By Daria Cybulska, Director of Programmes and Evaluation at Wikimedia UK
My adventure with the Wikimedia movement started in 2012, 10 years ago. Ten years is a long time, and when I joined as a staff member at Wikimedia UK, freshly established as a charity, there were already plenty of established community members around me. I remember coming to the global Wikimania conference in 2012, where in the opening session the audience of over a thousand people were asked to stand up, and then sit down in sequence depending on how long they’ve been in the movement – starting from the newcomers. As I sat through the countdown, embarrassed by my short tenure, I got the message that what’s valued in the movement is your length of service, and a direct connection to the key moments in its history.
With English Wikipedia being established in 2001, I now have roughly the same tenure in the movement as the longest standing stalwarts at that point of Wikimania 2012. Somehow I don’t feel like one of the movement’s wise old women, despite living through some of its rather interesting moments. I also note, gladly, the movement’s tentative shift towards celebrating its newcomers.
At a recent Wikimania the countdown went from the longest standing to the newest participants, with the newbies getting an ovation when they are the last people standing.
When I joined Wikimedia, not long after completing a philosophy degree, I thought of Wikipedia as an experiment in epistemology of testimony, in how you decide to believe the information shared by someone else. Turns out things are much more complicated than that single angle, especially because the Wikipedia project doesn’t happen by itself – it’s made by people and their interactions, and that’s complicated.
Since my early days I’ve been exposed to a number of beliefs about Wikipedia and its movement which I approached with suspicion. As a way of reflecting on my ten years with Wikimedia, I’m sharing five of my enduring hesitations, meaning approaches I came across that I’m suspicious of and try to mitigate (I could go for a commemorative ten hesitations but even I would find that a bit demotivating!).
Build it and they’ll come
This is a common adage in the techno-social projects and movements, where you believe that when you set up a tool, a space (in terms of tech and logistics), people will appear and engage with it. I’ve had conversations with potential partner institutions believing that if they set up their own wiki, it will work just as wonderfully as Wikipedia itself, with volunteer contributors appearing out of nowhere. This might work sometimes but usually doesn’t, and it’s true even within Wikipedia across its many internal projects – the magic of Wikipedia isn’t uniformly distributed. Providing community support and facilitation is non negotiable, so is designing inviting ways of getting into the project, especially if we want to ensure inclusion. I captured some of these thoughts within a collaborative book project I supported, Collective Wisdom.
Move fast and break things
Another common tech phrase speaks to the spirit of fast iteration, putting out minimum viable products and getting them critiqued in order to improve quickly. I have fully embraced sharing my thinking and documents early and can’t quite imagine working on something without colleagues’ eyeballs on it. But moving fast and breaking things feels quite individualistic and doesn’t give justice to the communities that may be using or relying on whatever is being broken (even if to improve it).
I’m also forever astounded by how many things in the movement have been quick temporary decisions that somehow solidified into permanent solutions (not dissimilar to when you move to a new house and a temporary DIY solution you did in week 1 is somehow still there 10 years down the line). The added complication is that people come and go, and at one point nobody remembers why something is done the way it is, and who to ask about changing it.
Rely on hive mind
Because of this distributed knowledge in a distributed system, we often don’t know who has the information we require. It can be useful to crowdsource answers to a problem at hand; however, it relies on people having the time to engage. Wikimedia movement hasn’t really cracked knowledge management (has anybody?) but more effort put into documentation and making knowledge accessible would be a good thing.
Revere open knowledge
Of course I think open knowledge is a good thing and a force for good. Wikipedia has been called the last best place on the internet, and as much as I’m not into exceptionalism, perhaps there’s something to it. Often the partnerships I set up with external organisations are motivated by the inherent belief that working on open knowledge simply contributes to some greater good. However, I believe that it’s useful to be self critical about openness. This thinking has developed somewhat in recent years, with examination of ‘ethics of open’, or reflections on how the nature of the open movement is excluding some people.
Together with these tensions and criticisms there is no shortage of ideas within the movement of how to change things. Hopefully I’m wrong, but sometimes I do think that master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house – or at least that it’s pretty hard.It does seem difficult to change the Wikimedia movement, which I’ve experienced acutely while working on the implementation of the global 2030 Wikimedia vision of knowledge equity. Generalising, it’s hard for newcomers and their fresh ideas to get heard and accepted, while the thinking of the longstanding members is constrained by operating within existing movement structures and approaches (even if they’ve been DIYed!). On top of that, the movement is so beautifully amorphous that even if there are good ideas of what to change, it’s hard to know how to implement – and we’ve even tried complexity theory which is supposed to be good for such settings.
Taking the long view, however, things have changed somewhat. During that first Wikimania I attended in 2012, the organisers ran out of conference t-shirts for women – they didn’t expect quite so many of them to turn up. These days we speak of barriers to participation, ensuring friendly spaces, and try to think about how participating in Wikimedia may benefit people, rather than the project itself. I hope that with ten years of experience on my back I can continue to support and amplify these good ideas.