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The Men Who Stare at Media

Shortly after the 2014 London Wikimania, the happy world of Wikimedia experienced a localized earthquake when a dispute between some editors of the German Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation escalated into exchanges of electronic artillery. Here, I try to untangle the threads of the resulting Gordian knot, interwoven with my own view on the issue.

Timeline

As best as I can tell, the following sequence of events is roughly correct:

  1. The WMF (Wikimedia Foundation) decides to update and, at least by intention, improve the viewing of files (mostly images), mainly when clicked on in Wikipedia. The tool for this, dubbed MediaViewer, would do what most people expect when they click on a thumbnail on a website in 2014, and be activated by default. This is aimed at the casual reader, comprising the vast majority of people using Wikipedia. For writers (that is, “old hands” with log-ins), there is an off switch.
  2. A small group of editors on English Wikipedia suggest that the MediaViewer, at least in its current state, is not suitable for default activation. This is ignored by the WMF due to lack of total votes.
  3. A “Meniungsbild” (literally “opinion picture”; basically, a non-binding poll) is initiated on German Wikipedia.
  4. The WMF posts on the Meinungsbild page that it (the WMF) reserves the right to overrule a negative result.
  5. About 300 editors vote on German Wikipedia, with ~2/3 against the default activation of the MediaViewer.
  6. The WMF, as announced, overrules the Meinungsbild and activates the MediaViewer by default.
  7. An admin on German Wikipedia implements a JavaScript hack that deactivates the MediaViewer.
  8. The WMF implements a “super-protect” right that locks out even admins from editing a page, reverts the hack to re-enable the MediaViewer, and protects the “hacked” page from further editing.
  9. Mailing list shitstorm ensues.

An amalgamate of issues

In the flurry of mails, talk page edits, tweets, blog posts, and press not-quite-breaking-news items, a lot of issues were thrown into the increasingly steaming-hot soup of contention-laden bones. Sabotage of the German Wikipedia by its admins, to prevent everyone from reading it, was openly suggested as a possible solution to the problem, Erik Möller of WMF was called a Nazi, and WMF management is raking in the donations for themselves while only delivering shoddy software. I’ll try to list the separate issues that are being bundled under the “MediaViewer controversy” label:

  • Technical issues. This includes claims that MediaViewer is useless, not suitable for readers, too buggy for prime time, violates copyright by hiding some licenses, etc.
  • WMF response. Claims that the Foundation is not responding properly to technical issues (e.g. bug reports), community wishes, etc.
  • WMF aim. Claims that the Foundation is focusing exclusively on readers and new editors, leaving the “old hands” to fend for themselves.
  • Authority. Should the WMF or the community of the individual language edition have the final word about software updates?
  • Representation: Does a relatively small pool of vocal long-time editors speak for all the editors, and/or all the readers?
  • Rules of engagement: Is it OK for admins to use technological means to enforce a point of view? Is it OK for the WMF to do so?
  • Ownership: Does the WMF own Wikipedia, or do the editors who wrote it?

A house needs a foundation

While the English word “foundation” is know to many Germans, I feel it is often interpreted as “Verein”, the title of the German Wikimedia chapter. The literal translation (“Fundament”), and thus its direct meaning, are often overlooked. The WMF is not “the project”; it is a means to an end, a facilitator, a provider of services for “the community” (by whatever definition) to get stuff done. At the same time, “the community” could not function without a foundation; some argue that the community needs a different foundation, because the next one will be much better, for sure. Thankfully, these heroic separatists are a rather minute minority.

The foundation provides stability and reliability; it takes care of a lot of necessary plumbing and keeps it out of everyone’s living room. At the same time, when the foundation changes (this is stretching the literal interpretation of the word a bit, unless you live in The Matrix), everything build on the foundation has to change with it. So what does this specific foundation provide?

  • The servers and the connectivity (network, bandwidth) to run the Wikis.
  • The core software (MediaWiki) and site-specific extensions. Yes, since it’s open source, everyone can make a fork, so WMF “ownership” is limited; however, WMF employs people to develop MediaWiki, with the specific aim of supporting WMFs projects. Third-party use is wide-spread, but not a primary aim.
  • The setup (aka installation) of MediaWiki and its components for the individual projects.
  • The people and know-how to make the above run smoothly.
  • Non-technical aspects, such as strategic planning, public relations and press management, legal aspects etc. which would be hard/impossible for “the community” to provide reliably.
  • The money to pay for all of the above. Again, yes, the money comes from donation; but WMF collects, prioritizes, and distributes it; they plan and execute the fundraising that gets the money in.

