[Wikimedia-l] My vision for WMF and the movement

Ting Chen wing.philopp at gmx.de
Wed Oct 9 09:52:46 UTC 2013

Hello dear all,

the following was one of the documents I created for my ED application. 
It took me quite some time to create it and thus it was clear for me at 
the beginning that I would publish it at some time point. I struggled a 
long time with myself though about when to publish it. I didn't want to 
publish it as long as I was an aspirant for the position since this 
seems to me to be unfair to the other candidates. And now that I am out 
of the run I think it is a good time to do this. Many of you may find 
your own ideas reflected in it. I think it is not surprising that ideas 
doesn't come from nowhere but from the interaction of people with each 
other. I want to thank you all for the thoughts you published here or 
elsewhere (like on Wikimania or on meta). I didn't change the wording of 
the text and I know it is quite inappropriate for this forum. And as I 
said before, since I am out of competition it is quite outdated, what 
makes it bit of embarrassing. I appologize for that.


In 2012 the Wikimedia Foundation conducted a cultural study about 
itself. As a result it identified its current corporate culture as that 
of the archetype of an Innocent. And the Foundation decided to transform 
itself into the archetype of a Sage in the coming years.

For me to be a sage means to speak with wisdom, means people will pay 
attention to what you say, means own leadership. For me it is a 
leadership that is different from what is taught in schools. For me 
leadership does not mean to own a title, an impressive shoulder mark, a 
reward, or to be claimed an authority. For me leadership means to be 
able to convince people by wisdom, to let people follow you because they 
see the benefit by following you.

I would like to lead the Foundation into such an organization. Into a 
small, in comparison to other world wide operating organizations with 
similar impact, but highly efficient organization that operates as the 
core of a movement with strong partners. I would like to describe in 
more detail about what I mean by this on three most important fields on 
which the Foundation is working: On software development, on community 
engineering and on movement leadership.

Software development is a critical component of what the Foundation is 
doing. The Foundation need to keep improve the usability of its project 
sites, both for readers and for editors, and it needs to make the 
knowledge millions of volunteers contributed accessible by as many 
people as possible. As a board member of the WMF I have repeatedly urged 
the Foundation to increase the efficiency and organizational maturity of 
our tech department. For me the most important tasks on the technology 
side of the Foundation are the following two: Keep step with the 
contemporary technological and design progress, provide a good and 
modern foundation for other third party developers so that they can tap 
on the vast data set collected by the Wikimedia projects, and keep the 
development as near as possible to the users.

In the past few years we see a dazzling development in communication and 
IT technology. Almost every year there was a new generation of mobile 
devices coming onto market and substitutes the older devices in just one 
or two years. And the currently dominating phones, tablets or even 
glasses will not necessarily be the dominating models in five or ten 
years. We saw major companies like Nokia or RIM lost hold on 
technological trend and thus fall out of the favor of the market in the 
past five years. Keeping pace with this tremendous development speed is 
almost impossible for an organization like the WMF.

The Foundation had improved its software development efficiency in the 
past two years tremendously. Since one year we are using SCRUM as our 
software development method. Nevertheless I see further potential for 
improvement, especially with the use of SCRUM. For example the SCRUM 
method requires the involvement of the customer as part of the project. 
In theory the customer should be the project owner. For the WMF, the 
customers are its users (both editors and readers). Use the SCRUM 
philosophy on the WMF means that users should be given a possibility to 
be involved in the software development as early and as frequently as 
possible. For that reason the WMF should build up a test server where it 
can deploy part of its prototype development and invite users to test 
and comment the features in a very early phase.

Another possibility to involve users as part of the project is to let 
users decide part of development priority. Take from the Bugzilla some 
of most asked feature requests and let users vote on Meta about which 
one should be resolved at first. Dedicate part of the engineering team 
on that request and build a project. After the feature is deployed, ask 
users vote for the next feature to be prioritized. This approach will 
also improve our goodwill inside of the community.

Another way to keep pace with the technological development is to 
provide a solid and up-to-date foundation, with which we can give room 
to the broad developer community the possibility to build on. By that I 
mean to provide a good set of APIs (application programming interfaces), 
which can be used by other developers so that they can tap on the data 
and do their own development. The WMF cannot afford to work on all 
fronts of contemporary technology. It cannot afford teams working on the 
desktop front-end, as well as on the mobile front-end and on other 
forthcoming devices. It should have experts on all these fields, who 
constantly keep eyes on the newest development, and experimenting with 
prototypes of these new technologies. But most importantly, they should 
bring their experience back to the API developers so that these can keep 
their interface with the newest development. We should let the broad 
developer community build on this foundation, so that they can create 
the most modern, most sophisticated applications for each special 
device. This is also perfectly in accordance with the philosophy of the 
Foundation, which is to empower people and to free their creative spirit.

A third topic that is for me of a certain priority is to periodically 
provide a whole database dump of all Wikimedia projects. The reason for 
this is that nothing lasts forever, starting with organizations like the 
Wikimedia Foundation and not at last ending with social and political 
systems in which it is currently embedded in. The WMF need to take care 
that the human knowledge that is contributed to its projects by 
uncountable volunteers will even survive the Foundation itself. And 
there is only one way to do it: to periodically provide and distribute a 
copy of its database.

