Barriers to Quality at Wikipedia (and potentially other Wiki projects)


    I am going to apologize up front if this seems disjointed. I am exhausted and it’s been a rough day. The last thing I needed to read was something that seemed like double speak to me – “here, brainstorm, but do it quickly.” Brainstorming is a time consuming process, especially when people are volunteers and have lives. I feel I am having to repeatedly explain things that should be self evident. Unfortunately, much as I wish to continue on this project, if the PM's don't understand or support where I am trying to go, then it makes it difficult to feel there is a point to my continued contribution.

    That said, I will try to explain this in more detail in case I made assumptions I should not have made.

    My thoughts:

    It takes guts to stand up and persuade people that what you are suggesting for them is right for them. It also takes grounding in the background tradition or brand. My suggestions are gutsy and they are grounded in both the principles of Wikipedia and its brand.

    Saying that it’s a wasted time to brainstorm on ideas to fix the massive problems that Wikipedia is experiencing if we are not sure they are actionable is a total loss of faith. How many nonactionable ideas did the Wright Brothers work on before they finally flew their first plane? I don’t know, but I have seen a few of them in the Smithsonian. If they had not wasted time thinking about something everyone else said was non-actionable (flight) none of us would be flying today.

    There is no reason to create any actionable recommendations until we can all agree on certain end results we are after such as: if all users respect each other we will have better quality content. This might be followed by admins having a three warning rule for enforcement of respect. That might be followed by a policy of how we give admins that responsibility or how we teach the community to accept this flows from that. However, agreeing that all users have to respect each other no matter what is the first step. We are barely at that step at this point. Asking for us to be three steps down the process chain at this juncture isn’t appropriate.

    In my own defense, in your post you didn’t give me the same direction you are now sharing. Also, this is the first I am hearing about what you expect, as far as how the recommendations should look or at what level they should be. Honestly, that should have been communicated up front.

    Now, in defense of my suggestions:

    1. What I have suggested is rational and sane.
    2. It takes into account existing brand and existing polices/procedures/rules.
    3. It makes it immediately clear that something is changing, which helps people who are fed up with the problems at Wikipedia and which gets the media off Wikipedia’s back while they watch and wait for Wikipedia to lose more editors/contributors.
    4. It answers the need of most of the constructive editors/users/contributors to have a safe working space, and communicates that we take their needs seriously.

    How about before I go back over these points and make them actionable, we get some feedback from the rest of the taskforce to see if they think:

    1. They make sense, given everything we have discussed
    2. They seem reasonable for Wikipedia
    3. There is some agreement about taking the time to make them actionable
    4. They seem to reflect the current and perceived brand of Wikipedia
    5. Streamlining existing policies and giving them “bite” makes sense
    6. That distilling existing policies creates a migration path

    Rebellion? Wikipedia is ALREADY experiencing a wide spread rebellion. When people like me refuse to contribute because of the climate on Wikipedia, there already is a big problem. And people like me are just the tip of the iceberg. It is all the rest of the people who want to contribute who are much less experienced with the online workspace who avoid Wikipedia completely except to read it; or the college professors who marvel at how inaccurate Wikipedia is – which is far worse than people not contributing because it denigrates the brand in front of millions of students every year. In fact, the comments from professors may be even worse than all the users we may piss off.

    The people who care about what Wikipedia is and what it was meant to be may be smarter than you think when it comes to understanding enforcement of existing policies. The people who will likely rebel the loudest are the people who are vandalizing and spreading non neutral POV. It’s not like this is a free speech area where rights are respected. They cannot yell about Wikipedia denying them free speech – that is not a right on Wikipedia due to its mandate as an encyclopedia. So are you saying that Wikipedia is worried that people will say “Oh, no, you cannot curb my right to do X?” Wikipedia already does, it’s just that nobody enforces it. Wikipedia is already a hostile environment. What are you taking away from them if you ask them to abide by some modicum of civilized behavior?

    In order to process all of this, I wrote down everything I did as a PM to write a PM manual for a company I worked for. I made myself rethink the process of engaging everyone, defining scope, etc. The way you make policy happen is to talk to al the stakeholders and find commonalities. Then you agree on the end point you are going towards. Then you back up a bit and figure out how to get to that end point. Then you figure out how to get people to buy into the process it takes to get to that end point, if they have not already been involved in the process.

    It seems to me that we keep getting pushed to jump a logical step in the process. It took Wikipedia how long to get into this mess? Can’t we have a little more time to figure out how to get Wikipedia out of it?

