User:Sj/Board 2005

This is an old candidate statement from 2005. Footnotes and detailed comments are below. Feel free to comment on this platform on the talk page.   Other platforms

User name: Sj
Real name: Samuel Klein
Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA
User page(s): (Main:) English Wikipedia and Meta-Wikimedia.
Wikimedia participant since: January 2004
Projects in which I participate: English Wikipedia and Meta || Wikimania wiki, Grants wiki, and Foundation wiki || Wikinews, Wikibooks, Wikisource, and Commons || Nahuatl Wikipedia and Swahili Wikipedia
Languages in which I participate: I have contributed to 50 different Wikimedia projects. I am fluent in English, and know some German, French, and Spanish. I keep an eye on Wikipedia in Swahili and Nahuatl.
Link to user contribution page(s): on en, on meta, on Wikinews; on Wikibooks; Wikisource; on Commons....

Candidate statement:

Sj, Anthere, and Jimbo in New York, December 2004
Sj, Anthere, and Jimbo in New York, December 2004

The Board is lucky to have two active User Representatives, who encouraged transparency and consideration of community views, even as the Foundation's development accelerated. Please vote for Angela and Anthere, whether or not you vote for me.

I am running for one reason : to empower editors and readers to improve their projects1 in every way2. This means clearly inviting readers to make changes, and not just to article text3. Wikimedia is currently growing faster than its community structures4. Many community members feel powerless to begin new initiatives 5; there is little effort to retain contributors; and millions6 of talented readers, who would gladly help, do not know how7.

Wikimedia has grown out of an environment where all were encouraged to work on new ideas9 — even grandiose ones — without a special title10. It should not lose that strength. Hundreds of key projects need attention (a few examples); each one suited to the talents and interests of some current Wikipedia fans11.

Let us identify our community of supporters and their skills12, and teach them to help guide the projects13, before the projects are defeated by their own success.


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By this I mean, empowering readers, even casual visitors to a site, to improve the projects that they use. And many of these visitors are regular and enthusiastic. Many Wikipedia projects have tens of thousands of fans, who use them regularly and rave about them to their friends. Most of these fans do not realize they can improve those projects, or that the projects need their help.

There is something to be said for having a pretty face, and pretending that a given page or article is complete; but our projects should not be too proud to broadcast loudly their desire to become better.

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"In every way" : Not just by editing articles, but also by adding new articles. (Most of the new users I meet don't realize that not only can anyone edit articles, but anyone can submit a new one). Not just by adding new articles, but by finding skilled collaborators to make those articles the best in their field. Not only by creating great articles, but by helping improve the design and interface of the site. Not only by improving the site, but by suggesting partnerships and actively seeking out partnerships and connecting Wikimedians to decision-makers in other organizations. Likewise, by identifying suitable grants and sponsorships. Not only identifying these opportunities, but actively pursuing them; writing grant applications and submitting them for community approval.
      Creating pamphlets, brochures, business cards. Organizing contests, promotional events, presentation booths at local fairs and festivals. Speaking about the projects in public. Encouraging organizations to freely license their content and databases. Bringing Wikimedia content to schools and students. Testing and improving the software that runs the site. Writing applications to extend access to Wikimedia content to people who have only slow connections; or PDAs; or SMS text messaging; or a simple telephone. And not only developing this software, but describing hardware solutions. There are a thousand ways for project admirers to help, even for a few minutes a week; and the barrier to entry is remarkably small.

The growth of closed groups such as the Board, the grants wiki, and the wikilegal-l mailing list, makes people feel that a growing set of tasks which the community once handled, should now wait on official approval. For instance, there was a surge of interest in grants when the community first began collaborating on them; once a private wiki was set up for them, work almost entirely stopped.

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The Wikimedia projects are the greatest collaboration of our generation. I talk about them wherever I go. The point that always amazes people is not that we encourage readers to edit pages, but that we encourage them to take part in every aspect of running ths site; that there is no echelon of editors sitting back and setting limits on what others can do. Yes. there are people who set limits — but they are just community members; elected for a term on the Arb Comm or self-appointed policy setters who organize a massive vote and go around updating a dozen policy pages.

