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Inspired also by the series on algorithm regulation on this blog, I am currently working together with Claudia Müller-Birn on the issue of algorithmic governance in the case of Wikipedia. In the course of this research project, I stumbled upon the case of flagged revisions/sighted versions, which very nicely illustrates the concept of algorithmic governance.
With Wikipedia Germany taking the lead in 2006, some Wikipedia language versions introduced sighted versions of articles as a measure to secure against vandalism and improve article credibility. The concept is described in the English language Wikipedia as
a system whereby users who are not logged in may be presented with a different version of an article than users who are. Articles are validated that they are presentable and free from vandalism. The approved versions are known as Sighted versions. All logged-in users will continue to see and edit the most recent version of a page. Users who are not logged in will initially see the most recent sighted version, if there is one. If no version is sighted, they see the most recent one, as happens now. Users looking at a sighted version can still choose to view the most recent version and edit it.
Since its introduction in the German Wikipedia, the concept has evolved in a complex set of rules determining how Wikipedia edits are sighted. The core idea is that registered Wikipedia editors automatically receive the status as a passive or active “reviewer” depending on their respective editing history. Edits of a user with the status of a passive reviewer are automatically considered to be sighted; active reviewers have additional rights such as actively marking versions as sighted or removing the respective status.
Earlier this year, the board of the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization behind the free onlince encyclopedia Wikipedia, decided to substantially reform its governance structures (see “Contours of Future Wikimedia Governance: More Centralized, More Diverse“). Two issues were key in this reform: allowing for greater diversity of potential models of affiliation, in addition to the established model of national chapter organizations, and centralizing fund raising and dissemination in a newly formed body termed “Funds Dissemination Committee” (FDC).
Over the last two months, Wikimedia moved forward in both regards. First, the former “Chapters Committee” was officially transformed into the “Affiliations Committee” for making recommendations to the Foundation’s Board of Trustees on the recognition and approval of Wikimedia movement affiliates. Such affiliates need not only be traditional chapter organizations but can also be thematic organizations or user groups, as is explained on Meta-Wiki:
While chapters support and promote the Wikimedia projects in a specified geographical region or country (for example, Wikimedia Argentina), thematic organisations will support and promote the Wikimedia projects in a specified thematic field or focus area (for example, Wikipedia Astrophysics Editors). User groups, on the other hand, will be loose associations of local volunteers, highly variable, but still within the overall mission of supporting and promoting the Wikimedia projects (for example, a WikiProject Stroopwaffle).
The Affiliations committee has already developed guidelines for the creation of each of these three potential affiliate models (see, for example, the “Step-by-step Thematic Organization creation guide“). Interestingly, the previously discussed idea of “Movement Partners” – like-minded organizations that actively support the Wikimedia movement’s work – has not been implemented so far.
Second, on November 15, the FDC published its first recommendation to the board of how to allocate funds to eligible entities within the Wikimedia Movement, i.e. mainly Wikimedia chapters. Several points in this recommendation are remarkable:
- The proposal of Australian chapter, while acknowledging its pioneering role in working with Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM), was rejected entirely due to “compliance aspects of previous grants, and gaps in the present proposal with regard to alignment and metrics”. Also in the case of the French chapter, the FDC recommends to allot only $94,000 instead of the $961,109 that were applied for. If the FDC wanted to state examples, it did; however, the FDC left a door open in allowing both chapters to apply again in a second round of proposals.
- The largest chunk of funds – with about $4.5 million more than one third of the total amount of $11.14 million – goes to the focal Wikimedia Foundation Headquarters, with one FDC member opposing the decision. Seemingly, this FDC decision was the only one that was not made unanimously. Moreover, the FDC did allot exactly the amount of funds the Wikimedia Foundation had applied for, while in many other cases it reduced the amounts.
