Although getting a pointless degree in Community Governance Studies1 would allow me to preface the shit I spout with “as someone with a degree in..”, half the points I (try to) make about The Wikimedia Community™ really are just common sense — they are rarely “deep insights based off my 10+ years volunteering”, nor things I’ve figured out in my year-and-a-bit working for the Foundation in a community-facing-ish role.

That’s not to say there aren’t deeper insights to be figured out by long-term volunteers, staff, or those with specific industry experience in community governance, but these probably ain’t it.

The community is fractured

This is something both volunteers and staff struggle with, and it manifests in many ways — for example, how can the WMF “listen to the community” when it’s unclear what the community even is in this specific scenario?

Conversely, how can volunteers effectively tell the Foundation what needs to be prioritised if there’s no single, unified voice (and everyone has opinions)?

There are no real answers to these questions, nor a solution I think would adequately represent the entire community fairly — but perhaps that’s because we’re looking at this backwards…

Instead of begrudgingly attempting to split what we try so hard to define as a single entity, we should embrace the idea that the Wikimedia community is built out of readers, editors, power users, moderators, developers (etc.) — these groups are distinct (yet sometimes overlap heavily) and should be treated and listened to separately.

A fractured community doesn’t mean one which in-fights over priorities, and each group’s priorities would still need to be sorted at a high level.

The community is not all knowing

It comes at no surprise that the Wikimedia community is built up of a large and varied user base, with a range of experiences and proficiencies — this being said, as a whole we often act as though we are all-knowing arbiters of every aspect of building Wikimedia; from the software, to the management, to everything in between.

We are not, and for our own sakes we would do well to listen more. A fine example of this is the unfortunate deployment of the new default Wikipedia skin, Vector 2022 (perma) — in an effort not to relitigate the more controversial aspects of the skin (and through fear of attracting needless debate..!), I’ll focus on some key aspects (which, admittedly, will need to be taken without due context) that speak to the point I’m trying to make here:

  • A lot of experienced editors did not like the skin

  • Some of these editors disputed the validity of the user experience research the WMF did

These are users who, at the very least statistically speaking, are unlikely to all be experts in user experience/research/accessibility/web design etc., acting in an authoritative manner on a subject they know little about — subjective opinions on if a design is “good” or “bad” is one thing (and I dare say, a very useful thing) but to dispute research conducted by data analysts based on an negative opinion of the results is inappropriate.

To assuage any appearance of favouritism in this section, I’ll mention that it’s not just the community who is “guilty” of acting in an all-knowing manner — the Foundation, which is built up of a minority of staff who are both integrated members of the community, and a majority who have little to no interaction with the movement, often behaves as though there is a deep, cross-sectional integration between teams and the community. This may well be a goal, and certainly should be a goal, but as it stands it is not the case.

The community has power

A common gripe I see in the volunteer world is “no one listens to us”, and that “the WMF acts in its own interests” — although this can be true in some specific situations2, and the reason volunteers can sometimes feel like this should be explored in depth, on the whole it could not be further from the truth. The community has significant power, and with it a significant responsibility to utilise that power carefully, infrequently and in unison (though, this is not always possible).

This of course comes with many caveats, and we would be wise to weigh up the “power imbalance” — the Foundation has the resources to affect change on both the software (through its paid developers) and the movement (through its close affiliates), but often looks to the community for guidance in these areas.

This guidance, which likely due to the consequences of the other sections of this post, is often lacking.

The community might not even exist

Even after saying all of this, and mentioning “the Wikimedia community” more times than I can be bothered to count3, what we (both as volunteers, and staff) consider the community to be might not even be a thing we can engage with, or represent, in a meaningful way — saying “it doesn’t exist” might be hyperbole on my part, but the core concept I’m trying to make evident is that attempting to listen to and work with a nameless, faceless, and constantly evolving entity is impossible.

So then, what should we do?

Well, first of all, you’re asking the wrong person — asking any one person or organisation isn’t the way to move forward. A truly representative plan would need to involve a significant percentage of the fractured community, the WMF staff and leadership, the affiliates and at this stage, a lot of goodwill.

Explaining a good course of action would be difficult for me to do (I’m a fairly shoddy writerer), so I’ll leave you with a case study in how to almost get it right:

PageTriage: The open letter format

In July 2022, a group of English Wikipedia editors (primarily New Pages Patrollers) created this open letter to the Wikimedia Foundation and its Board of Trustees — it was co-signed by 444 editors and resulted in a significant amount of attention (and work) being done on the PageTriage MediaWiki extension.

This effort, while laudable, is an example of the power of the community being used ineffectively4 — that’s not to say it wasn’t a good idea, nor that it was poorly executed, but it was a narrow application of pressure. It helped solve the immediate problem the group of editors were experiencing, but set a precedent that large, loud groups (the English Wikipedia being the largest, and loudest) get and hold our attention, further fracturing our collective power not based on how we contribute (reader, writer, developer) but on the privilege we hold by being part of the largest and loudest group.

As a group we should remember that we are in this together, and only together can we build a relationship which lasts, fairly represents our needs, promotes mutual respect and (if you’ll excuse the cliché) contributes to the sum of all human knowledge.

  1. No offense intended if this is a real thing… ↩︎

  2. And you’ll have to excuse me if I skip over listing some examples. ↩︎

  3. 6 times, including that one. Guess I could be bothered.. ↩︎

  4. I say this whilst having been a part of why it internally got so much attention to begin with.. ↩︎