The WMF does specifically not provide:

  • The content of Wikipedia, Commons, and other projects.
  • The editorial policies for these projects, beyond certain basic principles (“Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, NPOV, no original research”, etc.) which are common to all language editions of a project.

Authorities

I think that last point deserves attention in the light of the battle of MediaViewer. The WMF is not just your hosting provider. It does stand for, and is tasked to uphold, some basic principles of the project, across communities and languages. For example, the “neutral point of view” is a basic principle on all Wikipedia. What if a “community” (again, by whatever definition) were to decide to officially abandon it, and have opinionated articles instead? Say, the Urdu edition, a language mostly spoken in Pakistan (which I chose as a random example here!). I think that most editors, from most “communities”, would want the WMF to intervene at that point, and rightly so. You want opinionated texts, get a blog (like this one); the web is large enough. In such a case, the WMF should go against the wishes of that “community” and, if necessary, enforce NPOV, even if it means to de-admin or block people on that project. And while I hope that such a situation will never develop, it would be a case were the WMF would, and should, enforce editorial policy (because otherwise, it wouldn’t be Wikipedia anymore). Which is a far more serious issue than some image viewer tool.

The point I am trying to make here is that there are situations where it is part of the mission and mandate of WMF to overrule “the community”. The question at hand is, does MediaViewer comprise such a situation? It is certainly a borderline case. On one hand, seen from the (German) “community” POV, it is a non-essential function that mostly gets in the way of the established editors that are most likely to show up on the Meinungsbild, and admittedly has some software issues with a generous sprinkling of bug reports. On the other hand, from the WMF’s point of view, the dropping number of editors is a major problem, at it is their duty to solve it as best as they can. Some reasons, e.g. “newbie-biting”, are up to the communities and essentially out of the WMF’s control. Other reasons for the lack on “fresh blood” in the wiki family include the somewhat antiquated technology exposed to the user, and that is something well within its remit. The Visual Editor was developed to get more (non-technical) people to edit Wikipedia. The Upload Wizard and the MediaViewer were developed to get more people interested in (and adding to) the richness of free images and sounds available on the sites.

The Visual Editor (which seems to work a lot better than it used to) represents a major change in the way Wikipedia can be used by editors, and its initial limitations were well known. Here, the WMF did yield to the wishes of individual “communities”, and not even an option for the Visual Editor is shown on German Wikipedia for “anonymous” users.

The MediaViewer is, in this context, a little different. Most people (that is, anonymous readers of Wikipedia, all of which are potential future editors) these days expect that, when you click on a thumbnail image on a website, you see a large version of it. Maybe even with next/prev arrows to cycle through available images on the page. (I make no judgement about whether this is the right thing; it just is this way.) Instead, Wikipedia thus far treated the reader to a slightly larger thumbnail, surrounded by mostly incomprehensible text. And when I say “incomprehensible”, I mean people mailing me if they could use my image from Commons; they skip right past the {{Information}} template and the license boxes to look for the uploader, which happens to be my Flickr/Wikipedia transfer bot.

So the WMF decided that, in this specific case, the feature should be rolled out as default, on all projects instead of piecemeal like the Visual Editor (and do not kid yourself, it will come to every Wikipedia sooner or later). I do not know what prompted this decision; consistency for multilingual readers, simplicity of maintenance, pressure on the programmers to get the code into shape under the ensuing bug report avalanche, or simply the notion of this being a minor change that can be turned off even by anonymous users. I also do not know if this was the right technical decision to make, in light of quite a few examples where MediaViewer does not work as correctly as it should. I am, however, quite certain that it was the WMF’s right to make that decision. It falls within two of their areas of responsibility, which are (a) MediaWiki software and its components, and (b) improving reader and editor numbers by improving their experience of the site. Again, no judgement whether or not it was the right decision; just that it was the WMF’s decision to make, if they chose to do so.

