Monthly Archives: January 2015

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Burmese scale for opium1

Since this image seems to be getting a lot of hits, I might just mention it is a portable opium scale from Burma. The photo was taken in front of my hotel window in Bangkok.


Sue Gardner on editor retention and the “holy shit” death spiral slide

screenshot sue speaks to wikimedia uk1Sue Gardner speaks to Wikimedia UK’s meeting of 11-19-2011. Slides here.  The video, as well as the visuals used in the presentation, are now available on Commons in three parts:

Section 1 of 3
Section 2 of 3
Section 3 of 3

Note: The following is a transcript of the first video only.  I have made arbitrary headings to highlight themes I find to be still worthy of attention: “the ‘holy shit’ death spiral slide”, “endless September”, and “Wikipedia as a video game — ‘it’s all nuns and tourists'”.

Sue Gardner: [continuing a conversation]…towards him and then that part will feel maybe like remedial and old school for other people, or maybe it won’t, right? I don’t know.

So, have you folks read the March 11th update, that we published, the Wikimedia Foundation –March 2011? No? None of you? Oh, this is going to be important for everybody, then.


Okay, yeah, that’s possible, that’s for sure possible. It was around the time of the board’s resolution on openness, which was published, which was, I can’t remember, 6 weeks either way of the update. I think we wrote the update–I think the board met in April and published a resolution on openness afterwards.

So, essentially, going back to what Andrew was saying before to this thing. (points to notes on easel board)
So we built—in the strategic plan–we built the five pillars for what was strategically important, what the Wikimedia movement out to be focused on. And when we built them, we did not know, how bad the editor retention problem was, right?

Wikimedia_UK_Nov_2011_Discussion_sheet_1 ASo when I go back to my board every year, and I say, you know, here is the plan for the year, what I say is:
~Stabilize infrastructure? We’re okay, right, we’re doing okay. We gradually improve, everything gets better and better.
~Quality…. Continues to increase, it increases naturally through the projects, that’s what happens, right? And there are lots of people focused on increasing quality with things like Wiki Loves Monuments.
~Reach. The number has continued to climb, there’s no problem, right? We need to do a lot of work on mobile to support people who are only going to use the internet via mobile devices, especially in the Global South. But it’s fine, it’s in hand. The numbers are going in the right direction, 477 million unique visitors, by the way, reported by comScore like, yesterday, which is our highest ever number. So we’re all good, right?
~Innovation. We’re wonky. Innovation happens unpredictably; it’s not particularly focused, necessarily. But there’s lots of decentralized stuff going on, so that’s okay too.
~(pointing to..what? apparently “increase participation”) This is not okay. This is not, not, not, not, not, at all okay. This is a huge problem, right?
So, we didn’t know it when we built these five. And so what I’ve done is, in my planning for the Wikimedia Foundation, since doing this work, we’ve pulled this out and highlighted it and emphasized it. And it’s tough, because money doesn’t necessarily solve that problem, right. So it’s not easy, it’s not like we can just dedicate the largest proportion of the budget to it and that will solve it. But it’s the thing that needs to be solved; it’s the hard problem that needs to be fixed. So, I will take you through it, and I’ve got links all through this, so you can go read after,wards, or whatever.

The “holy shit” death spiral slide

[2:30] Have you seen this slide? Okay, at the Wikimedia Foundation we call this the “holy shit slide”, okay? It’s like really, really bad.


The blue is current active editors at any given moment in time, you know, beginning in January 2001, and then going pretty much to today. You can see that it peaked—I think around 2005, 2006.

Endless September

We think we know why–there’s lots of reading you can do if you’re curious—it’s essentially Endless September, variations of Endless September, if you’re familiar with that phrase. If you’re not, you should read about that phrase, ’cause that’s the heart of the problem. [Note: see Wikipedia “Eternal September”]

[3:03] And then red, I believe is new editors, who survived one year after their start date. So we’ve done lots of research, the problem is, new editors aren’t making it to their first year anniversary. If they make it to their first year anniversary, they’re about as okay as they always were; they have the normal life cycle after that, but they’re not getting that far, that’s the core of the problem. So the problem is, people are coming in, in large numbers as they always have, right; they’re trying to enter the community–they want to edit–and they’re getting rebuffed. The situation is worst on the German and the English Wikipedias. Which is why I’m interested in you guys, right? Because you should be able to be a part of the solution.