    Let’s wait for everyone to weigh in first. Then we can hopefully agree on some of the ideas and figure out how to make them actionable. Personally I do not think admins enforcing rules in a volunteer community with a shared purpose when the rules make it easier to do your “job” will create a rebellion. I think, as I said above, that Wikipedians are already rebelling. . The Wikipedia brand doesn’t say “we wont have any rules.” The brand says “we will be the best, most comprehensive online encyclopedia.”

    Bhneihouse23:44, 6 December 2009

    Brenda, if I had more time to offer you, I would gladly do so. Unfortunately, I don't.

    The strategy project is funded to a particular dollar level, and the Board needs recommendations by a particular time in order to meet the financial planning requirements for the next year, so that they can allocate our sparse resources. It is, quite simply, a hard deadline. Unless someone comes up with the $$$ to extend the strategy project, we have an obligation to have recommendations ready to go in mid-January. That's not a "soft" deadline, it's a very firm one.

    I'd love to give more time for this to be worked on, but the time simply isn't there, because the project's funding evaporates, and the Board does this time of financial budgeting one time per year, in order to publish and meet the budget. There's simply no additional time to give. The deadline is mid January.


    ~Philippe (WMF)02:41, 7 December 2009

    I'm actually really sympathetic to your vision. But as someone who has tried to fix policy and fix the culture, I think you have to recognize just how hostile that Wikipedia has been towards authority, and it's a more than a significant minority. There are already numerous people who feel that we shouldn't have administrators, let alone arbcom... or at least that we shouldn't entrust them with very much power. Arbcom is absolutely terrified of tackling any content or policy issue, aside from enforcing the behavioral norms that already exist. And they're elected by the Wikipedians! Can you imagine their reaction if a few random Wikipedians on an unelected task force got to change the rules to whatever they thought would work? There's no way that the trustees would back it. For better or for worse, it's a non-starter. (And I honestly believe it's for the worse.)

    So knowing that the trustees are not going to make Wikipedia a markedly more authoritarian place... what can we get the trustees to do? Maybe empower some administrators? Create some processes that will let the community settle issues more effectively, so that true believers will have a harder time obstructing the process? Change the organizational structure a little?

    We have to take a surgical approach. Can we achieve a big impact with something small and strategic?

    Randomran02:51, 7 December 2009

    Once again, Randomran says what I mean better than I do. :-)

    ~Philippe (WMF)02:59, 7 December 2009

    Hmm... I just had another thought.

    Given that most of what you've suggested isn't so radically different from what the vast majority of administrators do every day (multiple warnings, etc), I wonder if it would be at all helpful to you (as someone not deeply involved in the administrative culture) to follow me around as I do an administrator shift? I'd be glad to take an hour or two and do a shared screen with you (we can do that on skype) so that you can see what the current culture for administrators (or at least the ones who are - like me - I think the silent majority) is.

    I'm not 100% sure that you're operating off a totally informed viewpoint about what administrators do, because I'm not sure you've walked the mile in their shoes. I still have administrator rights on the English Wikipedia. We could set up a telephone call or a shared skype-cast so that you can see what it's like... would that be helpful to you? I think you'd find that some of your ideas are exactly what the vast majority of administrators do on a daily basis.

    I'm just trying to come up with a shared understanding of the role...


    ~Philippe (WMF)03:08, 7 December 2009

    Philippe --

    as a volunteer, Wikipedia may just have worn through my last nerve.

    I am going to anger some people and frustrate some people, so if feeling good right at this moment matters more than hearing what I have to say, you might want to skip this post.

    Let me put together a timeline:

    August, Bridgespan/Wikimedia meet for a strategy session. November, I am asked to be on this task force and facilitate. I receive no comprehensive list of URL’s to familiarize myself with, Two weeks later I am expected to help shape 2-4 recommendations. These recommendations are not end results, they are recommendations of how to affect results that in 8 years of existing, Wikipedia has yet to be able to produce.

    There is an incredible disconnect not only in what is being asked of us, and how it is being asked of us, but of the timeline itself.

    As far as I knew, the recommendations were due mid January, not today. (And this is the first I am hearing that this is a hard deadline.) Despite the due date still being a month away, we are being pushed to create hard and fast recommendations on how to affect results two weeks after joining this team, with no support to get up to speed, and using an interface that is clunky at best.

    Here comes where I piss people off. However, if what I say is true, then it existed before I showed up here and will continue to exist after I am gone.

    This project is poorly managed. It may even have been poorly concepted if Wikimedia thinks a volunteer task force that has lives of their own will in less than two months go through a think tank type of process and come up with the type of recommendations it says it wants. If Wikipedia hasn’t been able to do this in 8 years, how are we supposed to do this in two months?

