CBC Radio Piece on Wikipedia and the Future of Knowledge

I was one of the featured commentators on a two-part CBC radio program about Wikipedia. Each part is just shy of an hour. If you’re new to Wikipedia, start with part one. If you’re interested in a broader philosophical discussion about community, knowledge, intellectual property, and the Internet, go directly to part two (where I’m more heavily featured).

I had mixed feelings about the program. After part one came out, Sue Gardner (who is heavily featured) asked me what I thought about the piece. I said I didn’t like it very much. She laughed, and pointed out that I was not the audience for that piece.

She’s right of course. The first part featured the voices of many of my friends, people who are deeply embedded and knowledgeable about the community. Kat Walsh was particularly well-spoken, and it’s worth listening to part one just to hear her commentary.

However, I had difficulty enjoying the first part in particular. First, there were lots of mostly inconsequential, but annoying factual errors. I was horrified to hear myself repeatedly described as an “IT consultant,” something that I’ve never even resembled.

Second, I was bothered by who wasn’t included in the piece. In the first part, several of us pay homage to Ward Cunningham, who invented the wiki and who is thoughtful and brilliant. Instead of having us speak for him, why didn’t the reporter just talk to him directly? I also felt like I and others were taking up space — especially in part one — that would have been better served by other members of the community. For example, Pete Forsyth (who has a cameo at the beginning of part two) is one of the most well-spoken leaders in the Wikipedia community. I would have loved to have heard much more from him, and I would have gladly sacrificed my voice to do so.

All that said, I think that the piece was solid overall, especially part two. If you listen to either part, I’d love to hear what you think.

Group Identity and Network Leadership: A Tribute to Kat Walsh

Kat Walsh (middle) gives out barnstars at a San Francisco Wikipedia meetup in 2007. Also in the picture are Ben Kovitz (left) and Dirk Riehle (right).

Yesterday, the Wikimedia Foundation announced the election results for its three community board seats. I was happy to see my friends, Phoebe Ayers and SJ Klein, elected to the board, and Delphine Menard, elected to the Funds Dissemination Committee. Those three are grizzled veterans, and they will continue to do great things in those roles. I was also happy to see some new blood, which is critical for the success of any project.

And, I was disappointed to see that Kat Walsh, the longest running community member on the board and current board chair, was not re-elected. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably for the best. I’m a firm believer in term limits for nonprofit board members, and if the Wikimedia Foundation had had them, Kat would have been termed out at some point anyway. I also think that this will be a wonderful opportunity for her to take a break from the drama that Wikimedia board members have to deal with on an ongoing basis.

I don’t know anyone in the Wikimedia community who doesn’t love and respect Kat, and she’ll continue to be a community leader, board seat or not. I want to tell a personal story about Kat that says a lot about what it means to be a leader, especially in a network and in a community.

I’ve been part of the larger wiki community since 2000 (pre-dating Wikipedia). I was friends with Wikipedia contributors in its earliest days, but I only edited sporadically and anonymously. Because of my role in the larger wiki community, I was invited to participate at the first Wikimania in August 2005, where I met many Wikipedians for the first time. I created my user account shortly thereafter, but I didn’t make my first non-anonymous edit until November 2006, and only then at the urging of my friend, Erik Möller.

What does it mean to be a Wikipedian? Obviously, if you edit Wikipedia frequently, you are a Wikipedian, but how frequently? The Wikimedia Foundation currently defines “active contributors” as anyone who edits five or more times a month, but not all edits are created equal. There are the edits that I specialize in — mostly typos and occasional citations — and there are the edits that make Wikipedia sing, the ones that require painstaking research and eloquent craftsmanship. Does one type of edit make you more of a community member than another?

And do you have to be an editor to be a Wikipedian? What about the Wikipedia enthusiast, the people who evangelize Wikipedia to all of their friends and colleagues, despite never having clicked the edit button? What about the people who consistently donate money? My dad has nary a clue of my involvement with Wikimedia over the years, but he has enthusiastically given money every year completely on his own accord, and he waxes poetic about the project. He almost certainly evangelizes it more than I do. Is my dad a Wikipedian?