So, why are they failing to penetrate the community? We think that the reason is because warnings have gone up, okay, criticism is way up, and praise and thanks have been in decline. So you can see that here, right, (points to board) and find that. The obvious question is, does that mean it’s just spammers and vandals–of course they’re getting warned and criticized, because they’re jerks and we don’t want them anyway? The answer is no, it is not because they’re vandals and spammers. So this chart, took out all vandalism, it took out all spamming, and it took out all known sock puppeting, and only what remained was good faith editors. We’ve got other charts that show, you know, that the percentage of good articles that they’re writing is the same as it ever was, the percentage of good faith edits is the same as it ever was, it’s not an increase in problematic new contributors.

What’s happening is that people who are just as good as they ever were, are coming in and getting smacked. You can see it, it’s actually incredibly heart-breaking. If you go onto the talk pages of new editors who have newly registered, it’s just template after template after template after template, right. And you know, it’s heart-breaking on both sides, because you can easily imagine yourself in the shoes of those new people, and how (laughs), like, why would they want to be part of this, right? Like they come and they make a change and they do something, and then they just get yelled at. And then you can also imagine it from the shoes of the Wikipedians who have made those templates, right? Because they’re trying, right, they’re giving them advice, they’re giving them forty links of places to go to get help, they’re not trying to hurt those people, right? They’re trying, actually ironically and kind of sadly, they’re trying to help them. But the effect of it, if you’ve got dozens and dozens and dozens of those templates, it doesn’t make you feel at all welcome. It makes you feel like Wikipedia hates you and wants to go away. And so, they do go away.

Are you guys with me? Like, yeah? You should tell me, if you disagree, at any point, or you’re not buying it, like tell me.

[Inaudible question]

In terms of the warnings? Yeah. [inaudible] That’s right. It’s interesting, I think I’ve got another slide that shows, um, that shows how it breaks down, let me see if I do. Yeah here, so, what’s interesting about this, right, is that you can see—what I found the most interesting about this, is pre-2006, there were no bots, there were no automated warnings, right? It was real people talking to real people. And if you go back and look at people’s talk pages, like, a person might make a crappy first edit, and then someone would go to their page and they would say, “oh, hey, you know, what you did is kind of wrong, do you want to talk about how to fix it?” And then the person, the new editor, would probably feel sort of okay about that, and they’d be like “okay, what did I do wrong”, and it was individual people talking to individual people. And then with the rise of the bots and so forth, suddenly they were depositing 500 words on your page of instruction, right, which just didn’t, you know, feel helpful. So you can see there, there was nothing before 2006, but today 4 out of 5 of the messages are bot-delivered, and 65% of them are straight-up warnings.

[6:56] [off-mike question]

[7:39] You’re completely wrong. I can see why you think that, not having seen, no but really, like I just, you know, we did, we gathered together,… we did kind of a meta-analysis where we pulled together everything that we knew, all the research that we had done, and that other entities had done, and so forth–I’ll show it to you later–we did a kind of testing of hypotheses. So, we brain-stormed maybe 20 hypotheses. One of them was that which we at the Wikimedia Foundation called the Gold Rush Theory, right? So the notion that the early prospecting days, where there was lots of gold to be made, are over, and so naturally today, you know, you’d have fewer people because there’s less to write about and so forth. There’s very little evidence to support that, there’s really no evidence to support that, and in fact, quite the contrary, you see the same pattern that we’re seeing on the English Wikipedia, and the German Wikipedia. You see it on the Hindi Wikipedia. You see it on Wikipedias that have five thousand articles, right. So there’s nothing to support that that is in fact what’s happened and there’s lots of evidence to suggest that it’s the Endless September and the other hypotheses that are actually true. You know, we see the same pattern, it’s essentially, if you go…let me go back…
[off-mike question about graph]

The blue is the same, right, it’s the same for all the language versions. It seems to be a timing issue. It’s that after—what it looks like to us, is that after a couple of years, a wiki reaches some kind of point at which it starts getting crufted over with rules and policies and warnings and templates and so forth, right, and it just becomes impenetrable. It grows a hide around itself where it’s no longer as porous, right, and no longer as open.
[9:20] And we know that—someone did a somebody did a thing on the English Wikipedia–I can’t remember who it is, maybe it is WereSpielChequers. Somebody did a thing where they got people to talk about their very first edits. I’m not talking about that other thing he did, that was great, I love that thing. But somebody did a thing where they got folks to talk about their first edits, right, and almost everybody’s edit was like, a terrible edit, right, like, you know, it was a COI edit, or it was a vandalism, or something awful. And it used to be the case that you could recover from that and become a good editor, and that now is not true. So sometimes when I talk to people who think that this is maybe okay or it’s not as bad as it seems or whatever, I’m always curious to know when they started editing. Because, I think, often we wrongly think it’s still the same for new people as it was for us. And it’s not even the same today as it was for me in 2007, right. Like, they’re having – look at their user pages—they’re just having a terrible experience. They’re just flooded with criticism, right. So that’s what’s happening.
[off-mike question]

[10:37] So, this is a piece of research that was done that shows us that deletions and reversions make new people less likely to stick around. And the effect, is actually, ironically and sadly, the effect is strongest for new editors who are highly prolific.