At some point, my raving about Wiki[mp]edia stopped being a bad habit and started being productive. I have given presentions about Wikipedia to students, lawyers, librarians, and artistic hackers (twice in one week). I've gone to conferences twice to discuss Wikinews, and once to discuss Wiktionary. I solicited the donation of famous catalogs to Wikisource and Wikibooks and a database of English pronunciations to the Commons.

It is worth repeating that none of this (aside from the LISA conference) involved any kind of title or official permission; merely the enthusiasm of a contributor. If you are reading this, you could do the same yourself. You could be invited to conferences to represent projects; could explain the beauty of the projects to others and, in this way, encourage them to contribute (their collections, their expertise) as well. We need thousands of people to practice doing these things, and to become skilled at doing them.

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The number of new users who sign up for some project is growing at over 12% a month. Most of these never return. The total content of all projects is growing at around 10% a month. The number of chapters in different languages, and the number of languages with over 10,000 articles, are growing similarly quickly.

However, the number of users who are active on the Meta-wiki is growing much more slowly. The number of ambassadors from individual projects is fairly stagnant. The number of active, regular posters to the Wikipedia mailing lists is likewise growing slowly (not counting those who chime in on extensive flamewars).

A silver lining: Recent regular translation efforts — Translation requests, Translation of the Week, the Wikimedia Quarto, translation needs on the Commons and for new websites (the WMF site, Wikimania) — have greatly increased the amount of interaction between multilingual project members. This should be encouraged in the strongest possible way.

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People who have been around for a while like to mold their community in their own image. This is human nature. Our philosophy should actively work against this, encouraging new members to try radical things without fear of ridicule or abuse.

Contributors usually ask permission before trying something new; or ask for feedback on project talk pages; or find someone they view as an authority figure and ask for a blessing. This is fine; but the best way to get things done is to do them. Contributors should be encouraged to be bold, to ignore rules while trying something out and to present examples fully formed.

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The wikimedia cluster currently serves up around 50 million pageviews a day. Alexa Internet estimates that the average visit to the site is under 5 page views. That means some 10 million separate sessions, well over a million unique visitors. Every day.

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There are two separate points to be made here.

a) People are conditioned to assume they are not competent, or are not allowed, to directly change anything they don't own. It is not enough to have some way, somewhere on a project, for visitors to sign up to help. There should be active calls for help; optional surveys of the skills of community members; campaigns to find the right people to tackle each new hurdle.

b) Wikimedia projects do not keep lists of what they need, what features have been requested, or what skills are called for in the near future. They hardly keep track of the various maintenance projects that are taking place, for others to join them. Little priority is given to classifying what help is needed, so even when people do ask for help, the requests are necessarily vague.

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Most often, new ideas with great potential die for lack of attention. Not, mind you, because they were fundamentally unsound; not because there was no support for them in the diverse community of users. But because at some point, approval was sought, and people stopped working on the project until it was 'approved'.

  • The list of proposed projects here on meta is a collection of killed enthusiasm. Almost none of these proposals ever reaches a point where it is producing useful freely-licensed information. This it not because reaching that point is difficult; but because the discussions around new ideas are staged like debates rather than like collaborations.
  • Wikipeople: a project which, in various forms and names, has been discussed regularly for years; arguments about it have kept anyone from producing a simple mockup. A number of active contributors support its creation. The basic concept of genealogy study and aggregation is one of the most popular pasttimes on the web. Few people deny that this is an interesting and worthwhile endeavour, but scores of hours have been spent debating how to do it, what was wrong with the last person's proposal, and whether to do it under Wikimedia. One or two enthusiasts about genealogy have disappeared after their version of the idea was shot down.
  • Wikinewsies pushed for an extension to generate the newest articles that appeared in each of a given set of categories. After writing most of the extension themselves, they gave up on the project because they felt they couldn't get explicit approval from one particular developer.
    They wrote a patch themselves, and improved it with developer feedback. Then there was a hold-up; the scalability of their implementation was unclear. Developer X briefly suggested a change, then went on vacation. The Wikinews coders didn't understand the suggestion. They asked others for clarification, but noone had time to help them. The group of Wikinewsies had lost none of their energy, but decided that the developers as a group were a) fundamentally opposed to the patch, and b) not willing to let any patch go through without a nod from developer X. So they gave up on the patch and began planning to start a new project on someone else's servers... A few days later, it was pointed out that a) and b) were untrue, and everyone was just busy; the patch was implemented soon afterwards

