Meta, where innovative ideas die
- The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. The Signpost welcomes proposals for op-eds at our opinion desk.
...and why the place is indispensable nonetheless.
Meta is the wiki that has coordinated a wide range of cross-project Wikimedia activities, such as the activities of stewards, the archiving of chapter reports, and WMF trustee elections. The project has long been an out-of-the-way corner for technocratic working groups, unaccountable mandarins, and in-house bureaucratic proceedings. Largely ignored by the editing communities of projects such as Wikipedia and organizations that serve them, Meta has evolved into a huge and relatively disorganized repository, where the few archivists running it also happen to be the main authors of some of its key documents. While Meta is well-designed for supporting the librarians and mandarins who stride along its corridors, visitors tend to find the site impenetrable—or so many people have argued over the past decade. This impenetrability runs counter to Meta's increasingly central role in the Wikimedia movement.
Meta was created back in 2001 to outsource "meta" discussions on how to organize matters beyond the needs of English Wikipedia articles; however, the new project quickly took on multilingual responsibilities, particularly the translation tasks associated with the annual fundraisers, and transwiki administrative issues from steward services to global spam prevention to privacy investigation and conflict mediation. Nowadays, "Meta" refers to at least two largely distinct systems: one deals with the work of stewards and the small-wiki monitoring team (SWMT); the other is for other issues related to "meta debates".
In its linguistic diversity (matched only by Commons, where languages coexist but there is rarely the need for the same intensity of discourse) Meta is the only place where a volunteer expert taskforce can be instantly created to address complex cross-wiki problems.
Meta is currently ill-suited to provide a transwiki public sphere where disparate editing communities can discuss shared problems on equal terms and to engage with supportive organizations. It is not a deliberative space in which editors of content projects can easily navigate and participate. For newcomers and occasional visitors, there is an almost total absence of orientation, the working cycles are largely unpredictable, and there are mountains of cryptically written files and confusing, ill-documented proceedings. For the project's small community, it is increasingly difficult to manage processes that have enormous implications for the movement. Attempts to establish new instruments like a global ArbCom and a global ban policy haven't succeeded so far.
This situation has arisen from both the Meta's original function in relation to the English Wikipedia, and as a series of rational optimizations of individual working habits. The use of English by default in an environment in which there is little translation is a matter of continual complaint. The process has counterparts in the ways Wikipedia projects have organized their self-governing structures and help pages in favor of seasoned rather than new editors.
Meta, chronically short of volunteers, is now trying to adapt to the challenges of hosting sophisticated grant-making schemes. Among these challenges is the need for efficient translation support for both applications and their discussion. Furthermore, editors have made their case(s) in debating global policy reforms in languages other than English. Another prominent example was the debate on the Toolserver, where ironically, decisions affecting its largest client—the English Wikipedia—were prepared, discussed, and decided primarily in German.
The WMF has promoted less exclusive Meta committee models, such as by setting up an open GAC recruitment process; the foundation has also established charters for key committees. Bodies in charge of approving new content projects and supportive organizations were given new basic frameworks, and a volunteer committee, the FDC, was established to review entities' programs and finances. For the first time, chapters opened their own WMF trustee-selection process for community questions in 2012.
The project has played important roles in managing the lead-up to Wikimedia's most important launches of 2012: Wikidata and Wikivoyage; but these were exceptional cases, supported by significant funding, and with unique historical origins, respectively. However, this contrasts with the scenario faced by volunteers who seek feedback for innovative ideas, who are still left out in the cold in the current Meta environment. A committee with the aim of redressing this has been under organization since April 2012. While everybody acknowledged that WMF projects cannot be run just with a server in an office in Florida, as used to be the case, Meta still relies on IRC and a jungle of vaguely defined mailing lists for its off-wiki meetings—bygone messengers for ever-increasing numbers of community members introduced to the internet in a Facebookish age.
The resulting problems have partly been fixed by diversifying the community news media over the past two years. The WMF has put resources in its own professional blog to inform the public, and created the Wikimedia highlights. Special interest newsletters for topics such as GLAM (February 2011), research (April 2011), education (February 2012), and Wikidata (August 2012) have been established. The Signpost widened its scope to include more significant coverage of the movement beyond the English Wikipedia. The German Wikipedia's community tabloid, the Kurier, was complemented by a chapter-supported newsletter, the Wikimedia Woche, at the peak of the image filter controversies (September 2011), and the French community created Regards sur l'actualité de la Wikimedia ("Current Wikimedia events") in July of the same year. But none of these channels provides anything like a space for cross-community dialogues.
Divergent communications realities make the task of creating a coherent Wikimedia movement more difficult to achieve. If the movement is to acknowledge shifting community needs and patterns of communication, we need to and can open Meta's gates.