[10:50] So we did some analysis of what kinds of people turn out to be good Wikipedians, right. One of the indicators that someone is going to be a good Wikipedian is that they make a lot of edits in their first few days, like they basically get really excited and they really enjoy it and they’re suited to it, and they like it and so they do a lot of it. So I think it’s the duration of your first editing session and the number of edits you save in your first editing session is some kind of determining factor of how you’re going to take to the community. And those apparently, our research suggests, are the people who are most disincentivized, or most pushed away by being deleted and being reverted.

[11:30] So we know what the problem is, right, the problem is that you make a crappy edit just like everyone else has always made a crappy edit. You get deleted, nobody tells you why, you don’t get an explanation, if you do get an explanation it’s not from a human being, it’s machine language saying you violated some acronym you don’t know what it means, you’ve never been here before, you don’t know what’s going on.

Our qualitative research, and some of the quant stuff we’re done with free text fields tells us that people don’t distinguish between other Wikipedians and the website, right? So they think that the website is yelling at them, they don’t understand. And so it’s the same as if I’m on Facebook, and Facebook deletes something I put up. I feel reprimanded by Facebook. I feel like Facebook doesn’t like me, I’m using it wrong, something’s wrong. That’s the experience that people are having on Wikipedia. They don’t understand that maybe they’re having a dispute, an argument with another editor on a talk page. They don’t understand that that’s another person with their own opinion, they think that’s the website yelling at them. And so they just feel terrible, right? Like, we know, because we ask them. They just feel terrible, they feel like the website hates them, nobody wants their input, they’re doing it wrong, they all say they’re doing it wrong, they have no idea what’s going on around them they don’t know what a talk page is, etcetera etcetera, right? So super, super challenging.

[12:48] So. Why is it a problem? You guys stop me at any point if you want to stop me. John, you should stop me too, all right?

[Question from audience: “You focus very much on new editors, the bar for them is becoming more and more hostile. Have you seen any patterns in terms of old editors, particularly non-admins, who have been doing a small number of edits for a long time. Who are also kind of getting the same thing]

[13:22] Yeah, we’ve only started doing editor—like proper editor surveys–where the margin of error is something reasonable–about two years ago. I think we might have two data points, or we might just have one and then a secondary data point coming. Now what we have is just a baseline. We don’t have change over time, yet. But what we think, we’ve observed anecdotally in talking to people is that it’s harder for everyone, in fact, there’s a kind of ripple effect, so I’ll get to that next, so there’s a ripple effect which is kind of troubling, which you can see in places like Arbcom.

[14:01] So why does it matter?–this is getting to your point. Really what it means, is there aren’t enough people to do the work. So the people who are here, what that means is, the existing editors, this is anecdotal, right, but we know, qualitatively, people are stressed, they’re overworked, and they’re burned out, right? We can see it, right. And it exacerbates, it makes the entire culture fightier than it needs to be. It means that experienced editors have a harder time taking on leadership roles, because they get bogged down in basic tasks.

This is something I observed pretty early at the Wikimedia Foundation because Wikipedia operates close enough to the way a news room operates, that I can understand it from when I was a journalist, right? And journalists in a newsroom—senior, experienced journalists, behave in a certain way, it’s predictable, it’s understandable. It’s like if you’ve been chasing ambulances and waking up at three in the morning to go to fires for fifteen years or so, just comes a point where you want a desk job, right? And you should get a desk job. Because you’re older and wiser, and you’re been around, and you can be judicious, and all of that.

[15:03] And what I’ve noticed at Wikipedia, and again this is just my own impression, right, but my impression based on having been a working journalist for fifteen years. What I noticed was those old guys who had good judgment and had been around, were still going after fires, right? And it was heartbreaking, because, there was, I mean, you do have folks like NewYorkBrad, who’s on arbcom, who has a more traditional, wise, elder person’s role, right? But you still have lots of people who are doing scut work, right? And where—so one of my first questions when I came in was, where are the new generations of young people relieving them of the need to do all the scut work, right? Um, so, we see bureaucrat, administrator, arbcom, positions getting harder to fill, steward type positions getting harder to fill, right. For a whole bunch of reasons that become self-reinforcing, and then the requirements to become a steward are so ridiculous that nobody can ever be a steward, right, because you’re going to be a steward for life and there are only ten of you so all must be perfect, right?

