Wikimania & Advisory Board thoughts

One of the greatest things about the Wikimedia community is its annual conference, Wikimania. With a new location chosen every year, it gives interested Wikimedians an opportunity to meet like-minded wiki nuts from all over the planet. I have attended all the conferences so far, including this year’s in Taipei (August 3-5).
The Foundation’s Board of Trustees used the opportunity of Wikimania 2007 for the first-ever meeting with many members of its Advisory Board. This is a belated summary of my impressions from both events.

Advisory Board meeting

Angela, who is the Chair of the Advisory Board, is still working on a detailed report, so I will keep this one short. The following Advisory Board members managed to attend: Ward Cunningham, Heather Ford, Melissa Hagemann, Teemu Leinonen, Rebecca MacKinnon, Wayne Mackintosh, Benjamin Mako Hill, Erin McKean, Achal Prabhala, and Raoul Weiler. We met in a small room at the Chien Tan Oversea Youth Activity Center, the main conference venue.

The two-day meeting was facilitated by Manon Ress; the Agenda is publicly available. I will say this much upfront: The single most important function of this meeting was for Board and Advisory Board members to get to know and trust each other, and to figure out how we can actively work together in the future. I believe the meeting reached this goal. For many Advisory Board members, visiting Taipei also must have been the equivalent of drinking from a firehose of knowledge about wikis. Of course there are exceptions. 😉

Naturally, there were also some very specific exercises which will hopefully have practical use. For instance, randomized groups tried to identify the key values of the Foundation. The group I was in started out by humorously defining all the things we don’t want to be — extremely hierarchical, exclusive, western-centric, etc. — and then compared those with positive value statements. (For some reason, “world domination” ended up in both lists.) I suggested the slogan “knowledge without borders” or “knowledge without boundaries” as a possible framework for many of the key values we found: access to knowledge (in a participatory sense) on a global scale, multilingual and multicultural diversity, content that can be freely shared and modified, etc.

I don’t know if this particular slogan will catch on, but I like the idea of trying to express key principles in a short catchphrase. The list of values itself could also be useful for messaging and policymaking. There wasn’t a lot of notetaking on the wiki, so I hope Angela has some notes from the different groups available to her. We also tried to identify some key goals, and the list my group worked on (with some predictable disagreements about the meaning of “goal” etc.) included primarily these items, read through my own personal bias:

  • Increasing quality of content in our projects, but also challenging and changing misperceptions.
  • Massively scaling volunteer participations in all areas of organizational and project-level work, to live up to our ambitious mission & vision.
  • Building greater awareness of Wikimedia’s mission & purpose. (Gregory Maxwell recently proposed adding an essay I started, 10 things you did not know about Wikipedia, to the notice displayed to unregistered users of Wikipedia. I think that’s an interesting experiment in changing people’s perceptions — we should use our own website properties more often to actually communicate with our readers.)
  • Build capacities among partners and users — the ability to participate, to create and deploy new tools, and so on.

I believe that there is a deep and complex challenge of what I call “meta-management” — the Foundation has such a diversity of projects (Wikibooks, Wikinews, Wikisource, etc.) and goals that any approach which does not scale massively will not serve our community well. So, yes, we should of course hire coordinators for grants and projects, and get better at business development, and improve our technical infrastructure, and so forth. But I think networking and empowering volunteers to do many of the things we hope to pay more people to do is a much more scalable approach.

This is a very difficult idea to promote in a group of highly intelligent people, as it’s much more exciting to focus on more specific problems, so I’m not sure if I got this particular point across well in our discussion.

Unsurprisingly, then, I also found the biggest practical value in an exercise where I moderated a group on the topic of Volunteerism (link goes to the notes), consisting of Angela, Mako, and Achal. I was especially intrigued to hear more about Ubuntu’s process for creating and coordinating volunteer teams. I am left with the conclusion that we need more semi-formal ways for Wikimedians to self-organize than the heavy process of starting a chapter. Check the notes for some other interesting ideas. We got some more suggestions later, such as an “Edit Wikipedia Day” and other online events that could be held every year to encourage different types of participation.

It’s a bunch of people in a room. It doesn’t get much more exciting than that.

Photo: halafish, CC-BY-SA.

I missed some of the more creative and physical elements that we used during the Frankfurt Board+Chapter Retreat which happened last year. For example, our facilitator there had an interesting exercise where she asked all participants to come up with a gesture to identify themselves (I used Columbo’s famous “Just one more thing”). While a bit repetitive in the end, I thought it was a fun bonding game that also helps very practically to remember people, faces and names. This makes me think that it would be good to have someone in-house for facilitation work, to build upon knowledge from previous events. Also, is there a wiki to document these kinds of processes? 😉

In practice, we will continue to use our Advisory Board mailing list to consult with A.B. members as a group — these are typically strategic questions, or “fishing” of the type “Does anyone know someone who ..”. But I believe the more frequent interactions will be with individuals, around issues in their domain. And while I initially viewed the A.B. as only being truly connected to the Board, I am increasingly coming to the opinion that we should encourage them to interact with staff and community members as well (and possibly sometimes chapters, though I hope these will also set up their own advisory bodies).