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Two trends have competed against the wiki nature of the Wikimedia projects. The first it the use of adminship as a status symbol on various projects; which happens naturally when admins do not disclaim special status in an outspoken fashion. Many administrators do make a point of noting that adminship is no big deal; but a significant minority are proud of their adminship, wear it like a badge, and occasionally wield it like a club in arguments or commentary on other users.

The second is the creation of "official" aspects of projects and communities. Two years ago, this applied only to things which had been explicitly blessed by Jimbo; who in turn was careful to make almost no decrees. Then an official Arbitration Commmittee emerged on the English Wikipedia. The finalizing of the Foundation in 2004, and the growth and activity of its Board, led to an entire class of officialdom. There was an official decision-making body, which issued at times official statements; an official website -- and soon more than one. Rather than encouraging community members to focus on particular areas that affected Foundation efforts (such as finance, grants, PR, and developer coordination), the Board either made no [official] statement about those areas, or appointed people to Official Positions.       Occasionally, pains were taken to ensure that users couldn't falsely claim status in the Foundation. (See for instance business cards). Of course, noone has ever worried about people falsely claiming status in the Wikipedia project itself, which would attract far more attention and be more difficult for observers to verify. This was a solution without a problem; a typical case of hard security.

Most recently, the creation of a Research network by Eloquence (which was fundamentally a great thing) evoked some unfortunate responses in the community. Some active contributors felt excluded from the network, as they were doing research but disagreed with its tone or policies; they felt that this was the research network for Wikimedia, and there could be no other. Others felt certain that this network had been created and blessed by the Board, and that the only way to get research recognized or planned was to do it through this group. When the Board was considering setting up an Advisory Council, with official representatives from each project, the question was asked "how will this interact with the Research Team?" — as if that were similarly an advisory group.

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I am forever running into talented people who use and love Wikimedia projects -- just yesterday, a respected news librarian and intranet designer, and a biologist and Python hacker (who likes wikibooks as much as wikipedia) -- who insist they aren't good enough at anything to contribute usefully to a Wikimedia project. As if perfection were the required immediate result. I have to go out of my way to point them to subprojects that are looking for news librarianship, biochemistry, python hacking. It usually takes a few minutes, but the results are always encouraging. "Oh, there's really a project like that? Cool! ...Maybe later when I'm not so busy." Rinse and repeat a few times, and you'll have a happy fellow contributor.

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This calls for an entire (optional) skill identification and self-assessment project.

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Every project needs guidance. By which I mean, internal community-driven guidance. Every group of collaborators wants a shared goal; a collective timeline and collection of (perhaps conflicting, but not simply unconsidered) priorities. Meta-projects need their own guidance.

Just as the solution to generating beautiful encyclopedic prose is not a massive, detailed style manual but a collection of excellent examples (perhaps supplemented by a style manual, which can be ignored, to encourage consistency), the solution to encouraging better internal guidance in a community is not a hierarchy that demands obedience, but examples of good community guidance (perhaps supplemented by a hierarchy, which can be ignored, to encourage consistency).

We already have a few such examples : the development of multilingual communication channels on the Commons, including the lovely Babel userpage templates; the proliferation and maintenance of subject portals on various wikis; the rapid growth of the pre-publication group on de:wp to prepare for their Directmedia imprints, and other widespread initiatives -- the stub-sorting and dot-map initiatives on en:wp; the bilingual growth of the ToL WikiProject.