[16:02] A vicious circle comes into play, the newbies are increasingly being criticized, warned and driven off, which leads into a kind of death spiral, right, cause it self-reinforces, again, the whole system self-reinforces over time. From a content perspective, from a quality perspective, systemic bias will get worse, right? We don’t benefit from the quality improvements that we should get, when new people come in, right?. And the older editors–the supposition is–the older editors are going to naturally age out, and there’s nobody to replace them right?

[16:34] We know that Wikipedia editors have a life cycle, right? Not all of them, everybody is different, but they tend—there are some tendencies—that, you know people typically tend to have, and what it is, is, you know, you start editing Wikipedia when you’re in school, usually you know doing your undergraduate, or doing your graduate work, you get hooked on it, and you love it, and then frankly you edit until, and forgive me for saying this, your wife makes you stop, [laughs] right? A lot of editors have told me that that’s their biggest challenge in editing Wikipedia is that their partner–usually a wife, but not always—their partner doesn’t support it, right?

[off-mike question: “let me just get the other half to join in”]

That’s right. And this is why when I go to meetups and stuff, if there’s someone’s wife there, I love the wife, it’s like, “can we get you anything? Do you like us? Can we introduce you to people”, you know.

I think so too. And there’s a whole bunch of reasons why. I mean, sometimes it happens, and “somebody’s wife” is kind of a label that also applies to the family in general, and so forth, right, a lot of the editors who I’ve talked to it’s their, sometimes their parents, right, sometimes a girlfriend, whatever, but it’s essentially somebody saying “time to put away the childish things, right, which I think is…horrific…because I don’t think of this as childish, right, but it, you know, I had a guy in Israel tell me his partner—he’s a lawyer—and his partner was saying like “When are you going to make partner, like when are you going to start investing in your career”, right? And I think that you’re right. Even if it’s not that, even if it’s not like pressure from someone in your family or whatever, people ebb and flow and they go through different life stages.

[Question off-mike: “(unintelligible) this is what I want to do, (unintelligible) and they do it, and they stop, you’re talking about every three months to check out see if they still (unintelligible) and that’s it “]

That’s right

[Question: “I’d like to the new editors here, …an example is when I joined the project, after I’ve done my time getting myself a hundred thousand edits, I’ve become an admin, I then worked in the DYK project on the page. You could put up an article there, four years ago that was basically, everything, write about my village, make a hundred words, and make a reference, a picture, and a page, and that thing there and they want twelve references]

Precisely right.


[Off-mike: “and there are an army of people to pick on somebody, even as an experience editor, if I’m walking a newbie through, I get spears in my back for walking that person through.”]

I have also heard that FA now, they, you actually can’t, there are articles for which you will never get an FA, no matter how good the article is, because the nature of the topic doesn’t lend itself to the kinds of citations and so forth that are required.

[crosstalk. “…sorry, it’s politically unstable, so it’s …(unintelligible) ]

[20:20] But I think it’s part and parcel of the same thing, you know what I mean, like, in 2005 2006, the walls started to go up around things, and it’s really interesting, right, because I remember talking to Florence Devouard, when she was chair of the board, when I first came in 2007, right? And she and I had a lot of difficulty working well together, it was tough, right? And we talked about it really explicitly, which was the only thing that was good about it, that we were able to talk about it really explicitly. But I remember her saying to me, you know, the kind of way that she liked things to be, that she liked things to be sloppy and loose and messy and noisy and difficult and all sorts of stuff, right? And was kind of like, you know, I am representing a different world, right, and like, we’re evolving and we’re changing and we’re going to become much more professional, blah blah blah. All of that was about the board, and the leadership of the Wikimedia Foundation, but it was also in a way a metaphor or a comparative to what was happening in the projects, right.

What I didn’t realize at the time, that I do realize now, is that the projects were changing and not all the changes were good, right. So you know, it’s a different kind of person, like Florence, who likes a green field Wikipedia right, 2001 where there is no article about Saturn. That’s a different person from person who wants to polish the shining gem of the Saturn article or protect it from other people who are going to hurt it, or whatever right. And I honestly think we’ve lost our way, I really do, right? I think that , you know, what we—I sometimes think that we’ve become Nupedia and we need a new Wikipedia, right? to feed into it. I think that we.. we..we’re I just think we’re really, really rigid, right? I’m not disagreeing with you on the FA thing, because I’m sure that there are some of our processes that make perfect sense, but in general, right, I think we’ve become really rigid and really closed, and I think we’ve lost sight of what makes the project special, which is the idea that everybody does have something to contribute, it’s not just a priesthood of, you know, a small number of people.