Most importantly, who decides who gets to be a Wikipedian? What is it that makes a Wikipedian feel like he or she is a Wikipedian?

Back in the day, I never felt like I was a Wikipedian, and I was perfectly fine with that. Whenever I participated in Wikimedia things, people were always very friendly, and I never felt excluded. I just didn’t feel like I was enough of a contributor to consider myself a Wikipedian.

That all changed on November 10, 2007, the day I first met Kat. Phoebe had organized a San Francisco meetup, and Kat was visiting from Washington, D.C. Even though I knew folks there, I was sitting quietly in a corner somewhere, when Kat approached me and introduced herself.

“Hi, I’m Kat,” she said.

“Hi, I’m Eugene,” I responded.

“Thanks for coming! Here, have a barnstar.”

Barnstars are the virtual currency of the wiki community. Anyone can award a barnstar to anyone else for their contributions to the community. Kat made it a point to carry around real-life barnstars, which are beautiful and heavy, and give them out to people at meetups. She did this entirely on her own accord and at her own expense.

I knew who Kat was, and I knew what barnstars were. As I said, I had never felt excluded from the community before — I was at a Wikipedia meetup, after all — but when Kat handed me that barnstar, that was the first time I felt welcomed. It was the first time I felt like I was a Wikipedian.

As networks mature, they sometimes start spending an inordinate amount of time on issues like governance, where defining things like community membership suddenly becomes more important. (This is especially endemic to networks with a strong top-down element, such as funder-initiated networks, but it’s true across the board.) This is where the organizational mindset tends to kick in, and people are easily sucked into complex and difficult questions around criteria. At some level, it’s unavoidable. However, I think that people spend way more time on these issues than are merited (and often earlier than necessary).

Worse, it often comes at the expense of what really matters. Human things, like welcoming people. It may sound basic and perhaps too squishy for some tastes, but it’s incredibly important, and in my experience, groups neglect these basic human patterns to their detriment.

When Groupaya designed the Delta Dialogues last year, we incorporated some sophisticated tools, because we were dealing with a wicked problem and a toxic culture. While we were incredibly skilled at using those tools, that’s not what differentiated our process from the countless other processes that had been tried in that region.

Our secret sauce wasn’t our tools. It was our attention to our participants’ humanity. It was our instinct to open the Dialogues by having every participant describe their favorite place in the Delta. It was our instinct to rotate the locations of those meetings, to have different stakeholders host them, so that other stakeholders could break bread in each other’s homes and get a better sense of who they were as people. It was how we incorporated both head and heart into our process. None of this was brain surgery, and yet, no one else was doing it.

Back in 2007, Kat was already a long-time contributor and board member. All of that was simply status. You can have those things and not be exercising any leadership. Going out on her own and finding simple, human ways to make others feel welcome — that’s leadership, and you don’t need any kind of official status to practice it.

The Wikimedia projects have seen an ongoing decline in active contributors since 2007. The reasons why are complex, and there are no simple solutions to turning that around. At the risk of sounding simplistic, I’m going to offer a solution anyway. Find ways to be more human.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy. There are systemic ways to encourage this, such as making the tool easier to use, revamping the language in the templates, and starting community initiatives like the wonderful Wikipedia Teahouse. All of this stuff is already happening.

Then there are the individual things that everyone can do. Things like reaching out to someone and welcoming them, or expressing gratitude to someone whom you value. Those things matter a lot more than we think, regardless who is doing them, and we don’t do them often enough.

Here’s my advice to everyone who participates in any Wikimedia project in any way — contributor, reader, donor, enthusiast. Make it a point to reach out to one other person. Maybe it’s someone who’s just getting started. Maybe it’s someone whom you’ve appreciated for a long time. Take the time to drop them a note, to welcome them or express your gratitude to them.

If we all did this, I promise you, something magical would start to happen. That’s true of Wikimedia, and it’s true of the world.

Consider this my small little expression of gratitude. Kat, thank you for making me feel welcome!