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Wikimedia 2030: a fair wind for free knowledge

As of October 2, this year, there is a Strategic Direction formulated for the Wikimedia Movement.

Anne Kierkegaard
27 October 2017
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Jason Krüger for Wikimedia Deutschland e.V., Wikimedia Conference 2017 – 136, CC BY-SA 4.0. Some rights reserved.It all started with Wikipedia in 2001, and now, as they say, it's complicated. 16 years down the line, what started as an online wiki-encyclopaedia in the US has evolved into a global network of communities and organisations, small and big, all of them inspired by the thought, “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge."

Wikipedia or Wikimedia?

A short introduction might be necessary, as the difference between Wikipedia and Wikimedia remains obscure to most people. Wikimedia includes 11 projects (the most prominent of which is Wikipedia, followed by Wikimedia Commons and the relatively new project Wikidata) and there are recognised user groups and chapters worldwide. The newest user groups are Open Foundation West Africa and Malaysia, the oldest chapters include Wikimedia Deutschland and Wikimedia France. The Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco is the largest of the Wikimedia organisations, the one that recognises new organisations in the network, and the primary fundraiser.

One of the things that make Wikimedia special is that it is largely run by volunteers. There are around 500 paid Wikimedia staff members worldwide, out of these 300 in the US and 100 in Germany. However, the heart of Wikimedia is the community of the thousands of volunteers who are engaged globally.  It’s organic, non-hierarchical...collaborative while prone to discussion and conflict, and diverse.

That Wikimedia and its projects have grown out of initiatives by volunteers defines the organisational structure; it’s organic, non-hierarchical (maybe not if you ask the Wikipedians, but certainly in comparison to most other international organisations), collaborative while prone to discussion and conflict, and diverse. The Wikimedia community is driven by each volunteer’s individual passion: from correct formatting, over photographing monuments, to gender equality and free speech. It’s as diverse as human knowledge – or is it? – and on whose authority would we know that?

The question of how to make the vision come true, that all humans can share in the sum of all knowledge, has remained open for years. But this is where the Wikimedia Strategy Process picks up.

Drafting a Strategic Direction

The first phase of the Strategy Process started in January 2017. Until July 2017 community discussions and research (focusing on individual contributors; Wikimedia organisations; and external readers, experts and partners) took place. A draft was created that was then extensively discussed on wiki, open mailing-lists, and during international Wikimedia conferences (the Wikimedia Conference, Wikimania, and the CEE meeting).

Wikimedia_Conference_2017_–_34.jpg

Jason Krüger for Wikimedia Deutschland e.V., Wikimedia Conference 2017 – 34, CC BY-SA 4.0. Some rights reserved. Based on all these discussions, as of October 2 this year, there is a Strategic Direction formulated for Wikimedia, or as they refer to themselves: the Wikimedia Movement. It states that Wikimedia will continue to collect and curate knowledge, but in addition it will focus on “Knowledge as a Service”: “To serve our users, we will become a platform that serves open knowledge to the world across interfaces and communities. We will build tools for allies and partners to organize and exchange free knowledge beyond Wikimedia. Our infrastructure will enable us and others to collect and use different forms of free, trusted knowledge”; and “Knowledge equity”: “As a social movement, we will focus our efforts on the knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege. We will welcome people from every background to build strong and diverse communities. We will break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge.” (Wikimedia, Strategic Direction)

Based on the first round of discussions five themes were identified as essential:

1: Healthy communities, 2: Becoming a truly Global Movement, 3: Keeping up with the Augmented Age, 4: Wikipedia as a Trusted Source of Knowledge, and 5: Wikimedia as part of a greater Knowledge Ecosystem.

Questions that matter to all of us

At a time where public political debates are increasingly taking place via social media, and where the internet is becoming, possibly, the most important public space (at least for the 47% of the global population using the internet), the discussions that these questions pertain to should be relevant to anyone who cares about open and democratic dialogue:

1: How to create a less toxic atmosphere for online discussions – how do you create trust in online communities?

 

2: How to include voices and knowledge that are excluded because of historically shaped societal structures (incl. poverty structures and lack of access to new technologies), locally and globally?

 

3: How to keep up with exponential technological development, and include users (i.e. normal people) in the implementation of new technology?

 

4: What is reliable knowledge, and who produces it?

 

5: How to create access for more people to more of the knowledge that is tied up in educational, cultural, scientific and other institutions?  