    In addition, and please correct me if I am wrong, Wikimedia has not reached out to a diverse demographic as project managers. We need people who know how to nurture and support the team, including providing everything we need to do our “job” especially if there are tight deadlines. We need both men and women who are experienced project managers who work in a change environment. Two of my past clients, both ex IBM-ers, do this. They did it at IBM and then they did it for large organizations like HP. I am well aware of the type of skills that change management takes. It is not apparent in the exchanges that our PM’s have this kind of background. Yet that is the demand of the task forces: change management masquerading as content quality or health of community or…

    I have been around long enough to know that if something smells like a fish it is probably a fish. At first I thought it was me, then I thought it was my newbie status. Then I started realizing that Wikimedia is asking volunteers to roll a rock up a hill in a hurry. Why? Not because it’s the right thing to do and will best serve the project, but no, because they need to know how to budget money.

    How about this? This is my recommendation:

    Wikimedia needs to work with a brand consulting agency, preferably someone like Al or Laura Ries who really knows his/her stuff. That is probably where the budget should go. Then after Wikimedia has engaged in the correct process to assess, qualify and state its brand (which may take a little time given there are millions of stakeholders all around the globe and Wikimedia seems to want a totally inclusive process) Wikimedia can strategize how to reenergize its base, get all the users on the same page and iron out all the horrible messes that it has allowed to happen with its Holly GoLightly attitude that everything will work out fine if everyone just has access and a say. This is the part where the change consultants come in. Once Wikimedia strategizes about base, users, contentious users and the like, then it can put policies in place like a responsible brand so that the brand is consistent (and the content quality is consistent and the user experience is consistent) across the many projects.

    Right now, Wikipedia is adrift. It is a great idea waiting for a group of people ballsy enough to say “hey, well that really didn’t work, but the idea’s great so how do we save the idea?” Willingness to admit that you have made a mistake is frequently the first step towards enlightenment on any project. Until adequate time is given to process driven and framework (brand) conscious solutions, it is just another bandaid and you are wasting the time of your volunteers.

    I am a full time student, a single mother of a disabled child and have a number of disabilities myself. I am trying to get through finals. In addition, I am involved in my community, I am mentoring a teenager, I am teaching someone how to start a business, and I am doing a lot of other change work. I have time to give when it is appropriately utilized, but I do not have time to waste on poorly concepted projects.

    You cannot save Wikipedia in sixty days. And you cannot expect results in two weeks with a team that doesn’t know each other. Time to grow up and face the music: not only are you going the wrong direction, you have not structured the journey properly.

    Feel free to ban or block me. At this point, while I am still interested in how this turns out, as I said above, Wikipedia, as represented by the PMs, the time table, the unrealistic expectations, has worn through my last nerve.

    Bhneihouse04:23, 7 December 2009


    surgical and elegant take time and familiarity to form. I have neither. And in reality, it really isn't what is needed.

    In addition, if Wikipedia really wants to be the best online encyclopedia it may just have to suck it up and admit that it needs rules and regulations and policies and procedures to ensure a livable workspace.

    It's funny, you go anywhere else offline and psychologists and psychiatrists will tell you that people need boundaries. You study Political Theory, Kant, Rawls, Dworkin, etc. and you will find out that in civil society there has to be balance so all can work together. But somehow, Wikipedia thinks a huge project can function without the rules of civil society and self regulate with no offset for greed, etc. Anyone hear of the Tragedy of the Commons or the Prisoner's Dileman. I am certain there are Wikis on both, as well as Rawls. In fact, Rawls' 1984 book, I believe his last, talks about what society can do when the opinions of its citizens are so divided, how overlap can be assessed and it can be utlized to create just institutions that create just law. I actually talked to Dr. Kaufman about its application to communities like Wikipedia. However, trying to explain it to you guys, after watching this task force take two weeks to approach the concept of brand, and when I am being pushed to focus only on recommendations, is probably pointless. If you want to look it up, chekc out teh Wiki on Rawls which should list his last book. However without reading "A Theory of Justice" you might be lost.

    The irony is that my entire life is about social justice and upholding rights. I just don't believe that veritable "home rule" at Wikipedia is consistent with its brand or its mission. And I do not believe in any of us not being able to participate because Wikipedia refuses to enforce its own rules.


    Bhneihouse04:35, 7 December 2009

    I can really empathize. Things are a little crazy in my life right now, and it's hard for me to imagine that this strategic planning process can be effective in a short timeline. The process can be frustrating at times, without much guidance. But we have to do the best that we can.

