[FM Discuss] wikimania and foo report # 1

adam hyde adam at flossmanuals.net
Mon Aug 31 07:18:33 PDT 2009


I have just attended Wikimaia and foocamp to represent FM. Heres part
one of a report to say what I got up to and what i learned/thought...

So, it took a while to get to Buenos Aires. I had booked wierd tickets
since I was needing to be in San Francisco for foocamp immediately
after. So the result was, that I flew Berlin->Washington->San
Francisco->Houston->Buenos Aires. It took about two days (with a 16 hour
wait in San Francisco. A bit mad, but there was very little choice.
Actually I had almost decided not to come except at the last minute the
WIkimedia Foundation (via Erik Moeller) offered to pay for my
flight...cool....this meant I could go, which was fortunate as I had
also a presentation scheduled as part of a panel on Open Publishing.

Finally I arrived in BA, swine flu capital of the world.I expected to
see everyone wearing masks, but I think the whole time I was in BA there
was only one person with a mask. Apparently the real risky month was
July, and recently the government put up posters throughout the city
congratulating the people of BA for helping get rid of the flu...

I got a taxi to the Hotel Baun. If anyone has read Naomi Kleins No Logo,
you will know a little about the history of this hotel. Essentially the
hotel went bankrupt in the 90s and the workers, who needed the work,
just took it over and ran it. Kind of like squatting a commercial
organisation. Just 2 months ago the workers collective purchased the
hotel. Quite a story. The hotel was real 70s with light fittings that
would have sold for 200 euro in any Berlin second hand store...but here
everything was falling apart, and faded, but it all just added to the
atmosphere...a very cool hotel, I highly recommend it if you are ever in

Since I arrived mid morning I already missed the Richard Stallman
presentation. He did two, the day before he did a free one for the local
community and apparently there was a queue lining up around the block to
see him. The wikimania conference was relatively expensive for locals,
and I would say I saw much less local attendance than in the Egypt and
Taiwan Wikimanias. Apparently the presentations were the same, but there
was some controversy with Richard Stallman yelling at some audience
members. I didnt see it so I dont know what happened. I do know that
when I arrived he was still there and so he asked for a meeting with
anyone that wants to discuss the Wikipedia "gnu/linux" controversy.
Apparently there is an issue with Wikipedia, in that there is no policy
on how to name the Operating System based on the Linux kernel, which
simultaneously has GNU tools. The FSF wants to call it "gnu/linux" in
recognition of the free tools developed and provided for the OS by
gnu.org. However...there are some that disagree and so there seems to be
pointless edit wars in Wikipedia changing the name. I went to the
discussion for about 10 minutes before deciding I needed more coffee
before I could cope with such a pedantic (on boith sides) debate. Our
policy on this, by the way, is that we dont have policies. I always say
to anyone from the FSF that they are welcome to edit as they like, as is
anyone else. Thankfully it hasnt resulted in edit wars as I think we are
still a little too small for this kind of thing to evolve.

So, as a general overview I had the impression that there were fewer
people here than the last two events. Also, the pricing was really high
for locals, so the crowd seemed to me to be very much the old school
wikimanians that have been to the last 3-4 events. 

I first went to have a coffee, and then fronted up to the first session
which was a Wikipedia survey presented by Jan Philipp Schmidt. I was
very surprised to find that this did not throw up any information that
wasnt already widely known. The survey was looking to motivations for
particpation etc, and it turned up very little that I could see of
interest. The survey seemed also to be a little limited in terms of
listed motivations - they had left 'having fun' (or similar) off the
list of motivators...seemed a bit thin to me.

What was interesting was something that would reoccur throughout the
event, and this was the issue about the number of editors. Although
wikipedia has 300 million unique readers a month, there number of
editors that do extensive editing has leveled off - to about 100,000 and
has stayed at this level for about 2-3 years. This fact came back time
and time again, and it seems that it is something of concern to the
Wikimedia Foundation.

In the meantime, the survey highlighted a few other mildy interesting
facts. The first is that 54% of wikipedia non-contributors in the survey
believe they don't know enough about any topics to contribute to
wikipedia. The other (related) issue is that almost 25% of the same
group don't feel comfortable editing other peoples work.

Of this group also, and this I found not surprising but still very
interesting - almost 41% said they would contribute if they knew there
was a specific topic that needed their input. I find this interesting as
I think this is also something FLOSS Manuals should be thinking about -
if you register with FM, how do you know what needs to be done? At this
stage, unless you post to the mailing list or find someone in the chat
room, you don't know what is needed. We have tried a few tools to remedy
this but so far we haven't really utilised them effectively. I think we
could do more experimentation with this, and we might also try some new
tools in the forthcoming Booki platform.

Apart from these issues, the survey was relatively uninteresting.

Next I saw Mayo Fuster Morell presenting on some research she had done
on the Governance of Digital Commons. 

There were a couple of interesting isues Mayo outlined, however I didnt
really see how she saw these issues relating to Governance or
'democracy' (a term she used repeatedly in conjunction with
participation). Mayo sees participation as an ecosystem. I like this
since this is how I have been talking about FLOSS Manuals for quite some
time, so I'm glad to hear someone else thinking on these terms. Mayo
outlined the following on this topic (taken verbatim from notes she
handed out, remembering that this is wikipedia - specific) :
1. What is important is that the system is open to participation, but it
is not expected that everybody participate and contribute equally.
2. Participation has multiple forms and degrees which are integrated : a
critical mass of active developers is essential to activate the project
and maintain the content; weak cooperation enriches the system and
facilitates reaching larger fields of information resources; and lurker
or non-participants provide value as audience or though unintended
participation that improve the system. 
3. Participation is decentralised and asynchronous
4. Participation is in public 
5. Participation is autonomous in the sense that each person decides on
which level of commitment they want to adopt and on what aspects they
want to contribute
6. Participation is volunteering. Participation is not only deliberation
but implementation.