[audience question: “The compromise between quality and the quality you’re increasing traffic, so you get so you’re a perfect article, one sentence that you’ve cut and pasted our of another article, some other source, they’re treated as if they’re kind of…animals…a few more seconds and a few more words and they would have got through.]

[another speaker: “My criticism of the leadership so far is that everything you’ve said so far is that you’ve underestimated (unintelligible) I was contacted by someone I professionally who said, “can you tell me what I’ve done wrong” and they’d started an article in their user space, and they were drafting it, and the first thing on their talk page said ‘if you don’t stop your disruptive editing, you will be blocked’”]

Oh, my God. Oh.

[Off-mike comment: and they were writing about a book, and it was [unintelligible) and they were trying to write it and get help with it]

And they’re doing it in user space.

[Off-mike: “and no welcoming, ‘if you don’t stop your disruption you will be blocked’ and that’s (unintelligible) and no explanation of why is this disruption”]

[23:30] And you know what I think, a lot of that comes out of is the Seigenthaler thing, right? That I think that the Seigenthaler –so the Seigenthaler –does everybody know the Seigenthaler story? John do you know? [“no.”] Okay. So, the Seigenthaler thing happened and then after that Jimmy went to Wikimania and said quality, we need to do better, etcetera, and then I think it was around the same time that Essjay was outed as falsely claiming credentials he didn’t have, right, in the New Yorker, and so I think that there was this moral panic created around quality, right. And I think that it became—it’s funny, right, because like, Jimmy said something, even today, but much more so then, and the ripples that go out in the community and the language versions and , you know, like everybody kind of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of what Jimmy said, right?

Wikipedia as a video game — “it’s all nuns and tourists”

And I think that what Jimmy said gave a whole lot of people license, they felt like they had license to be jerks, right, and to be like, we talk about it at the Wikimedia Foundation office like a “first person shooter”, right? Like, folks are like, playing Wikipedia like it’s a video game, and their job is to kill vandals, right, and then we talk about how every now and then a nun, or a tourist, wanders in front of the AK47 [laughter] and they just get murdered, but in actual fact, what we think now is that it’s all nuns and tourists, right, and it’s a big massacre, right, and there’s one vandal running away in the background, you know, and meanwhile everybody else is dead. [laughter] [“Yes”]

[“Everything on that chart (unintelligible) is anecdotal, is key to strategy, so why is it still anecdotal, why isn’t it underpinned (crosstalk) about what happens to members, certainly goes through, things are getting harder to fill, these are still anecdotal, you know there should be charts for these things, measure…]

[25:35] I think there probably will be, there needs to be, like I say we’ve got one data point right now, right, we’ve got one editor survey . We’re gathering data on all this stuff, and there’s some more stuff to come, so [crosstalk] one would hope, I mean, I deliberately kept the phrase “death spiral“, I just don’t want to put I writing, you know [laughter] I mean, it’s too depressing. I know, I didn’t want [crosstalk] image of the slide, with the word “death spiral”.

[crosstalk: “I think we should be given good motivation”]

[26:07] Yeah exactly, that’s right, fear. FUD, just call it FUD.

[26:11] So what should we do. So this is the March 2011 resolution that the board –this is a piece of it—that the board released, right. It’s the Wikimedia Foundation board of trustees, um, rarely, uh, speaks directly to editors, right? in this kind of way. I think it’s only done it a few times before, partly because it used to be Jimmy, right? It used to be Jimmy would proclaim something, and that was sufficient, and then as a movement develops and it gets more mature, you know, it needs institutions, not individuals. Jimmy still plays an individual role but the board as an institution has more of a role today than it used to, and so the first time I think it did something like this was the BLP resolution asking for people to take that a little more seriously because it was real people’s lives at stake, real people’s reputations. Um, and this was the second time, and so what they said was, the important part about this is, this is our top priority, right, that was the purpose.

Lila Tretikov Signpost interview

Lila Tretikov, the new Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, in an interview with the English Wikipedia Signpost, June 24, 2014.  Audio here. Signpost article here.

Tony1: Lila Tretikov, congratulations on your appointment!Lila Tretikov Wikimania speech London 2014

Lila Tretikov: Thank you so much, I’m really happy to be here.

Last year, your predecessor said that with such a high proportion of funding going to chapter staff and bricks and mortar offices, we need to ask whether the benefits are turning out to be worth the cost. Where do you stand on that?

Well, I think that the question we should ask is what results do we get for every dollar we spend. And this is the question that we should be asking across the board—both from ourselves, as well as any grantees that we fund. As long as the funds produce the results that we are looking for, I think the programs should continue, and at the same time we should be identifying those programs that are not results oriented, both internally and externally.

