent to a fault – is to make sure that you’re talking to the audience, not just to the person who is being unconstructive. Let others who are reading know that you’re remaining positive and constructive with your actions and don’t let things devolve. I’m a fan/practitioner of the Charles’ Rules of Argument (http://fishbowl.pastiche.org/2004/03/21/charles_rules_of_argument/). No jokes or sarcasm. Keep things simple.

In the end, you can still accomplish a lot with a diverse and productive community.

Two Months at the Wikimedia Foundation

Today marks the anniversary of the two months I’ve been at the foundation. What a whirlwind. I’m still in the honeymoon phase. I still feel like I’m moving too slow, making too many mistakes. Still don’t know who holds the institutional knowledge. 1 I’m enjoying the work I’m doing and am excited to be here.

A lot has changed, for the positive, in the last few weeks, but we’re not without our struggles. Folks have been leaving, budgets are tight, and there’s still a tension in the air within the relationship between the foundation and the rest of the communities. 2 I do my best and most folks I work with seem to appreciate me being there, so that’s good. 🙂

I have been taking notes, mostly at random, about the role I now embody, culture, and relationships. I thought, here at two months, now might be a good time to share some of them. They’re half-formed and through the lens of a person new to this corner of the world. Take them as you will.

—-

A Few Random Thoughts

I left my stable career in IT (and healthcare, which, while going through the a lot of changes here in the US, is not going anywhere for the foreseeable future) to dedicate my time to improving the community aspect of the movement. I wanted to do more in this community, but was limited by time and energy. I’m now able to dedicate time and make a living. That’s incredible. I’m incredibly grateful to the people who interviewed, and ultimately hired me. I hope that as they look back years from now I keep that decision as “a good one” in their minds.

Ignorance is the biggest challenge our species faces. Education, even if shallow in new areas leads to better individual and group decisions. If you know X you’re more likely to not do Y. Empathy, again is critical to our future.

Individual contributors have motives, beliefs, concerns. These are amplified by the vocal members and can some times be misinterpreted as ‘what the community feels’. It’s hard to balance the voice of a few with the silence of many. Who do you listen to? Who do you trust?

On Writing

Oof, writing for a diverse audience is much harder than I thought. Even little things I would include in my writing, like contractions, throw me for a loop. I plan on writing more on this, but for now a few bullets.

  • Be mindful of gender (“Hey guys!”)
  • People-first language (“a person with disabilities”, not “a disabled person”)
  • Avoid acronyms and abbreviations, even super well-known wiki world ones.
  • Assume nothing
  • Avoid the word ‘user’ 3
    • prefer readers or editors, contributors, volunteers, folks, people
  • Avoid cultural references
    • “Like that guy in that one movie”
  • Use simple English, translate whenever you can
  • Don’t be ethnocentric
  • Be mindful of age and experience levels
  • Use statistics to back up claims that can benefit from data
  • Use stories and examples, from the people you are talking about (not just yourself) to back up claims about experiences and human relationships.
  • Remain positive – even if the news is bad, don’t be dreadful.

Finding people and getting them involved is incredibly challenging. Where can I go to get folks involved? How do I get the feedback the team needs? How do I channel the feedback from many sources to the team? These are still messy to me. I know folks keep saying “it doesn’t scale”, but part of me really wants to just pick up a phone and give someone a call.

Transparency

Be aggressively transparent. It’s hard. Transparency is important to pretty much everyone involved in this crazy endeavor. So is privacy. So is civility. Sometimes the three come together and do not mix well.

I am concerned that issues with a lack of transparency stem from issues of civility and fear. Folks are afraid to share something because last time it was not pleasant to hear the sometimes painful (intentional or not) feedback. So they hold back on sharing until later in the process. Then more anger is released for sharing late, which causes distress, assumptions and mistrust. Which causes folks to be hesitant to share again in the future, which…you see where this is going.

Sometimes transparency is demanded. That’s not cool. It shouldn’t be. It should be something we lead with, not react with.

Bullying

We are peers. No more, no less. Like your peers at school or work, some have more experience and skills in a given area – some have less. Like working with others outside of the wiki world, being a team brings together those strengths and weaknesses to balance one another. All boats rise with the tide.

Be civil. Be hard in the problem and soft on the person. We’re all rowing in the same direction. Let’s see if we can improve our sync and get there faster with less friction.

We, everyone in the movement, should do better to speak up to bullying. This will be the one thing that tears us apart. The beginning of the end will not be marked with a terrible software update, a lack of funding, a poor hire, a want for  contributors.  Not software, not bureaucracy, not money – the root lies within our community to be effervescent in welcoming people and treating long-timers with dignity and camaraderie. The movement has a bad reputation here and no one can fix that with a patch. It’s something we have to get better at. All of us.

