Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Strange things are afoot at the circle-K

The ground is shifting in the wake of last week's scandal. (And the week before's, and the week before that...)

A Wikimedia board member has resigned*, for example, and apparently something totally secret and crazy and unexpected is going to happen.

Florence Devouard, the board's chair, who has her finger solidly on Wikipedia's pulse, says:

I feel there are two paths for the future. Either we keep a board mostly made of community members (elected or appointed), who may not be top-notch professionals, who can do mistakes, such as forgetting to do a background check, such as not being able to do an audit in 1 week, such as not signing the killer-deal with Google, but who can breath and pee wikimedia projects, dedicate their full energy to a project they love, without trying to put their own interest in front. A decentralized organization where chapters will have more room, authority and leadership.

Or we get a board mostly made of big shots, famous, rich, or very skilled (all things potentially beneficial), but who just *do not get it*. A centralized organization, very powerful, but also very top-down.

My heart leans toward the first position of course. But at the same time, I am aware we are now playing in the big room and current board members may not be of sufficient strength to resist the huge wave.

This issue has appeared before, though never in such sharp relief. Danny Wool is looking prophetic, for better or worse. When he ran (and lost) for board, he said:

I believe that the current board should be replaced by a professional board consisting of captains of industry and academia. I believe that these people should have some distance from the projects, so that they can make wise decisions without any conflicts of interest or personal benefit, financial or otherwise. I believe that these type of people exist on our advisory board and in Jimmy's rolodex, and it simply remains to flip them over. Make them the real board, and have an elected, active advisory board derived from the community.

And then there's Knol, Google's new (and unreleased) Wikipedia competitor. More on that later -- for now, Florence is worried:

I do not share the same optimism than [wikipedia founder] Jimbo with regards to Knol. It's Jimbo's duty to project optimism. -Ben I think Knol is probably our biggest threat since the creation of Wikipedia. I really mean the biggest. Maybe not so much the project itself, but the competition it will create, the PR consequences, the financial tsunami, the confusion in people minds (free as in free speech or as in free of charge). Many parties are trying to influence us, to buy us, and conflicts of interest are becoming the rule rather than the exception. There are power struggles on the path.

Rather than spending time bugging the board about whether we did a background check on Carolyn 18 months ago (we did not, period), I'd like the current community to realize that we are currently at a crossroad. The staff will hopefully stabilize and be successful under the leadership of Sue. I trust her to have this strength. But the organization in its whole is currently oscillating. We can try the path of the community, at the risk of being engulfed by the big ones. We can try the path of letting our future in the hands of the big shots, at the risk of loosing what is making us unique.

* Moller was apparently shuffled off to another high position after "resigning".

I feel a bit like I'm in the 3rd act of a play. The wikipedian mood is definitely changed for the worse. The sense of boundless possibilities, of wondering what incredible, unimaginably awesome thing wikipedia will have turned into in 10 years, is, if not gone, distinctly muted. (This is bad. That sense of wonder drew lots of people. Hopefully I'm just being pissy.)

A commenter on Kelly's blog says:

For once, I honestly don't care about the politics, maneuvering, backbiting and backstabbing. I just want results.

Where the fuck is our SUL and Stable Versions. The mechanics of Wikipedia has been stagnating for a couple of years now. I hope Erik can get the pumps primed.

An old adage: "any business that isn't growing is failing". I think this applies to wikipedia - if we don't make progress with simple things like reliability, we're doomed to the competition. That progress can be glacial, but it has to be there.


llywrch said...

Ben, you're not the only one who is discouraged at the moment. Yet what is even more discouraging is that some of the people who ought to be paying attention to the mood of the community (okay, the En-Wikipedia community) think everything is just fine now.


Ben Yates said...

Yeah, it's very troubling. People need to relax and stick their heads out of the tree fort.