To be more specific, you’ve recently stressed the fundamental importance of measuring impact on our end users, the readers. It’s early days yet, but in terms of likely reader impact, are you keen to determine whether engineering our products deserves a higher proportion of donors’ funds at the expense of grantmaking?

I would look at the question slightly differently. I think we need to look at what is at the base of what we’re actually delivering to [both our] readers and our contributors every day. The thing that we deliver first and foremost is the ability to communicate, share information, and create knowledge. In order to do that, a big, huge component of that, is the service. Our ability to keep the lights on, on our data centers, creating software that keeps up to date, that is fast, robust, easy to use, and is a joy for both readers and writers; and providing access to that service from as many places around the globe as possible. So, very very expensive proposition. So if you compare us to other companies that provide services on this scale, we are actually tiny. So you compare us, let’s say to, Yahoos and Googles of the world, we’re incredibly efficient. But even [so], we still need to be investing more in that service.

To go to specific grantmaking activities then, one person wrote that the Berlin Wikimedia conference hasn’t resulted in a single long-term editor, and did nothing to create content or improve our infrastructure and software. You yourself said in Zurich that editathons are one of the more difficult and expensive things you can do in terms of attracting new editors. Should these types of outreach be considered a lower priority than they have been?

So I think we need to quantify what exactly we deliver in our editathons—what value we provide. And I think there are some that have shown some promise, and others that might not be as good as a return for the dollar. So with that in mind, it’s really important for us to measure the results and base our decisions on those results. Typically, yes, events tend to be more expensive but, interestingly enough, they have different impacts in different regions of the world. I think what we often forget about, is that different cultures interact and engage differently. So an editathon that may not produce a lot of value or a lot of output, say, in North America, may actually produce a lot of value in India, let’s say (and I’m using these as examples). But I think it’s really important for us to be sensitive to cultures and individual communities when making those decisions.

Of course, learning how to measure that across the cultural veil is a challenge, isn’t it?

Absolutely. This is one of our top priorities: to ensure that we actually have good, consistent, clear, and monitorable measurements across our organizations. This is something that we’re looking very seriously at.

To turn now to the global south, the amount of global south funding is still running at only about 20% of Foundation grant money, this is for three-quarters of the world’s population. So according to Asaf Bartov in the grantmaking department, it has actually been hard to find fundable projects that align with the Wikimedia global mission. Bartov has said that a key to success in global south programs is having a core of self-motivating active editors, even if it’s only four or five people. he says we don’t yet have an answer as to how you grow such a core, where it currently doesn’t exist in the global south. What’s your plan?

So I think there is a lot of learning that we have been doing, and some progress that we have made, even in the last three quarters. Our total number of grants have grown to be over 50% of all of the grants that we made.

That’s in numbers, of course, which includes a lot of travel grants and scholarships.

Yes, you’re exactly right. So we are finding more and more people who are interested and are engaging. That said, we do need to continue in getting engaged and involved in those regions. And we’re planning to do that. We’re actually planning to grow, again, to double the investment in the global south in the next year.

The foundation’s core values concerning openness, transparency, and conflict of interest, are most familiar to progressive movements in the global north. Wikimedia Bangladesh has just made a big deal about how they achieved incorporation without paying the customary “speed money” to government officials. Do you favor a zero-tolerance policy towards practices that our core values might label as “corrupt” but in parts of the Global South are regarded as just the cost of doing business?

I think we need to be true to who we are, and when we start diluting that principle, we will lose our focus. You know, it’s the same question as asking whether you’d go and pay a bribe and do business. I don’t think this is acceptable for us. This goes to the center of our ethos.

So let me get this right: the global south affiliate might pay small tips or bribes, or whatever we want to call them, to poorly paid civil servants to get things moving. Are these morally and—in terms of the attitude of WMF Legal—in the same category as the embezzlement scandals involving chapter board members in Kenya and Spain in 2012, or the fact that we still don’t have the financial statement from Hong Kong’s Wikimania last year, in which orders of magnitude more money is still at stake?

I think that at the very top it’s just not acceptable to accept corruption as the way of life anywhere. Our job is to change in some ways, how people think and educate people around the world—and this is part of our mission. At the same time, I think what you’re asking is: do we live by our own standards? And do we think that it’s okay if somebody doesn’t practice the recommendation? I don’t think that’s okay and we’re working very diligently with that chapter to help them get through and provide them the recommendation. We’re doing everything [within] our ability, given that it’s a completely separate organization from the WMF.

Okay so, it’ll always be a bit of push and pull between an NGO’s Global North headquarters and basic ethics, and its sprawling affiliates right around the world in very different social, political, and economic contexts.