There’s a strong correlation with bully=loud, targets=quiet.

I think it’s really terrible that we tolerate terrible behavior within our communities. That we turn a blind eye to those that harass, demean, and otherwise act like jerks to folks within our community – especially those that are traditionally underrepresented. We have a bully problem and instead of addressing it we let it fester. To be clear, I’m not talking about people who insert nonsense edits, revert changes they don’t like, etc, but those that use an unpleasant edge and uncivil tactics to claim victory, demand entitlement, or otherwise ‘get their way’.

We have to stop making light of and ignoring these problems areas. For example,  wikimedia-l is a room in the house we all share. If it’s on fire you don’t ignore it.

It only helps perpetrate the exclusion of those without a voice. If we keep letting it happen we’re complacent with that behavior – toward anyone.

“there are active members of our community that can be unforgiving and unempathetic.”

“not be worried of having others answer with the passion that can sometimes be perceived as being lashed out against”

These are quotes from conversations not about civility, but transparency. There is a close association here though, as I mentioned earlier.

Instead of addressing bad behavior head-on we avoid it, work around it, make excuses, and – up to a point – tolerate it. 4

How much of this power we let jerks have over or emotions and energy drives a lot of the decisions – or decision paralysis – we have to deal with. We lead too many of our decisions with fear and uncertainty, not confidence and prosperity.

It’s a downward spiral of repetition.

We need to fix it.

I know it’s freaking hard. That’s why I joined the WMF, because I want to tackle these big messy issues while they’re still young, while there is still a chance.

Our Code of Conduct needs to be finished and encouraged by as many community members as possible. We need to show overwhelming support from all levels within the foundation – ED, Arbcom, Jimbo, C-level, Liaisons, etc. It needs to be taken seriously and enforced just the same.

We have to turn this ship around when it comes to our communities’ reputation.

We don’t have a ‘comments’ section, but this is close to what we see in comments elsewhere in our lives. It erodes our projects reputation and the incredibly amazing work of everyone involved.  You know when someone mentions a terrible corner of the web and you’re all like “Yuck”? That shouldn’t be the reaction when you tell people you’re a Wikimedian.

On Being Bold

One of the tenants of the movement is the idea to “Be bold”. To make decisions, to jump into the fray, to take action.

What does “Be Bold” mean to those that are underrepresented, marginalized, or otherwise dismissed by large swaths of a society? What does be bold mean to those who are introverted or those who are often sidelined when they are bold?

Some approach (wrongly) a woman being bold as “bossy” while a male counterpart would not.

What is bold for me, a young(ish) white male, is not the same as someone else. Notice the bold in everyone.

Fundraising

I know nearly nothing about how the foundation handles fundraising. It’s a different area, but I am acutely aware of its importance. Helping my wife run the comparatively small pet rescue make it apparent that it’s a constant balancing act.

It costs money to run one of the top 10 sites in the world. Storage and computing power need increase, hiring talented people to support the movement. Funding programs and initiatives to empower contributors and expand the movement

We need help, not just to keep the lights on, but to continuously improve Wikipedia and all Wikimedia projects. In the span of human history there has never been such a place where so many can come, freely, to learn and help others.

We also have to be fiscally prudent and make sure Wikipedia will be around long after we’re gone. Like planting a tree knowing you’ll never sit in its shade, it’s the right thing to do for the future.

We fight against entropy and ignorance. Two things that have no face, no agenda, no goal. Folks who contribute could be spending their limited time elsewhere – they choose to help projects instead. That’s pretty amazing. Money helps. 🙂

Projects

I really got lucky that I’m on both the liaison team and the Discovery team. Two areas that interest me greatly. Maps are cool. In fact some of the other interactive stuff like Pageview Graphs, the Wikipedia.org Portal, and other ideas for improving search are all pretty exciting. Even more, I’m excited to see how the communities can use these new capabilities to enhance and improve the discovery of  knowledge.

The teams I work on are made of some great people. Smarter, funnier, and far more gracious that I could have imagined. I’m humbled to be able to say I work alongside them.

—-

I’ll end this now giant post with a few links I keep returning to.


  1. I do know it’s not one single person!

  2. I was in a planning meeting to work on something totally unrelated to Wiki and someone mentioned hearing of issues with our board, ED, editors, etc. :(

  3. This is personal pet peeve, not any sort of hard wiki rule.

  4. Eventually burning out and becoming cynical husks of our former selves.