Currently, except a very small portion, the main engineering team of the 
Foundation is based in San Francisco, although for the Foundation 
distributed teams are not something that is totally new. The Foundation 
cooperated for example with the Indian team working on localization of 
the indic languages and worked with the Wikidata team which is mainly 
based in Germany. Many companies, for example WorldPress, explored 
distributed developer teams in an extreme way, and very successful. I 
worked with distributed developer teams in the last five years in 
different roles. I think WMF should explore more with distributed 
developer teams. There is a philosophical and a practical reason for the 
Foundation to do this. The philosophical one is the principle guidance 
of the Foundation that we are a decentralized movement. And the 
practical one is that many things, especially related to localization is 
better done where it is needed: where the users are.

Just as there is an intrinsic conflict inside of the engineering 
department between the software development and the system maintenance 
teams (this is not a unique problem for the WMF but actually for all 
companies that operate both of them) there is an intrinsic conflict 
inside all WMF projects between the keepers and the builders. The WMF 
projects collect and keep human knowledge. And at some degree these two 
tasks are in a conflict of interest. At the beginning of the projects, 
when the collected content was still few and incomplete, the builders 
prevailed. When the projects get larger and more prominent, the keepers 
gain terrain. The WMF need to work out a way to keep the spirit of 
innovation and at the same time take care of the reliability of the 
content it is hosting. And it needs to find a way to resolve the 
conflict between the two aspects in a human and civil way.

I have already mentioned in my resign mail from the board about the 
problems our projects are facing: The community is biased toward the 
better educated male population of the world. I believe this bias 
currently lead to a deadlock with the smoldering conflict inside of the 
projects: The conflicts and the incivility that it resulted expel users, 
especially the less vocal and aggressive ones, which stiffens the bias 
inside of the community. While the bias of the community leads to a more 
aggressive way of the conflict.

I believe that the Foundation need to address all these problems by 
doing social engineering on its project communities.

The problems, both the conflict between the keepers and the builders, as 
well as embrace new communities, welcome new cultures, while keep the 
value of an existing community is not new and unique for the WMF and its 
projects. Many societies faced or are facing the same problem. Many had 
resolved or periled on these problems in the human history.

What is new for the WMF is the phenomenon of online and virtual 
communities. It is so new that until now there is only very few research 
works about this topic. Little is known in theory about how online 
communities evolve and how they transform, which internal and external 
forces influence their development. The lack of theoretical foundation 
makes every effort of change a constant try and error. On the other 
hand, there is no entity in the world that can provide such a rich and 
detailed and even multiple record on this field as the WMF projects. 
Cooperation between the WMF and research institute for social science 
can be beneficial for both sides. The Foundation can benefit from the 
results of the research institutes so that it can modify rules, provide 
technical environments to shift its community to be more inclusive and 
more balanced while the research institutes can benefit from the open 
and detailed records or even through field studies inside the 
communities to develop new theories for this modern phenomenon. On a 
broader way I also believe that the research on the WMF projects and its 
evolution can provide solutions to many conflicts in the real world. I 
want, and I believe the WMF can, build up knowledge and become a real 
sage in this field. There is nowhere in the world that is more prone for 
this than the WMF.

Except WikiVoyage currently all WMF projects are specialized on academic 
knowledge. But this is only part of the human knowledge that the WMF 
promised to collect in its vision. It is like IQ only measures some 
partial aspect of human intelligence. I would like the WMF to lead and 
research possibilities to open its projects for other aspects of human 
knowledge: the everyday knowledge, knowledge that is undocumented, or 
even be considered cannot be documented. I believe the WMF should also 
gather these knowledge and should open room for volunteers who are 
willing to contribute these kinds of knowledge.

The global development is another typical example where the principle of 
decentralization can apply perfectly. In contrary to the earlier 
approach I believe the WMF should not by itself try to set foot on the 
regions that we consider has great potential to develop. This can be 
done by the local organizations. The WMF should provide guidance and 
principles, give support to the local organizations to establish a 
strong and self sustainable infrastructure, educate people so that they 
gain the skill to plan and run operations, perform controlling and 
evaluation of the organizations. Out of its experience the WMF also 
should be able to provide consultation on operational models and 
activities that are promising. Also here, being a sage means for me the 
ability to give valuable advices and helps.

For this I believe we need strong local organizations. Until today, most 
of the WMF partner organizations are weak. Most importantly they are 
weak on structure. Most of them have a very thin base with only the 
board as active members, some don't even have an operational board. From 
such weak organizations one cannot expect strong operational 
performance. There is no other people out there who can make these 
organizations and future partner organizations strong, only WMF itself 
can do this. On the other side, I also believe that strong partner 
organizations should be more closely aligned to the WMF. It is not 
enough only to say that the organization supports free knowledge in its 
bylaw. I believe that the partner organizations should clearly state 
their recognition of the principles of the Wikimedia movement, their 
involvement in the strategic planing of the movement and their 
dedication and contribution to achieve the movement goals. This 
statement is needed to guarantee that we are working on the same goals 
and have the same understanding of principles. The alignment is 
absolutely important for the future operations and for the trust building.

My goal of being the ED of the WMF will be to fulfill the transformation 
of the organization from an Innocent into a Sage, in this case, even a 
sage in multiple fields: In technical engineering to guarantee the 
leading position of the WMF for the future years; in social engineering 
to transform and develop and motivate our volunteers and fuel our 
movement and projects; in leading a closely aligned group of strong 
international organizations to pursue our vision and our mission.

More information about the Wikimedia-l mailing list