Open main menu
en-N This user has a native understanding of English.

Comments I made on the internal wiki prior to the Board Retreat of October 2006:


What are the essential elements of Wikipedias success:

Wikipedia has been wildly successful. If we wish to see the continuation and replication of this success, we will need to understand what are the essential factors that have made success possible. Otherwise we risk changing the things that are most important.

If we were to ask around, "Name the thing most responsible for Wikipedia's success," I suspect we would get a broad range of answers. I especially suspect that people would tend to single out those factors that support their ideological presumptions: "I think 'x' is good, so I will believe 'x' is the essential factor for Wikipedia's success; then I will take the success of Wikipedia as proof that 'x' is correct." This doesn't get us very far.

If we are mistaken about what is the most essential factor for Wikipedia's success, we will waste a lot of effort and stifle innovation trying to preserve a thing that doesn't really matter.

There may be many factors that are critical, such that the essential thing is not one of these factors, but the relationship or interaction of them all. Or not.

That said, I would suggest the following as the/an essential factor, and would hope to see other suggestions from other people:

Costs per unit of quality increase on a linear, rather than exponential, scale:

In most systems, a linear increase in quality is accompanied by an exponential increase in costs. Each unit of additional quality costs more than the previous. Before quality approaches perfection, costs increase to prohibitive levels.

Traditional print encyclopedias are effected by this phenomenon. Quality can be increased only on a linear scale, while the costs per unit of quality increase on an exponential scale. At some point, the cost of additional quality becomes too high to be worthwhile. The precise location of this point may change with changes in technology and economic factors, but the point will always exist.

Wikipedia is unusual in that the costs per unit of quality increase on a linear scale, rather than on an exponential scale. Doubling the quality can be achieved with a mere doubling of costs, more or less. Quality can increase indefinitely without costs spiralling out of control.

If costs per unit of quality increase only on a linear scale, the point where the cost of additional quality becomes too high to be worthwhile will never be reached, and Wikipedia's superiority as a reference source obtains a certain inevitability. This may be the most powerful fact about Wikipedia, and the essential, most necessary ingredient to its success.

Tim Shell 08:24, 1 October 2006 (UTC)


Is the mission of the Foundation to be defined in terms of a process, or in terms of our goals?

We have this process which has evolved, that creates value on a massive scale at a low cost. Should the mission of the Foundation be about maintaining this process and replicating it in other projects?

Or do we say, this process that creates value on a massive scale is just a useful means that allows us to achieve lofty goals, which is the actual end and purpose of the Foundation.

I think it is very easy to talk about lofty goals, but none of these can ever be achieved except for the existence of the process. Defining the mission in terms of the process keeps us within our core competency, and keeps the Foundation focussed on doing the things it can do better than anyone else. Tim Shell 08:30, 1 October 2006 (UTC)


Should we be value-neutral outside the scope of our essential mission?

For example, should we have an official position on the free culture movement? Wikimedia is part of that movement, but I would say this is so because of practical considerations, rather than ideological ones. It was assumed that people would be more willing to contribute to wikipedia if they knew their work could not be seized and owned by someone else, and it was decided that all contributions would be licensed accordingly. We may each of us love the free culture movement, just as we love fluffy little kittens, but this doesn't mean we need an official position on kittens. Likewise, our position on the free culture movement can be limited to the scope of our own activities. Outside of this scope, we should be neutral.

Today Andrew Lih led a skypecast, and someone was complaining that Skype was not free (as in Richard Stallman), so therefore WMF should use a different program for our _casts. Since WMF is not involved in internet telephony, should we as an organization have any preference for one program over the other, except on practical grounds?

The value-neutral issue goes well beyond the issue of free culture. In the political sphere, if the Foundation adopts any particular POV as a matter of policy, we risk fomenting opposition in any country where the government is of a different mind. Since the goal of the Foundation is not outright political activism, we should avoid expressing any political preference outside the immediate scope of our mission. Probably we can come down firmly on the side of free speech, but beyond that we should aim for value-neutrality.

