On Sunday, the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation published several resolutions concerning movement roles (following the publication of a resolution on the related subject of fundraising, see the other report in this issue). This concluded a process that started in October 2010, with predecessors going back to at least 2009. The details of the model are discussed in this week's "News and notes" column, but the Signpost also caught up with community-elected board member Samuel Klein (Sj) to discuss the background of these debates, the long-term importance of their subject, and why it has taken so long to arrive at this conclusion.
"What really matters is how we define what direction to head in, which new initiatives to try, and how we define which ones worked and which did not. Those are all specifics in which all editors and contributors have a direct stake and should have a voice." Community-elected member of the Board of Trustees Samuel Klein (Sj), pictured here by Joi Ito.
Today, eleven years after its inception, Wikipedia is still the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, but there is a growing number of activities in which volunteers interact with the outside world in a way that requires their being legitimized in some form as official representatives of the Wikimedia movement. This legitimization can be as simple as an @wikimedia email address, or access to donor funds (raised under the official assurance that it would be used to advance Wikimedia projects). If I'm a Wikipedian who needs this kind of formal support for my project, whom do I need to turn to? Can we say that the movement roles discussion is largely about who should have that kind of authority to grant projects this kind of legitimization? What would be your concise definition of the concept of "movement roles"?
First of all, thanks to the interviewers for organizing this. This is an important topic related to our shared community identity, and how we make long-term decisions together. Everyone should reflect on these topics, if only once in a while.
'Movement roles' refers to defining the roles, rights, and responsibilities of the active groups in our movement—to improve communication and trust, and to help people get support for important work with minimal bureaucracy.
If you need support for a single project, you can apply directly to the Grant Advisory Committee; and can also apply to a chapter near you for support.
If you manage an ongoing project or group, and regularly need basic support – from reimbursement for running small events to getting approval to use the trademarks to identify and promote local projects – then you can become a user group. Eventually this may be as easy as filling out a form online; in the near future, groups should directly contact the Chapters Committee (which is expanding its scope and may soon rename to become the Affiliations Committee).
Is the English Wikipedia editing community also considered one of these "active groups in our movement", for example? Where does it fit in the list given in the new resolution?
The affiliation models identified so far cover formal groups that interact with the world off-wiki. These are generally groups with explicit members and contact people. Other roles not yet 'recognized' in this way include individual contributors (who can take on many different roles, some quite significant to a project, and are indeed recognized in various ad hoc ways on their projects; the post of Featured Article Director comes to mind) or Projects and their communities (with are defined by scope or as spaces for collaboration, with membership defined implicitly rather than explicitly, and generally lack 'contact information' or legal status in any jurisdiction). That said:
Any editing group could name a contact person and be recognized as a user group. This is easier for small, focused groups than for large, amorphous ones.
Groups focused on a major theme that develop a formal organization to support their work, both online and offline, can also apply to be recognized as a thematic organization. I could imagine such a group focusing for instance on lexicographic knowledge, and including editors of Wiktionary and OmegaWiki. There are long-standing technical and coordination needs in that area of focus, which they might organize initiatives and members to pursue. As thematic organizations are intended to be limited in number, the Affiliations Committee might suggest that they support all languages within their theme, the way that chapters are expected to support all Projects within their geography.
Can you describe some of the problems that sparked this conversation and the establishment in 2009 of the "movement roles" task force and the following year of the movement roles workgroup (Signpost coverage, board vote)? Why did these attempts to arrive at consensus recommendations falter?
At one level, groups that did not qualify as chapters but were doing work at a similar scale with national or international partners and large groups of community members wanted to know how to let others know about their work and to promote their work in line with our trademark policies. At another, there was concern that not all chapters were living up to the same standards.
During the process, the working group articulated a few tough topics that needed clarity: reducing overlap in roles and activities (e.g. between the WMF and individual wikiprojects or chapters), recognizing new group models other than chapters, strengthening accountability and legitimacy of groups, normalizing and tracking the flow of funds across the movement, and increasing transparency and communication about our movement work.
Many national chapters have now been established or are in development, but for now they still represent only a very small slice of the Wikimedia community. Can you explain why chapters are the best organizational unit for Wikimedia users, why they uniquely have earned representation on the Board of Trustees (2 seats guaranteed) and the Funds Dissemination Committee, and the role you see chapters playing in a democratic, transparent global movement?
Chapters are not the "best" organizational unit—individual language Projects are the most natural unit of identity and organization, and have traditionally been the first way that we grouped people and synthesized their ideas into policies and proposals. And projects and editors certainly need better large-scale organization to parallel that of national chapters, which directly synthesizes and articulates the work and needs of editors, curators, and other contributors.
But Chapters tend to focus on off-wiki partnerships, physical event coordination, and outreach to regional and national governments and civic bodies—most of which are naturally grouped by language and many of which map neatly onto geographic regions. They also tend to be interested in initiatives requiring an incorporated group to maintain infrastructure, and focus on grants and local fundraising. These are valuable parts of our movement, especially if you think of existing networks such as national governments and local civic groups as potential movement members.