Well, I don’t think that necessarily needs to be push and pull; in fact, I see the movement, the individual volunteers, the readers, and the WMF as all in one camp and that’s a question of having common goals and common focus. And as we move forward into doing our strategic planning over the next year, I think that needs to come into play and that record needs to come into play, as opposed to push and pull and tension.

In the time we still have, can we turn now to the gender gap then? What’s your advice for a female editor, on say, the English Wikipedia, who feels uncomfortable even revealing her gender on wiki?

Well, first of all, I think it’s on us to improve this environment and to make sure that everybody feels welcome on our websites. And I think we need to be working on that. That said, anybody can edit anonymously. So if somebody’s not comfortable revealing who they are, they don’t have to do it.

I’ve had contact with more than one female editor who has revealed her gender to me privately, only after some time, and utterly refuses to reveal it onwiki for a bunch of fears, whether well founded or not. Would you encourage that person to get to a point where she can reveal that she’s a woman?

So I feel very sad about the fact that people don’t feel comfortable. That said, I wouldn’t encourage anybody do to something that they’re not comfortable with doing. I would really encourage our community and the WMF and our chapter partners to do everything in their power to create a more accepting [environment] and a culture that is more comfortable for women.

In Zurich, you said that the gender gap might be related to two hurdles, which I found very interesting. First, attracting women to make their first edit, and second, retaining them after they’ve made that first click.

(agreeing) Um-hm.

Let’s deal with them one at a time. How is your thinking evolving around what might encourage women to join the editing community in the first place. Specifically what kind of data do we need?

So, let’s start with the second part of the question, and that’s retention. If we’re encouraging women to come in and plug into the community, we need to make sure that we’re giving them the environment that is comfortable and nurturing for them. If we don’t do that, it doesn’t matter how many new female subscribers we get. So that’s by far the most important thing.
And what we need to start understanding and measuring is the sentiment—how comfortable people are, and what makes people comfortable when they have become an editor. So I’ll give you an example. I’ve made my first edit a while back, and after that, I got a few thank you notes, encouragement notes, and that felt really good and that made me want to do more. You can extrapolate and build on top of … those thank-you notes, also encouragements to get involved and talk to other users, and to start collaborating on different projects and content. So this is an example of how we can continue to encourage users and especially women. Women are known to be much more social in communities like these. And pull them back and let them into conversation and editing, and encourage them to edit in the first place. Because women are so social, once that trend is reversed and women start contributing—kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy—once they start contributing, other women will join as well.

Are you saying there’s a tipping point—there might be a tipping point in the future?

I believe so. But in order to get there, there are changes that we need to make consciously and all together.

Let’s talk about the community experience itself of being a female editor. You also said in Zurich, I quote, “Unfortunately the internet makes it really easy not to emphasize the person on the other side. You don’t see their face, you don’t hear their voice, and you don’t feel like there’s another human being there with thoughts and feeling and emotions.” If we engineered easy ways for editors to interact more personally in real time on the sites—maybe through instant messages, even audio—would this create an environment that’s less of a turn-off for women, or would it be seen by too many women as threatening?

So I think there’s two components to that. … we need to be thinking of the environment and the user interaction holistically, which means how people want to interact—what you’re talking about are *channels* of interaction—as well as well as the actual interactions themselves. So I think we need to be thinking about both pieces. And before we start really thinking about engaging as the beginning of the conversation, we need to be thinking about what the engagement actually looks like once it’s happening. Because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s actually fairly straightforward and easy for us to engage people. What’s hard is once they’re engaged, to keep them there. This is where we need to be looking very, very closely. Frankly, men or women will get turned off by the negative interactions. In fact it’s scientifically shown that there need to be enough positive interactions, think by a factor of 5, to counteract the negative interactions that you’ve participated in, in order for you to still be willing to receive the information and participate.

Just a final question then. You’ve prospered in corporate IT and engineering, which is a professional world heavily dominated by male culture. If you could give women a few take-home messages now on how to overcome gender bias in the work place, what would they be?

That’s a great question. You know, I actually think that women are at an advantage there. But it’s hard to take that first step and to have the courage to trust yourself and trust your instincts. So my biggest suggestion is to practice bravery. [Laughs] You know, Wikipedians say “be bold”, actually find it is extremely hard for people to be bold. Bold doesn’t mean rough or mean or angry or loud. Bold means having a lot of courage, sometimes the courage to be kind, sometimes the courage to be honest in a direct and straightforward way. So, gathering a lot of courage is a really important thing and what I’ve learned is when you show courage, people really respect you. And I think women have a lot of it. They just need to trust themselves to act on it.