- In the case of the oldest and by far largest chapter organization in Germany, the FDC recommends full funding, less Wikimedia Chapters Association (WCA) membership fees, leading to a total amount of to $1.79 million. Eliminating membership fees for the WCA is a delicate decision, since the WCA was founded by Wikimedia Chapters in the run-up to the establishment of the FDC as a counterweight to the Wikimedia Foundation – even though both sides publicly assert each other of their reciprocal support. Explaining the elimination of WCA membership fees, the FDC argues that the WCA “is not yet a legally incorporated entity, and may apply for FDC funding for start-up staffing and other expenses.”
The recommendations by the FDC are set to be approved by the Board of Trustees by December 15, 2012.
As far as the community of Wikipedians is concerned, both these recent developments in terms of broadening the scope of potential affiliates and of reforming funds dissemination have not dampened calls for further democratizing the formal Wikimedia organization. On Meta-Wiki, a lenghty page is devoted solely to discussing the different avenues for Democratizing the Wikimedia Foundation. Topics in the current “initial brainstorming” phase include the ‘Board Mystery‘ (“The board is a very mysteriously functioning body, nobody knows how it works or what it does.”), term limits for board members (“They can be limited to 2-3 terms, even if re-elected.”), and referenda on movement-wide decisions (“Do we need to improve or clarify the process for global votes?”).
Probably, the current changes in Wikimedia governance let the genie of governance reform out of the bottle. Wikimedia’s organizational structures have been revealed as contingent and open for change. I think it is safe to predict that the establishment of the Affiliations Committee and the FDC will have been just the beginning of a series of governance changes in the near future.
Today I learnt from the blog of Wikimedia Germany about plans to merge the two wiki-based collaborative travel guide projects Wikitravel and WikiVoyage into a new Wikimedia project such as Wikipedia or Wiktionary, governed by the Wikimedia Foundation. Denis Barthel from Wikimedia Germany describes the history of the two projects as follows (my translation):
Wikitravel.org went live in July 2003 with the goal to collaboratively create a travel guide under an open license. Today, Wikitravel features 19 different language versions with up to 26.000 travel guides. In 2006 the founders decided to sell the trademark “Wikitravel” to the firm Internetbrands to put Wikitravel on more solid grounds. Internetbrands provided for hosting and guaranteed independence of the community with regard to contents. First problems arose when Internetbrands decided to run ads on the site. This decision led to a debate on principles and eventually to a fork: the German community refused to work in a commercial environment. As a result, WikiVoyage emerged, carried by a German-based association. WikiVoyage hosts the bigger stock of German articles (~12.000 compared to ~5.000 at Wikitravel) and a very active and well organized community. Furthermore, there is an Italian version with a shared database for images similar to Wikimedia Commons and “Locations”, some kind of WikiData for locations.
Currently, the Wikimedia Communities are debating whether accepting a merger of these two communities as a new Wikimedia project is both feasible and desirable. And while the majority seems to support the inclusion of the newly merged project into the family of Wikimedia projects, several concerns are raised: Read the rest of this entry »
Two days ago, Sigrid and I have submitted a paper on community governance in the realm of Creative Commons and Wikimedia to this year’s Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Today, I have learnt about major upcoming changes in governance of the latter of our two cases. Wikimedia is at the brink of abandoning its decentralized and geography-based network of Wikimedia chapters and replace it with a much more centralized network of different types of movement organizations.
The current governance structure of Wikimedia, the formal organization behind the global community of volunteers responsible for Wikipedia, had emerged comparably unplanned. The focal Wikimedia Foundation itself was founded two years after Wikipedia had been launched as a side-project of the quality-controlled “Nupedia“. And while Wikipedia had been transnational from the very start with versions in German, Catalan, Japanese, French and Spanish only two months after its launch, the Foundation was not. The first local Wikimedia branch in Germany was founded independently from Wikimedia headquarters and only formally recognized as a formal Wikimedia chapter after the fact. Following the German example, so far 38 membership-based chapter associations have been founded and formally recognized. Together, these chapters nominate two members to the Foundation’s Board of Trustees.