    I agree that the lack of boundaries has actually hindered Wikipedia, because it has become tolerant of too many problems. But how many new boundaries do we need? That's the key question.

    If you want to program a flock of mechanical birds to fly in a realistic way, it's tempting to get really complicated. Birds must follow a leader. To avoid everyone crashing, you create a hierarchy. Bird one takes the lead, bird two and three follow close behind, until you create a flying V. They must follow the trajectory. They're not allowed to stray too far. To create realism, randomize the velocities and distances within a tight range. Randomly swap their places on occasion.

    But one thing computer scientists figured out was that you could actually achieve flocking behavior with a few simple rules: steer towards the average heading of your neighbors, and avoid crowding. Somehow, these two rules manage to create a very realistic flock of birds.

    I think the lesson is that yes, task forces will need to produce new rules. But can we find just a few rules that have a huge impact?

    I'll tell you my theory:

    I think we can empower the community to solve its own problems. In theory, the community should have been able to come up with solutions that improve quality and weed out disruptions. After all, the community can change policies whenever it wants! But something has gone wrong with our community's processes. Maybe the processes didn't scale very well to the explosion in volunteers, or maybe people have found new ways to abuse those processes. But either way, the processes broke down, and the community could no longer adapt to new problems. I think the most effective thing we can do is fix the processes so that the community can adapt once again.

    We don't need to direct the community's evolution. We simply need to remove the obstacles that are preventing the community from evolving on its own.

    That's what I mean by a surgical approach.

    Randomran06:16, 7 December 2009

    Then you are saying that the brand of Wikipedia is:

    "the largest most comprehensive online encyclopedia built by a self governing, self correcting community"

    Up to now, wikipedia has said: "the largest most comprehensive online encyclopedia" and mention of the community has been omitted.

    Do you see how knowing your brand drives your actions?

    And, I don't really care about the "best we can." I care about doing it right. And if doing it right is distilling all of this down to the two rules that will get the flock to "fly right" then I believe that the task forces should have the time to figure those two rules out. I also believe that if, across task forces, we are all coming up with that the solution to quality content is that everyone needs to "fly right" that it is foolish to continue to focus on "quality content" as a subset and force the "answers" down that path. Instead, the different groups should shift their focus to figuring out the two rules to get the community to "fly right."

    I really dont care what I work on. I care that:

    1. things improve
    2. I am treated respectfully
    3. things are set up correctly
    4. the right focus is supported
    5. the process is given the time it needs to proceed (see: treated respectfully)

    As far as I am concerned I am chalking up this task force to more of Wikipedia doing things badly. Instead of rethinking the process, as I had posted earlier, Wikipedia is using the same process that doesnt work with the same community and expecting a different result. I think that is the definition of stupidity. (doing the same thing the same way but expecting diffrerent results.) THAT breaks good faith, as far as I am concerned. I didnt expect more of the same.

    So in summation, you, or Wikipedia, is expecting out of the box solutions using the same methodology and the same ocre demographics. Can no one else see what is wrong with this?

    Bhneihouse15:05, 7 December 2009

    I sympathize that it's frustrating. In my career, I'm actually very used to putting in recommendations that won't be acted upon. "Too costly." "Too big." "Just not where we were planning on going." You're often lucky if you get a reason. It's happened so many times that I can no longer be frustrated and cynical. I'm now strategic and cynical. :)

    Change and politics are unfortunately intertwined. How do you get a giant to move? Very slowly, and only if you can trick them into believing that's where they were already planning on going.

    Randomran15:49, 7 December 2009

    for 2 1/2 yeas I have been moving a university of 33,000 students and a recalcitrant administration. Yes, it can be slow. In fall 2010 I will be undertaking a five month six credit hour research study that will examine just this question, but in light of the university obeying and following existing law. I am studying this from sociological, psychological, political and anthropological view points. I understand how massive the undertaking is.

    Now, if I would take five months to do actual research (original and secondary) prior to making recommendations of how to and why to move a giant of about 50,000 people, then why wouldn't Wikipedia give more than two months to move its giant of millions of people?

    I plan to graduate from this university and then go to law school here. In addition, I intend to practice law in this state and it is a state run university. So, there is an incredible amount of impact that this project has in my life. I have to weigh what impact the politics of Wikipedia have in my life.

    Thanks for the support.

    Bhneihouse17:37, 7 December 2009

    I fully agree. We would want to spend this much time just in the research phase, and spend 100% more time just working out the recommendations. But under the circumstances, we can only do our best.

    Good luck juggling your school and family life. It's gonna be tough, but I think you'll find your experience very rewarding. Especially working in social justice.

    Randomran18:34, 7 December 2009