In summary, any time the Foundation adopts a position on any issue, we become subject to certain restrictions and limitations as to who we are, and what we can do. The more positions we adopt, the more narrowly defined we become. To avoid this we should adopt as matter of official policy only those positions that are essential to our mission. Tim Shell 17:36, 25 August 2006 (UTC)


Why is there a Board?

The main reason there is a Board is so that the state of Florida will know who to throw into jail if the Foundation violates the law.

The Board was not formed because it was determined this would be the best governance structure for the Foundation. It was formed because, when we went about creating the Foundation as a non-profit, the state of Florida informed us that a Board would be legally required.

Without this requirement, the Foundation would likely have adopted some other form of governance, one that is more in line with the nature of the Wikimedia projects and of the communities behind them.

The first priority of the Board is to insure compliance with all applicable laws.

The second priority, perhaps, should be to create in practice, to whatever extent possible, the sort of governance structure we would have adopted if the current structure had not been imposed upon us as a matter of law.

This would involve a very flat power structure, with decision making authority exercised by the community through a process of building consensus and establishing social norms. If decision-making need be centralized, this could be accomplished through the creation of decision-making nodes (committees, perhaps chapters) which would make decisions with only a limited scope of authority.

We may call this "community governance at the leave of the Board."

This model will never be perfectly achieved. Obviously, the need to insure legal compliance requires that the Board have the power to veto or rescind any action of the community. And there will be numerous cases where decisions must be made on a Board level, if only for reasons of expediency. But the goal in all things sould be to maximize community governance, and to minimize hierarchy and the concentration of decision-making authority. Tim Shell 04:20, 31 August 2006 (UTC)


What should the Board do?

Board-level decision-making should be strategic in nature. The Board's primary functions should be to determine strategy, to effectively communicate strategy to other decision-making nodes within the organization, and to oversee these other decision-making nodes to insure that their actions are consistent with overall strategy.

All decisions on all levels should be made with regards to higher-level strategic goals. When decision-making is informed by strategy, then all actions will work towards common purposes. This is true even when there are many different decision-making nodes, each acting more or less independently. Uncoordinated by common strategy, different decisions will be basically random. Having clearly defined strategic goals is necessary for distribution of decision-making authority - which is necessary if the organization is going to grow without being overwhelmed by bureaucracy.

The Board should delegate decision-making authority to nodes such as committees and chapters, each with a clearly defined role. It is the Board's job to understand which nodes are needed, to create these, and to clarify what the role of each node is and how it relates to the broader strategic goals. The Board should have expectations about what each node ought to be accomplishing, and should review the actions of each node periodically to insure it is conforming to its strategic purpose.

Every member of the Board, of each committee, of each chapter, and of each other decision-making node that might exist, should be able to give consistent answers to questions such as, "What is the role of this node and how does it relate to the Foundation's broader strategic goals?" Tim Shell 23:06, 21 September 2006 (UTC)


The same idea expressed as a more general theory

As the organization grows, one of these three outcomes becomes likely:

1) The larger organization will require more bureaucracy. This will allow for growth without sacrificing command and control functions. However, there will be less dynamic action, less creativity, fewer new opportunities being explored. As there are more rules and more bureaucracy, people will spend more of their time and effort making sure they are conforming to the rules, and have less time to spend trying interesting new things.

2) Decision-making will become more broadly distributed throughout the organization. This will allow for growth while preserving dynamic action and creativity. However, there will be less and less command and control. The organization will become disparate. Decision-making throughout the organization will be disconcerted. Different decisions will push the organization in different, possibly contradictory directions. The organization might easily split apart under these circumstances, conflicts might arise, and even if this doesn't happen the organization will be too torn to act very effectively.

3) Decision-making will be concerted without being coordinated. This is an ideal situation that would retain creativity and dynamic action, while insuring that all decisions move the organization in the same direction.