What is clear from the new Strategic Direction is this: Wikimedia is stepping more into the role of a civil society organisation with a defined social justice agenda, which links it to the larger political context of human rights and equitable social development. This has not gone unnoticed in the volunteer community. What is clear from the new Strategic Direction is this: Wikimedia is stepping more into the role of a civil society organisation with a defined social justice agenda...

The discussions

The above questions are broad and political, and while most Wikimedians are dedicated to the cause of freeing content, they diverge on many other issues. Looking at the discussion pages and open mailings some of the (many) topics raised were: Does Wikimedia really want to be a political actor?; and the concept of ‘new forms of knowledge’ (which include rather old forms, such as oral traditions) and whether they should be included as sources on Wikipedia.

Around these issues a discussion emerged that touches on the Democratic Paradox: How to define an “us” (which implies a “they”), and at the same time apply universal values of equality? In that sense, the discussions about the Wikimedia Strategic Direction have parallels to broader political developments today.

It is a fact that although anyone, in principle, can edit Wikipedia, it is currently mainly written and edited by people in North America and Europe, and mostly men. The decision to actively try and change the internal composition of the community has caused some criticism. Like one person wrote on the Wikimedia mailing-list: “if in future more or less everybody will be *community*: that is in fact abolishing the community.”

And as another wrote: “Is the present text about inviting people in those countries to write on Wikipedia? How is this going to work, given the fact that these people usually have other concerns than to write encyclopaedic articles?”.

On the other hand, it has been argued that deciding to actively seek more diverse knowledge is no more political than to choose not to.

Beyond Wikipedia – free knowledge and the open internet movement

That Wikimedia has already entered the realm of politics is exemplified by two developments this year.

One is the case of Turkey’s blocking of Wikipedia in April 2017, calling it a “national security threat”, and thereby showing how Wikipedia can challenge authoritarian regimes by resisting censorship. Others have blocked Wikipedia before on similar grounds.

Another case is Facebook’s pilot, using English Wikipedia content to provide more context about the source of news articles that users see in their News Feed on Facebook, by pulling information about publishers from Wikipedia. Wikipedia, in that way, has an increased responsibility to be a counterweight to fake news and poor information. Wikipedia... has an increased responsibility to be a counterweight to fake news and poor information.

Wikimedia, in some parts of the world at least, is already starting to be perceived as an important actor when it comes to questions of building an internet that is transparent and democratic. The fact that Wikimedia has started working more closely with partners like Mozilla and Creative Commons on the bigger questions of a framework for free knowledge and an open internet underlines this.

At a local level, Wikimedia increasingly seeks partnerships with libraries as well as educational, cultural and scientific institutions to increase the diversity and quality of the content, diversify the user base and spread the culture of Free Knowledge. Another local example is Wikimedia Deutschland’s partnership with organizations like Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland, Chaos Computer Club and Digitale Gesellschaft to create a Vote Match on digital policy for the German National Elections 2017.

So, a lot is happening right now, and it is quite possible that Wikimedia will become increasingly visible as the civil society organisation that it is, equipped with the mandate of the thousands of volunteers that drive the Wikimedia Movement forward. However, it seems to remain an open process as the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation wrote on Quora: “Going forward, we don’t know exactly what will change, but we know that some things will. We need to be more accessible, more ubiquitous, more equitable. How will we achieve this? In the Wikipedia way. We’ll discuss, debate, and disagree – and then we’ll eventually find common ground“. "We need to be more accessible, more ubiquitous, more equitable. How will we achieve this? In the Wikipedia way. We’ll discuss, debate, and disagree – and then we’ll eventually find common ground."

An “Endorsement Day” is planned for October 26 where organized Wikimedia organisations as well as individual volunteers can show that they support the Direction. After that, the Strategy Process will continue until there is an actual Strategic Plan for the Wikimedia Movement. This, however, is at least a year into the future.

Post-script:

On Thursday night, October 26, 47 different Wikimedia organisations (out of approx.100) have so far endorsed the strategic direction, from Hindi Wikimedians User Group over Wikimujeres to Wikimedia Polska. Only 52 individual contributors from the global community have so far endorsed the direction. There might be some work ahead to include more of them, before it is possible to move on to Phase 2 of the strategising process. However, no anti-endorsement campaign has been started among the critical Wikipedians, and this in itself is perceived as a positive sign by those of us who hope that the strategic direction will receive sufficient support for the process to continue.

(The text is solely an expression of the author’s point of view and does not represent any Wikimedia organisation)

Wikimedia_Conference_2017_–_33.jpg

Jason Krüger for Wikimedia Deutschland e.V., Wikimedia Conference 2017 – 33, CC BY-SA 4.0. Some rights reserved.

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