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

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