[Foundation-l] About transparency

SJ Klein meta.sj at gmail.com
Tue Dec 25 23:39:56 UTC 2007

A fairly long reply to Florence and Sebastian.

On Sat, 22 Dec 2007, Florence Devouard wrote:

> Being leaving you, I would like to share with you part of an article
> (which you may find in a rather famous encyclopedia). I invite all of
> you to read it carefully.

Thank you for sharing.

> Some organizations and networks, for example, Wikipedia, the GNU/Linux
> community and Indymedia, insist that not only the ordinary information
> of interest to the community is made freely available, but that all (or
> nearly all) meta-levels of organizing and decision-making are themselves
> also published. This is known as radical transparency.
> ---------
> I think the last paragraph is interesting. Indeed, what some of you are
> asking is radical transparency at the organization level. And radical
> transparency is not really suitable for us

I regret that you feel this way.  Are you deeply resolved that this is 
right?  You who always stood up for the rights of the unwanted on the 
projects?  The power of such transparency is being greatly undervalued -- 
indeed, even in this email on transparency, you do not once mention the 
value of transparency explicitly.  When did we start doubting this basic 

I have always had the utmost faith in you as a board member, and then as 
Chair, precisely because you have such a strong sense of openness and 
propriety.  So it disturbs me to read such muted overtones in this letter 
of yours.

> in most part because we are in the eye-storm of the media interest and 
> that any scandal (or non-scandal actually) is likely to raise the 
> interest of a journalist, and likely to spread at light-speed

Why are we as a project so sensitive?  Why should we care?  Wikipedia is 
and will remain one of the most extraordinary collaborations in human
history.  The greatest exercise in knowledge organization OF ALL TIME.

The one great strength of the project is that there has been only one; 
there is nothing like it anywhere in the world, in any field. The 
ramblings of a journalist out for a juicy story are hardly relevant on a 
timescale of generations.  Indeed, being remembered for radical 
transparency would do more to cement Wikipedia's reputation than any 
short-term gain in public approval.  Why are we seeking 'public' approval?

> Why should we care ? Collectively, we are likely to mostly care because
> of our economical system. We essentially rely on the goodwill of
> donators, and donators are heavily sensitive to public displays of
> disagreements, fights, errors, misestimates, major screw-ups.

Well, that's an interesting position.  So we seek public approval for 
short-term financial gain.  I also think it is entirely wrong.  I believe 
that the most active and valuable contributors -- those few editors who 
put in thousands of hours of work a year on the site, whose talents we as 
a project could not possible find by posting job descriptions and trying 
to hire 'editors', who are contributing the most to our little 
Wiki-economy -- that those contributors will all appreciate this sort of 
transparency.  Tremendously; appreciate with the depth of spirit that 
leads one to renew a commitment to devote one's spare waking hours to a 
great endeavour.

We should absolutely preserve a clean reputation; but that starts with
our most prolific and active donors : the people who pay close enough
attention to know the difference between a pr pitch and the truth :
the people who love and respect the history of often heated debate
which gave rise to Wikipedia as we know it.

And why should we want to hide fights, errors, and disagreements from the 
world, those who are not yet contributors? This is the nature of life; of 
collaboration; of any project. I think being open about conflict or tricky 
issues is often the best way to draw new people in -- the best way to 
encourage newfound trust. contribution to Wikipedia, like the foundation 
of any economic system, is based on widespread trust.

And again, even from a publicity standpoint; shows and programs about the 
instability of real life are today as popular as any on television.  It is 
a myth that people prefer or respect simple scripted story lines and a 
facade of perfection to the turbulence of reality.

On the topic of having too little time and 'human resources' to deal 
swiftly with certain things (like the treasurer search):

> For example, we are looking for a treasurer. Can we reasonably appoint 
> someone most of us have never met ? Likely not, but the next time we

I know there was a community calls for interested treasurers.  But
was there a suggestion of having a public place to discuss these; or
even to see who has applied?  What is the rationale there?  With more 
public discussion, many of us would have become more invested in the 
issue, and would likely have had good suggestions to make.

Perhaps I am not the only one reading this list who can think of 
potentially suitable person they have not contacted... Of course personal 
resumes and other information could be submitted privately.  But I wonder
if any of the truly eligible candidates are people who would not even want 
their interest in the position to be published and discussed openly.

> However, in the recent weeks, my belief is that, we have seen
> - a tendency to shut down requests and criticism, whether on this list
> or even on private lists, in an attempt to canalize the nature of
> information being made available
> - a tendency to craft "authorized" messaging, accompanied with severe
> criticism against trusted members deviating from this authorized messages

What does this mean, for such a large [set of] project[s]?  What is an
example of an authorized message?

> Not all ideas in these three tendencies are wrong. Standardization may 
> be a good idea in some circonstances and facilitate daily operations. 
> Privacy to discuss sensitive matters is obviously a good idea. And 
> speaking with a unique voice rather than a cloud of voices is 
> strengthening.

I'm not sure the last sentence is true.  When there *is* a shared voice 
and vision, that is strengthening.  When this is forced, it is not.
Speaking with many different [genuine!] voices can also be strengthening.

> But I would advise going too far on that path. It is not healthy 
> generally, it is frustrating many good contributors. In an environmental 
> situation which is very unstable with competitors, a rather 
> decentralized, flexible system, with plenty of opportunities to jump in 
> the system, is usually considered the best solution.

I agree it is frustrating many contributors.  I don't think competition 
has much to do with it...

Sebastian writes:
> This kind of transparency is detrimental to any organisation of
< significant size...
>  If, for example, a business has a tentative interest in a deal with the 
> Wikimedia Foundation to publish Wikipedia content and use the trademark, 
> those following negotiations will necessarily be confidential as will be 
> the terms of the agreement. They have to be because incorporating 
> Wikipedia content in a new, innovative way can be a significant 
> competitive advantage - just think of the recent announcement by Spiegel 
> in Germany to create a new knowledge portal combining a variety of 
> sources with Wikipedia articles.

I agree with all of the changes you suggest later in your email, 
Sebastian, but I disagree with your comments above... your example of the 
Spiegel and other similar efforts are hardly ones that need to be kept 
largely confidential -- if 10% of such discussions are kept private, that 
should both be quite transparent and help avoid divulging sensitive 
private/personal/financial data.

The competitive advantage argument falls flat; I suppose we could also 
encourage innovation in MediaWiki by engaging in business deals with 
people who want to develop competitive advantage by adding non-free 
extensions -- after all, it is one of the most widely used pieces of 
software in the world.  There are good reasons, tied directly to goals of 
sharing information with the widest possible audience, that we don't do 
that.  And the creators of the tools in question chose their licenses 
carefully to preempt such arguments shutting down the free sharing of 
future innovations.

Wishing you and everyone a happy holiday season, and a head start on
a productive and joyful 2008,


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