So that’s a well-honed view through many years dealing with mostly male cultures in the corporate sector.

[Laughs] Well, thank you.

Well, it was more a question. Did you start that way?

Oh gosh, no, no, I was extremely timid, and I had actually very great mentors and friends, both men and women who gave me some really tough advice, some really tough love, and that’s really helped through the years. It helped me better understand who I was, and what my strengths were, and what my space in the room was—for the longest time I have been the only woman at the table—and how to stand on my own two feet. So it definitely took some time.

When you say mentors and friends, that stands out. We don’t do that well on the Wikipedias, do we, mentoring and fostering specific friendships that are likely to, again, serve the readers best.

I think it happens in some cases. It’s just we’re not—it’s not a pattern, you know, it’s not a culture. And I completely agree with you that having a culture of engagement and mentorship and feeling valuable because you’ve helped another person, because you’ve seen somebody else grow and succeed, I think that’s an extremely powerful feeling, probably one of the most powerful feelings there are, and I would love to see more of that.

Lila Tretikov, thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions.

Thank you so much; it was lovely.

What is Neotarf?

Double Neotarf1Neotarf is a pen name I use on Wikimedia and Wikipedia-related places on the internet.

Al-tarf is the brightest star in the crab constellation. “Tarf” means eye, and “neo” of course means new. The expression comes from an editor I used to work with who would ask for someone to proofread by saying  “new eyes”. I consider myself to be a Wiki-Gnome, someone who makes small, incremental changes without clamoring for attention.

I have written 11 articles on the English Wikipedia, mostly biographies.  The first one was for human rights activist Susana Trimarco.  The most off-beat topic I have written about was probably El Koshary Today, an Egyptian political satire website. I have also contributed to a number of other articles, mostly about human rights, as well as pitching in at some of the less glamorous but necessary backrooms of Wikipedia, Move Requests and Reliable Sources, which has given me some perspective on the inner workings of the place.

During the 2013 arbitration cycle, I followed the English Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, and wrote a regular feature for the the English Wikipedia Signpost called the Arbitration Report.  The one I learned the most from writing was Infoboxes: After the War.  An index of the Arbitration Report articles can be found here.

I also wrote the “News and Notes” feature for the August 13, 2014 issue of the Signpost, titled “Media Viewer controversy spreads to German Wikipedia“.

This web page was originally used for hosting files that I wanted to link to on English Wikipedia. Gradually it evolved to a place to keep notes and extended comments about Wikipedia issues.   The topic of editor retention particularly interests me.  Most recently I have started making transcripts of Wikipedia-related audio files that are not available elsewhere and posting them here.

Currently, I can be found on Wikimedia Meta.

My Wikimedia email address is Neotarf(AT)gmail(DOT)com

[Image credit: Kitab al-Bulhan, late 14th c. Arabic manuscript]


Holy-grail-round-table-bnf-ms_fr-116F-f610v-15th-detailAccording to Wictionary, a Stammtisch is  “a table in a beer parlour reserved for a group of regulars taking part in social discussion and beer drinking or a group of people gathering at such a table.”

According to IdeaLab/WikiProject Women talk page, it is “a group of regulars”.

Castile doctrine

And from that page we also find out that on the German Wikipedia, “de-Wikipedia policies have a kind of castle doctrine that allows you to open a project site in your user namespace and disallow disruptive participants while all other project rules (like: no personal attacks, anonymity etc.) are still in place. This is a transparent way how to create a “protected” room for all kinds of movements inside the Wikimedia movement and for those persons who feel the need for a protected room to empower them.”

So what do these German pages look like?
Portal pages:
Portal Women (organizing articles around women and possible female topics):


Wiki Project Women (maintenance lists of missing and new articles about women, articles menaced by deletion requests, etc.)

A Portal Discrimination including Wiki Project Discrimination

and Wiki Project “Wikipedia free of discrimination”Stammtisch5

Examples of “castle” user pages
Women’s Teahouse about gender issues (now adopted by a male collegue; he calls that “a little mistake”)

The project Womenedit

Women’s history (about successes in Wikipedia gender issues and successful, as well as some inactive, female de-Wikipedians).

User subpages like Diderot Club (strongly critizing internal happenings and the Wikipedia/Wikimedia “establishment”)

Even one whole user account, de:Benutzer:Grillenwaage, with its talk page as think-tank about de-Wikipedia policies; moderated by few self-elected “owners”.

Signpost Arbitration Reports 2013

During the 2013 Arbitration Committee cycle, I covered the Committee’s activities for the regularly featured “Arbitration Report” of the Signpost, Wikipedia’s in-house publication. The following is an index to articles I authored.