Historically, how has the understanding of movement roles evolved, from the founding of the first chapters in 2004 until now? Has the general opinion of what chapters are for changed since then, and how?
The original global concept of chapters was very freeform, and was defined after the German chapter had already begun to organize itself. For a time, they were imagined as groups that would focus primarily on work within their country. That has shifted over time to regional groups who are each focused on the global mission, but committed to local outreach and partnerships in pursuit of that goal.
Klein observing proceedings at Wikimania 2010 in Gdansk.
Leonhard Dobusch, a Berlin-based scholar who has studied the relationship of the Foundation and chapters since at least 2010 (Signpost coverage), has observed about the fundraising debates that "the whole conflict is fought out by representatives of the formal organizational bodies. The majority of Wikipedians – editors and administrators – seem to be rather uninterested in these governance issues." Would you agree that this a problem with respect to the movement roles question? Has it had an effect on the state of the debate?
From the perspective of the editors and administrators he mentions, it hardly matters whether the distribution of funds and the coordination of partnerships is handled by a single global Foundation or by a network of chapters, or some combination of the two. So it is not so surprising that many are uninterested. As was noted a few times in recent discussions of which bodies process payments, the technical details of how we get and transparently manage fund should hardly matter—what really matters is how we define what direction to head in, which new initiatives to try, and how we define which ones worked and which did not. Those are all specifics in which all editors and contributors have a direct stake and should have a voice.
That said, there are many issues of empowering editors and project contributors, and organizing their voices on a larger scale, which are still unsolved. Movement roles to date mainly focused on identifying and recognizing the work of groups that don't fall into any of [foundation / chapters / individual contributors]—which will help amplify the input of some of these editors and small groups.
I wouldn't say that editors are apathetic about governance—they care a lot about the project-level governance of edits and contributions. The lack of interest to date of editors on large-scale community governing bodies has prevented a similar sort of "role" discussion from happening on the projects themselves. The MR working group limited its scope to addressing the role of organized and incorporated groups; while noting that there was an equally complex set of questions about individual contributors which need to be resolved in the future.
According to one Wikimania submission, the Foundation "is regularly accused [of imposing] a US-centric cultural model", which together with the predominance of the English Wikipedia generates "power tensions" (exacerbated by the financial success of the Wikimedia movement), which in turn "nourish nationalist approaches ... Wikimedia chapters claim their role in providing a more balanced cultural approach and in managing decentralised outreached programs. In reality the fund-raising campaign mirrors last century geopolitics with the US and few European countries sharing the cake; Switzerland with a rather independent position and Italy unable to keep a proper slice." Do you agree with this criticism of the Foundation and chapters? Otherwise could you explain how the new movement roles resolution will help to address such problems?
I think that expressly recognizing non-national thematic organizations that are doing great focused long-term work will also help address this concern in the medium- to long-term.
But I do not agree with the criticism above. If one is looking for such power dynamics, one may be able to find matching patterns in many places; and it is true that we were founded in the US and have found the most enthusiastic community of encyclopedists in Germany. But with the FDC we are moving away from a world in which how much money is donated from a country is tied to how much is invested within that country; and away from the US having direct control over 90% of all programmatic investments.
Klein addressing attendees at the Wikimedia in Higher Education Summit in July 2011.
As the annual fundraiser approaches the $30 million mark, distribution of funds has become the hottest controversy within the Wikimedia community. The issue of control over funding has arisen in the last year or two largely as a result of the recent ability of some chapters to retain large amounts of money from the fundraiser by acting as a payment processor for donors from certain geographic regions. An observer reading about the debates might wonder which is truly the core of the dispute: concerns over decentralization and cultural diversity, or simply who gets to control the money? If the former, can you describe for Signpost readers what these concerns are, and any specific events or problems that might exemplify them?
The two primary concerns about how donations flow through the movement are accountability and equitable distribution. For the sake of accountability, all funds should be processed by groups with demonstrated competence to distribute them to good projects transparently and effectively.
For the sake of equitable distribution, funds should be allocated in a way that supports communities that do not have wealthy donors, and that promotes effective and impactful projects regardless of where they originate.
The recent resolutions were an effort to address the inflamed tensions over movement roles and funding priorities; to what extent do you think the process the resolutions outline will resolve these tensions? Are we looking at a long-term solution, or will the debates of the last year prove to be a preview of inter-organizational relations for years to come? In what way might tension and conflict between the Wikimedia Foundation and national chapters affect the projects, their users or the uninvolved reader?
I expect the recent decisions will be part of a long-term solution; though some specifics may change with time. Many tensions have been addressed, and others have been identified even where no solution is in place. There is some unhappiness among Chapters around the recent decision on who can directly process donations in the annual sitewide fundraisers, but aside from this the feedback from the past weekend's Chapters Meeting suggests that some long-standing tensions at the organizational level have been resolved.
Of course the creation of a strong funds dissemination committee, precisely by empowering more of the community to engage in new decisions, may create new tensions that did not exist in the past. I do not expect any of this tension and resolution to affect most users or readers; but it will affect what sorts of initiatives we launch in the future; and how decentralized or bold our experimentation is.