This is the English version of “Quo Vadis, Wikipedia? Eindrücke von der Wikimania 2009 in Buenos Aires”, published at

Logo of Wikimania 2009 in Buenos Aires 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.

Interestingly and not least because of the full conference schedule, actual strategy debates were rare at Wikimania in Buenos Aires; attendants were directed to post their ideas and comments in the official “strategy wiki”, which allows for broader participation and features a “call for proposals” asking where Wikimedia – the organizational carrier behind Wikipedia and its sister projects – should go? However, even Bridgespan’s Eugene Kim could not make perfectly clear how the final strategy will be distilled out of hundreds of proposals in the strategy wiki: ten to fifteen topically differentiated “task forces” are going to prepare recommendations, which will then be evaluated and integrated by a special “strategy task force”. Even though “open” and “transparent” were the most frequently used adjectives in the description of this project, decision-making procedures did not become entirely clear – but that is probably also necessary if the whole process shall not be overly bureaucratic.

The process of professionalization, however, has its dark side, which became obvious in the second “big issue” of Wikimania 2009: the internationalization strategy. By now local Wikimedia organizations in over 25 countries are officially recognized as “Wikimedia Chapters” by the US based Wikimedia Foundation; they devote their efforts to promoting free knowledge in general and supporting local Wikipedia projects in particular (see also “Wikimania Preview #2“). World’s first and most resourceful chapter is Wikimedia Germany and most other chapters try to follow the German example. However, building formal organizational structures is relatively difficult in many poorer countries: Damian Finol, for example, has been trying to set up Wikimedia Venezuela since 2006 but fails due to problems such as raising enough travel funds for joint meetings. In Brazil, initiators of the local chapter have even decided to abstain from forming a formal association due to similar reasons: Brazilian Wikipedians argue that establishing and upholding an administrative bureaucracy would require so much attention and effort that the actual work for free knowledge would suffer; besides, equal participation of community members would be impossible. Instead they emphasize the character of the Wikipedia community as a social movement and call their informal and open structure a strength, leading to social movement dynamics. A position representatives of other Wikimedia chapters strongly disagree with; they see a formal and legal body as an essential and defining precondition of any Wikimedia chapter.

Finally, the dangers of appearing “too professional” already, of too few possibilities for new and easy participation, or of being not open enough for new contributors were also addressed in talks of Wikimedia’s Executive Director Sue Gardner and her German deputy Erik Möller. While the former (video) pleaded for less scepticism and mistrust towards new contributors in her brilliant closing speech, the latter (video) presented concrete examples to demonstrate why entering Wikipedia is more difficult today than it had been in the early days: there are fewer “red links” that invite to edit a new page, the wiki syntax in longer articles has become intimidatingly complex, and uploading data to Wikimedia Commons is difficult even for experienced users. For both again the ongoing strategy process is the way out.

The results of the strategy process will be presented at Wikimania 2010 in Gdańsk/Poland.