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.

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