To achieve this, the organization must expicitly define its goals, and strategies for achieving these goals. A number of decision-making nodes must be created, each with an explicitly defined strategic role. This role defines the scope of the node's decision-making authority. Every person in every decision-making node should be fully aware of the goals of the organization, its strategy, and the role of that particular node.

The Board (or whatever ultimate authority exists) must define goals and strategy, determine which decision-making nodes are necessary, and create them. It must then insure that all persons involved in decision-making are explicity informed about goals, strategy, and specific roles. Afterwards it can allow the decision-making nodes to act independently, with periodic oversight to insure compliance.

Under such a system, a large number of decision-making authorities could exist, each acting independently and without coordination, but all acting together in a concerted manner because they are all making decisions according to the same overarching strategy.


Community and policy

The composition of the community is a function of the policies we have in place. With certain policies, we will attract participation from people who like those policies. People who don't like those policies will avoid participating.

If our policies appear to represent some particular point of view, then people who share this point of view will participate with a degree of enthusiasm that leaves their viewpoint overrepresented.

Thus the policies we adopt determine the nature of the community's bias.

This can be expressed pseudo-mathematically as: f(p) = c

where 'p' is our policies and 'c' is the community.

A change in policy from 'p' to 'p1' will result in the community 'c' changing to 'c1', as the change alienates some people who had previously participated, while attracting others to participate, or to participate more.

The community will always support 'p' as it is, because it is that set of policies that attracted the community in the first place. The community will likely oppose any change from 'p' to 'p1'. An initial reluctance to change 'p' to 'p1' might be overcome if we believe the resulting community 'c1' will be just as active as the current community 'c'.

If decision-making is filtered through the community - and especially if the community is given some clearly defined role - we risk creating a positive feedback loop, whereby the community only supports change in the direction of its pre-existing biases. The community and the Foundation would become increasingly narrowly defined as these biases constrain what we can do or become. 'c' will cause the ossification of 'p', leaving the Foundation incapable of creative change. The functionaries will have replaced the visionaries.

We avoid this so long as policy decisions can be made without the need to conform policy to pre-existing biases. Tim Shell 20:08, 10 September 2006 (UTC)


Other stuff

Q: Wikipedia is a threat to my worldview. What can I do?

A: According to many worldviews, there is no way Wikipedia could ever be successful. A system like this just can't work. The fact that it does work and is enormously successful proves these worldviews are in error. Since people adopt worldviews because they find them comforting or flattering, proving a worldview to be in error provokes resentment and hostility, as people are robbed of their cherished illusions. This is why so many people get so upset by the very existence of Wikipedia. How else can you explain a strong emotional response to a free online encyclopedia?

People have adopted two types of response to this threat. The first is to hate Wikipedia. But people can't just say something like, "Wikipedia contradicts my assumptions about the nature of order and authority, and that's why I hate it." They have to dress up their hatred to make it appear justified. So they look for something objectionable about Wikipedia, exaggerate its significance, and claim, "See, this is bad...this is why I hate Wikipedia." If you wish to try this response, feel free to use any excuse to justify your pre-existing hatred, no matter how petty or silly. It is doubtful you will be able to outdo those who have come before you, in this respect.

The other way to respond to Wikipedia's threat to your worldview is to love Wikipedia, but to delude yourself into thinking it represents proof of your worldview. The way to do this is to dream up explanations for why Wikipedia is successful that harmonize with your worldview. Given your assumptions, decide what sort of things ought to work, then pretend Wikipedia is one of those things. Go all out and participate in Wikipedia, even at a high level, and try to force Wikipedia to more purely conform to what you imagine it to be. Never mind that success at this would destroy the thing you purport to love. This would be a small price to pay for reaffirming your assumptions.

In both cases, make a point of ignoring the evidence. Make a game of it - see how much evidence you can ignore. After all, evidence is only useful in testing a hypothesis - and the last thing you want is for you cherished illusions to be put to a test.