There is nothing here apart from an outline of how participation works
on an open platform, however I think its good just to see plain facts
stated sometimes. I would add to the idea of an 'ecosystem' that there
must be complimentary roles. In FM, for example, there are some that
like to write a lot of original material, some that like to edit, others
who spell check etc etc. Often many of these roles are performed by the
one person, but they are more often shared of course. 

Alongside this Mayo discussed the role that the owners of the technology
plays in the participatory process. I think she was interested in
looking at the role that technology played in a 'democratic
participative' process. For me, any talk of technology and democracy,
with regard to participatory processes like wikipedia, gets me a little
mad. I think Mayo, for example, might be questioning if there is
egalitarian opportunities to contribute under a technical construct
which is owned or provided by an organisation like the Wikimedia
Foundation. Equal access to people who are already online and want to
contribute to wikipedia does not at any point seem to me to have a
relationship to anything I would think of as a democratic process...but
thats my little itch...anyways, on this point Mayo examined what role
the technology provider (the Wikimedia Foundation) had with the various
communities that use the platform. Again, verbatim from here notes, Mayo
believes there are 5 main states :
1. The Foundation as an adult protector of the community
2. Foundation as leader
3. Foundation as any other project which take care of issues required to
fulfill the mission
4. Foundation is a community tool with a voice
5. Foundation as a 'vampire'

Mayo didn't suggest which perception of the Foundation was dominant. In
essence, apart from the unclear but interesting mention of Wikipedia as
an ecosystem, this was not such an interesting talk either. However,
what I was starting to understand, is that there seemed to me to be a
lot more internal pondering about the state of Wikipedia in this years
wikimania...the theme continued as the event progressed.

Erik Moeller was the next one I saw. Erik is the deputy chair of the
Wikimedia Foundation, he was the first person I met from the Wikimedia
Foundation Board when i went to the event in 2007. At that point Erik
was focused on print on demand, and we had a lot to talk about. Since
then Erik has been following FM a little, and it was Erik who found the
money from the Foundation to pay for my flight to Buenos Aires. Erik
seems to me to be a very clear voice of reason about the position of
Wikipedia (I have seen him present twice on this topic this year and he
has always been very clear and interesting).  

Erik started with discussing that there are 330 million visitors a month
to Wikipedia. Facebook by contrast has about 250 million accounts and
120 million daily logins. Again Erik brought up the issue that since jan
2007, the number of contributors to Wikipedia has leveled off while the
audience continues to grow. There seems to be a leveling off of 90,000
-100,000 people world wide that make more than 5 edits a month. Eriks
point throughout the presentation was to ask why this number has been
static for 2 years, and how is it possible to convert the audience into

So, it seems that in the early days of Wikipedia there were many missing
pages - these are the so called 'red link' pages...they are called this
because a link which does not yet have a page is colored red in
wikipedia. So 'red links' are links to pages that do not exist yet.
Together with the large number of red link pages, and that culturally
there was, in the early days, no expectation for perfection (just
particiption), and the initial empowerment of the "founder generation"
lead to a huge growth in contributors. Notably, of course, the number of
contributors was much smaller but it grew very fast.

If this was the condition when growth occurred, then what has changed?
Well, first up, it might be that Wikipedia has actually reached
saturation of the potential 'contributor' market. However, Erik seems to
think this is unlikely since there are many things that Wikipedia could
improve that may convert audience into contributors. What has changed
since the early days Erik put down to the following :
1. the markup is too complex
2. there are other venues for contributing online
3. there are more rules, and the rules are harder
4. the content is more complete

There was significant emphasis on Wikipedia being 'unfriendly' by Erik
and also by Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) in his key note the
next day. It seems they are very concerned with new contributors being
deterred when contributions do not conform to Wikipedia rules and are
deleted or they get unfriendly notices. Every contribution now, it
seems, is regulated.

So...Erik has some strategies for moving forward, they come down to the
following :
1. Easy fixes
* add a WYSIWYG editor (2 years ago the wikimedia commuity seemed to me
to be very much against this but now its a hot topic)
* ease the workflow for uploading content
* improve general usability (see http://usability.wikimedia.org)
* clean up some governance issues

2. Add microtransaction features
* allow the annotation of images
* enable easy paragraph editing
* enable article review and rating
* make reporting problems easy and friendly
* add commenting features

3. New collaborative opportunities
* check a source
* draw a picture
* add a quiz
* translate an article
* edit or transcribe a video
* goto an event
* record spoken versions

4. Highlight whats possible
* context specific social invitations
* content specific invitations
* build a social component

5. Physical spaces
* become a social movement
* buy or rent spaces

So...this was a very interesting presentation...I will write a little
more about this, but for now this is the end of the first part of my
report as I need to go return the rental car :)


Adam Hyde
Founder FLOSS Manuals
German mobile : + 49 15 2230 54563
Email : adam at flossmanuals.net
irc: irc.freenode.net #flossmanuals

"Free manuals for free software"

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