With the exception of two US chapters in New York City and in the District of Columbia, all these chapters are related to countries. One of the main reasons for tying local chapter organizations to countries is a financial one. Many Wikimedia chapter organizations such as the German, the Polish or the Swiss chapter receive tax exempted donations. This is one of the big advantages of local chapter organizations and even a rationale for founding them as grassroots organizations in the first place. The same time, however, this also restricts the flow of funds within the organizational network. Donations to the German Wikimedia chapter, for example, cannot easily be transferred to the focal Wikimedia Foundation in the US due to legal restraints.
In spite of its regular portrayal as “anarchic”, “anything goes” was never true for Wikipedia. Beginning with the list of principles issued by its founder, Jimbo Wales, a continuously growing number of rules guides contributors to and hence development of Wikipedia. One of the most prominent rules is the aim of delivering a “Neutral Point of View” (NPOV). Other important rules deal with notability. While the NPOV is debated with regard to every single article, Wikipedia’s several “notability guidelines” try to resolve the question which information ought (not) to be included in the free online encyclopedia in the first place. Over the years, long lists of conventions have emerged for all kinds subjects. Regarding people, for example, the English Wikipedia lists in detail the notability criteria for members of different professional groups – ranging from Academics over Criminals and Diplomats to Entertainers (including actors, comedians, models, etc.).
But notability guidelines or, as they are called in the German Wikipedia “relevance criteria” (“Relevanzkriterien”), share the problem of all taxonomies, namely a certain degree of arbitrariness; an arbitrariness that makes them particularly prone to being criticized and challenged. In the English Wikipedia debates about notability even led to the formation of two antagonistic camps: The “Association of Deletionist Wikipedians” (ADW) sails under the banner of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his famous quote:
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
The opposite camp assembles around the “Association of Inclusionist Wikipedians” (AIW), which goes even back to the old Romans for their motto:
“The motto of the AIW is Conservata veritate, which translates to, ‘with truth preserved.’ This motto reflects the inclusionist desire to change Wikipedia only when no knowledge would be lost as a result.”
While both “associations” exist since 2004 and their dispute seemed to be rather settled, recent controversies about “relevance” in the German Wikipedia demonstrate that and how such rules may still be re-negotiated: Read the rest of this entry »
This is the English version of “Quo Vadis, Wikipedia? Eindrücke von der Wikimania 2009 in Buenos Aires”, published at netzpolitik.org.
Stats.wikimedia.org counted 87.000 active Wikipdians – contributors with at least five Wikipedia edits in the respective month – in August 2008. Only a tiny fraction – about 300 to 400 – of this worldwide community meets once a year at Wikimania in “real life” to discuss all kinds Wikipedia issues.
The first Wikimania was held 2005 in Frankfurt/M., the most recent one last August in the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires. As there are videos of most of the talks available online in the conference program, I can skip detailed summaries of individual presentations and give some personal impressions of the conference. Wikimania in Buenos Aires not only was the first in the southern hemisphere, it also showed an enormous growth in terms of relevance and professionalization of Wikipedia and its sister projects such as Wikibooks or Wiktionary. The increase in relevance is probably best illustrated by an article in the New York Times print edition, which points to over 330 million monthly Wikipedia visitors.
This professionalization, in turn, could be experienced both organizationally and atmospherically in Buenos Aires: Wikimania 2009 had nothing to do with an improvised meet-up of Wikipedians but was instead a perfectly organized conference with finger food buffet and social program (Tango lessons!). Above all, the continuous reference given to the newly started “strategy process” demonstrated a new seriousness of self-reflection among at least the organized part of the Wikipedia community. Moreover, thanks to funding by the Omydar Network (link), the whole process is instructed and moderated by consultants of The Bridgespan Group – a consultancy specialized on NGOs. Read the rest of this entry »