What is the ideal size for an Advisory Board? During the meeting I believe the consensus was against significant further expansion before we’re happy with the utilization of the current Advisory Board (this is not the case for the actual Board, where there is a consensus leaning towards another expansion). I suspect there’s another reason to keep it roughly at the present size: it allows us to get to know the members socially, to form a collegial trust relationship, which can lead to very different types of useful interaction than merely someone who you suspect to know something. It also keeps it manageable to prune members, to invite them into a single place, and so forth.

At the same time, if you think about expansion because “more is better”, then any size would be too small — you’ll want to manage knowledge and trust on a global scale. Wait a minute, knowledge and trust on a global scale? That sounds like a familiar problem! 😉 I suspect indeed that innovations of internal knowledge management will be driven by our project communities. And I don’t think that a massively decentralized approach of acquiring information from trustworthy sources and a fairly stable group of passionate advisors would be mutually exclusive. :-)

Wikimania itself

Wikimania visitors posing (being posed) for some group shots on the last day.

Photo: halafish, CC-BY-SA.

Most members of the fantastic team that made it all happen!

Photo: halafish, CC-BY-SA.

The main conference was absolutely wonderful. We cannot thank the organizers enough for putting together an event that, I think, nobody who was there will soon forget. I will have to resort to the maligned bullet point list to even begin to enumerate all the things that were done well:

  • a well-chosen venue (a youth hostel) with plenty of spaces to mingle
  • a large number of sponsorships that never appeared obtrusive in any way
  • a highly committed local team that went out of its way to assist with anything (starting with welcoming people at the airport)
  • a compelling program with talks that were truly interesting to any Wikimedian
  • many opportunities for ad hoc events (laptop content bundles, lightning talks, workshops, and so forth)
  • side events – citizen journalism, hacking days, party, etc.
  • excellent catering
  • Taipei itself
  • all of you who made it 😉
  • and a million other things.

You owe it to yourself to come to Wikimania 2008, which is currently accepting city bids. Swim if you have to. And block the first week of August in your calendar. :-)

I do think we should try to have more content that appeals to wiki newbies next time: editing workshops, project tours, exhibits, etc. Whether that’s the intent or not, many people who have barely seen an edit page will always be inclined to visit a conference like this — just because it’s about this crazy new wiki thing. That’s doubly true if the conference is in a location where the community isn’t yet as strong as in the U.S., parts of Asia, or Western Europe.

Some of the first users of the OLPC at Wikimania. The laptop had a very prominent place in the “free culture space” of the conference.

Photo: preetamrai, CC-BY-SA.

I did enjoy Taipei itself, especially a fun little tour with Shun-ling Chen, Mel from OLPC, and the Semantic MediaWiki developers. There is also some incriminating video evidence from another occasion that Kat will probably use against me sooner or later. I derived the greatest enjoyment from making new friends, having interesting conversations, and discovering new patterns (in reality in general and Wikipedia in particular). In that respect, I especially cherish the new things I learned from people like Luca de Alfaro (trust and reputation in Wikipedia), Michael Dale (Metavid), Shay David (Kaltura), and Brian Mingus (quality heuristics – let’s chat some more about this soon). I think all Board members had great conversations with Sue Gardner, our new “Special Advisor”, and Mike Godwin, our new Legal Counsel. And of course, it was great to connect again and catch up with many old friends in an unlikely location.

There was definitely a language barrier to connect more with the local folks. English isn’t that commonly spoken in Taiwan, and I found it difficult to converse much beyond smalltalk. Not much that can be done about that other than learning Chinese, which I’m afraid is unlikely to make my to-do list anytime soon. I tried to be accessible to anyone who did want to speak with me and gave an interview to a local magazine about OmegaWiki.

I will find it very interesting to look back on this Wikimania in context, and to hear more from others about it. I for one think it was a complete success. But I felt the same way about Boston and Frankfurt, so I hope there will also be some constructive criticism and maybe even some trolling. 😉 I’m also keen to see more wiki-events small and large. I won’t be able to make it to all or even most of them, but that’s OK. One way or another, it is wonderful to see the global community for free culture thrive. As a community, as friends; constructive in conflict, united in diversity.

Delphine and me are sharing a precious moment. “I ate what?!” I’m sure you can come up with a funnier caption for this one. I really have no memory of what actually happened. :-)

Photo: Kat Walsh, CC-BY-SA.

1 Comment

  1. I don’t remember what actually happened either; I’m just glad I got a picture of it! And I’m not actually going to share the more incriminating evidence too widely. I think. :-)

    Good summary of the meeting. Also, the 10 things has been in the enwiki anonnotice on and off.

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