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Interviews/Betsy Scolnik

From Strategic Planning

Tell us a bit about your history with Wikimedia.

When I was the president of digital media at National Geographic Society (NG), I had a number of conversations with Sue Gardner and team. I made the request to talk with them, because I thought this was an organization we needed to be involved with. My hope was that NG magazine groups and the like should be comfortable with putting out on content via creative commons licenses. I felt that the NG collection would add value to the Wikipedia experience.

The conversations, we tested little things and did little things. Ultimately, I was offered this position at the Gates Foundation, and I couldn’t turn it down. Sue, Erik, and I kept in touch, and they’ve brought me in for conversations every now and then. Roger McNamee also worked closely with National Geographic—he may have made the initial introduction.

What is your current role at the Gates Foundation?

Director of Content and Distribution. Four functional groups report to me:

  • Digital media: all fFoundation-branded online experiences and digital distribution of content
  • Creative services: responsible for brand and brand management work, creation of all public-facing materials (presentations for CEO, Co-Chairs, s, etc.)
  • Public engagement: focused on creation of “visitor center” (mini exhibit/museum experience about what Gates does and what grantees do, which will open in new campus in 2011) and related outreach work
  • Special projects: primarily with Melinda Gates in her interest in engaging broader public in issues that Foundation works on (vs. just policymakers and “preached choir”). Lots of storytelling, lots of social media.

What's your vision for what Wikimedia could become in 5-10 years? What do you see as major opportunities and / or new roles for Wikimedia?

I see it as a much larger community effort and more involved in education and more global in nature. I want it to be more than a search tool!

What are the biggest challenges in realizing that vision? Are there trends or threats currently or on the horizon that Wikimedia will need to tackle/respond to?

Wikipedia has two audiences, the active community and the users. The two audiences do not behave the same, want the same things and are not aligned due to that, yet Wikipedia treats them the same way. I think you need two, but complementary, strategies to address this. And you need expertise in both, not just your active community.

I see money as an issue as well.

What partners would you imagine Wikimedia working with in order to extend its mission of increasing access to and sharing of knowledge among everyone?

Foundations, education institutions(maybe), think tanks

What would Wikimedia need to do to position itself better to partner with places like National Geographic? Are there obvious partners Wikimedia should pursue?

I think National Geographic is an obvious partner. I would expect Wikimedia to be able to understand that not everyone who is a commercial organization is in fact a bad guy. The reality of the world is that every organization—profit or non-profit—partners to get some value in the end. I do feel that Erik and Sue have shifted to some extent as they’ve worked with the community. But their fear of upsetting the community might be very limiting. The community and everyone else involved stand to benefit.

So either Wikipedia needs to say to themselves, “if we want to achieve this goal, we need to help our community understand those goals.” I think they may have been sidetracked—for good reason—to make their technology work. I think they need to expand that community significantly to include many types of thinkers. Part of what’s interesting or challenging for the strategic planning process, I imagine, is that this community almost vehemently doesn’t want anything to change.

Wikimedia’s audience is really their community. Partners would value their audience, but the Foundation has to value the community. I think that’s why some of their partnerships never came to fruition. And it’s why I think longer-term thinking has to happen here. How can you help to expand the community and convince the community that some of these priorities are in fact important? And they know the valuable part of them will keep growing—their audience!