Respect

I do, however, understand the “community’s” point of view as well; while I haven’t exactly been active on German Wikipedia for a while, I have been around through all of its history. The German community is very dedicated to quality; where the English reader may be exposed to an army of Pokemons, the article namespace in German Wikipedia is pruned rather rigorously (including an article about Yours Truly). There are no “mispeeling” redirects (apparently, if you can’t spell correctly, you have no business reading an encyclopedia!), and few articles have infoboxes (Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a trading card game!). There are “tagging categories”, e.g. for “man” and “woman”, with no subcategories; biographies generally have Persondata and authority control templates. In short, the German community is very much in favor of rigorously controlling many aspects of the pages, in order to provide the (in the community’s view) best experience for the user. This is an essential point: the German community cares very much about the reader experience! This is not to say that other languages don’t care; but, in direct comparison, English Wikipedia is an amorphous free-for-all playground (exaggerating a bit here, but only a bit). If you don’t believe me, ask Jimbo; he speaks some German, enough to experience the effect.

So some of the German editors saw (and continue to see) the default activation of the MediaViewer as an impediment to not only themselves, but especially to the reader. And while Germans are known for their “professional outrage”, and some just dislike everything new (“it worked for me so far, why change anything?”), I believe the majority of editors voting against the MediaViewer are either actually concerned about the reader experience, or were convinced (not to say “dragged into”) by those concerned to vote “no”.

The reactions by the WMF, understandably as they are from their perspective, namely

  1. announcing to ignore the “vote” (not a real, democratic vote, which is why it’s called “Meinungsbild” and not “Wahl”)
  2. proceeding to ignore the vote
  3. using “force” to enforce their decision

were interpreted by many editors as a lack of respect. We the people editors wrote the encyclopedia, after all; how dare they (the WMF) change our carefully crafted user experience, and ignore our declared will? It is from that background that comparisons to corporate overlords etc. stem, barely kept in check by Mike Godwin himself. And while such exaggerations are a common experience to everyone on the web, they do not exactly help in getting the discussion back to where it should be. Which is “where do we go from here”?

The road to hell

One thing is clear to me, and I suspect even to the most hardened edit warrior in the wikiverse: Both “sides”, community and WMF, actually want the same thing, which is to give the reader the best experience possible when browsing the pages of any Wikimedia project. The goal is not in question; the road to get there is. And whose authority it is to decide that.

On the technical side, one issue is the testing-and-fixing cycle. Traditionally, the WMF has made new functionality available for testing by the community quite early. By the same tradition, that option is ignored by most members of that community, only to complain about being steamrollered into it when it suddenly appears on the live site. On the other hand,  the WMF has rolled out both the Visual Editor and the MediaViewer in a state that would be called “early beta” in most software companies. “Release early, release often” is a time-honored motto in open source software development; but in this specific case, using early releases in production isn’t optional for the users. From discussions I had on Wikimania, I have the distinct impression that people expect a higher standard of quality for software rolled out by the WMF on the live sites, especially if it becomes default. How this should work without volunteers to test early remains a mystery; maybe a little more maturity on the initial release, followed by more widespread use of “beta” features, is part of the answer here.

On the votes-vs-foundation side, I am of the opinion that clearer lines need to be drawn. The WMF does have a responsibility for user experience, which includes software changes, some of which will have to be applied across the wikiverse to be effective; the upcoming “forced account unification” for (finally!) Single User Login comes to mind. And, in a twist on the famous Spiderman quote, with great responsibility needs to come great power to fulfill it. Responsibility without power is the worst state one can have in a job, which even the most uncompromising “community fighter” will agree to. So if and when the WMF makes such a decision within their remit, the energy of the community would be best spent in feeding back the flaws in order to get the best possible result, instead of half-assed attempts at sabotage (I much prefer full-assed attempts myself).

There is, of course, another side of that coin. In my opinion, the WMF should leave the decision for default activation of a new feature to a representative vote of a community, unless the activation is necessary for (a) technical, (b) consistency, or (c) interdependency reasons. A security fix would fall under (a); the Single User Login will fall under (c); MediaViewer falls under (b), though somewhat weakly IMHO. Now, the key word in the beginning of this paragraph is “representative”. I am not quite sure how this would work in practice. I am, however, quite sure it is not 300 editors (or Spartans) voting on some page. It could include votes by a randomized subset of readers. It could also include “calls to vote” as part of beta features, e.g. if you had the feature enabled in the last week. These could be repeated over time, as the “product” would change, sometimes significantly so, as it happened with the Visual Editor; a “no” three month ago would be quite invalid today.

Finally, I believe we need at least part of the above written out, and agreed upon, by both the WMF and “the communities”. It is my hope that enough people will share my opinion that both “parties” still have a common goal. Because the house that is Wikipedia cannot stand without a foundation, and a foundation without a house on top is but a dirty pond.

6 Comments


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