Thursday, May 26, 2011

#WMFboard; an interview with Ting

The #Wikimedia Board elections are significant. They are not necessarily about what you think they are. This interview with our chair Ting Chen gives an insight on the kind of work and influence a board member has to look forward to. 
It is certainly educational as well as a good read. Enjoy!

Wikimania 2008 Alexandria - Ting Chen workshop - 4

Some say that because of the small number of board numbers who have been directly elected, the board does not represent the communities. Knowing the board from the inside what do you think ?
I confess that compared to my opinions when I became a candidate for the first time back in 2008 I have radically changed my opinion. The main reason is that at that time I didn't understand the role of the board of trustees.

So what is the role of the board, why is it there, why is it called the board of trustees, who trusts here what? A common belief (and also my belief in 2008) was that the role of the board is to represent different interests. So the community elected board members represent the interests of the communities, that the chapters nominated board members represent the interest of the chapters and, because of this, there are a lot of mistrusts and conspiracy theories especially to the board nominated trustees. Whose interest are they presenting?

The answer is that the trustees are not representing any interests. Not that of the donors, not that of the users, not that of the chapters, nor those of the community. The duty of the board is to take care that a non-profit organization, in this case the Wikimedia Foundation, fulfils its mission as it is stated in its mission statement. We bring a good to the public, this good is clearly described in that mission statement. The trustees are entrusted by the public to take care that the Foundation indeed works and brings that good to the public. No more and no less.

Consider the role of the board in this way, it is more logical why our current board has its current composition. As an organization which brings its good together with a big community and with its chapters (the chapters are especially mentioned in our mission statement by the way), it is important for the Foundation to fulfil its mission when its board has a profound understanding for the community and the chapters and is rooted in them. But the board also need other skills so that both the board, as well as the Foundation, which as said is entrusted to these ten people, can work properly. Those skills are for example good governance, financial oversight, insight in diverse geography and in diverse demographic groups, tech understanding (as a tech based organization very important), fund raising, good public relation, etc.

The board nominated members fill in a lot of those skills, and it is important to have them.

Sue is making herself often available to the community through IRC, would it make sense for the board to be available to our community in a similar way 
Yes, definitively. By the way I am constantly on IRC and Skype and everyone can contact me when I am there. Everyone can also contact me by Wikipedia-mails or on my user talk pages. I also try to attend as much as possible community events and meetings personally, and everyone can speak to me on those events. The board has made some effort, especially organized by Phoebe and SJ, to make similar IRC sessions.

There are two difficulties for me at such meetings. The first one is that at such meetings a lot of people start to make questions at the same time and it is difficult for me to answer them all and to give all of them a detailed explanation. The second is that sometimes people have very specific and high expectations when they face a board member. They hope that the board members would be able to solve a specific problem of their project. This is unfortunately not possible because that is not the role of a board member. The board member is not the arb-com, which would solve the internal disputes of a project by making a judgement, the board member is also not in the position to give individual commands to an employee. That is not the role of a board member. If all ten board member start to interfere the day to day work of our employees I believe soon we will accomplish nothing any more. The role of the board is more high level. It tells Sue for example, we think it is important if we have a more secure server structure, please work on this. The role of the board is not to say, we believe the next server farm should have this or that structure, or it should be placed here or there.

So yes, I believe we will also have such meetings in the future and beside of that, everyone can contact me any time.

What can we do practically to get more women or people from the "global south" to edit Wikipedia
Well, I have no THE solution for this problem. Personally I believe on a constant and small evolution, which means that everyone of us should work on this. Let's say every 10 current active Wikimedian start to recruit one female volunteer to join us, then we will have an increase of our gender ballance by let's say 10%. But that means that everyone of us must work on this. I cannot command other people and say hey do this. What I can do is do it myself. Maybe I can recruit one this year, that would be ok, maybe two, that would be good, and maybe three, that would be marvellous. And I hope that there will be people follow this example.

To what extend can technology help us with our social problems like being good to newbies and cooperation among Wikimedians working on similar subject matter
I believe technology can have an impact. Technology has always had impact on how people work with each other and how works are organized. We saw this happen in a very radical way in the last ten years that tremendously changed our world. But I also believe that technology is not the only solution. Technology is only a tool. A tool can be used this way or that way. Information technology can be used as government propaganda or as public control to the government. So, as important as a technology improvement we need a cultural shift. We put a lot of energy in the last five years to improve our quality, to make us more reliable, to an extent that everything that doesn't formally meet our quality can be considered a potential vandal. Personally I advocate for more tolerance. More tolerance for failures, more tolerance for broader topics. And I advocate for more "Do it yourself" attitude and try to find mechanisms to award this attitude. Let's say a newbe put on a new article. My own experience is that a few changes can improve how it looks like. These changes are not necessarily more difficult as to put on the {{wikify}}, {{afd}}, {{notability}} or {{nocategory}} marks. Ok, they are a little more difficult, you need to at least read the start of an article to get an impression about what is it about at all, and make the small changes. But it is really not that big deal. I know this, because this is what I am doing now in my project. Put a formatting is easy, doesn't cost me much time, and improves the impression of a new article tremendously. Find a category for that article is not a big deal. I advocate that users whose only contributions are to put those marks above and don't even try to make any improvement (is it so difficult to try to sort an article into an existing category?) are not contributing in a constructive way, and as those are a sort of vandals.

How valuable are chapters in South America, for instance Mexico for the WMF ?
Huh, I don't know. I don't know Mexico at all. I don't know how civil organizations looks like there. We have very different associates in South America, just compare Argentina and Brazil. I believe in general, not limited to South America, any friendly organizations should be able to have a status or relation with the Foundation. The Movement Roles Work-group is working on it. South America is a focus in our strategic plan. Personally I would always prefer a functioning chapter than a Wikimedia Foundation office in the country. This is all I can say about this topic at the moment.

The BLP is seen as an English Wikipedia policy. The board has discussed this subject at length; should the BLP apply to all the Wikipedia projects..
I don't believe that the BLP policy is an English Wikipedia policy. From the projects I especially work most intensive, the Chinese Wikipedia, we had changed our rules according to the BLP policy. And this was a good move. You know that I believe currently WMF has a lawsuit in Hong Kong because of BLP issues. If we had not imposed and changed our rules two years earlier we will have more such problems I am quite sure. And because we have the current BLP policy I am also quite sure that we are quite safe facing the current lawsuit. And as far as I know the German Wikipedia had also changed its rules according to the BLP policy. So the BLP policy is definitively not an English Wikipedia policy.

What story about the Chinese Wikipedia would you love to be known more widely ?
One of the greatest thing I love Chinese Wikipedia is its diversity. We have volunteers from Mainland China, from Taiwan, from Hong Kong and Macau and from oversee Chinese. The composition of all these four groups are about one fourth each. This made the Chinese Wikipedia a place that is very tolerant to different views and to different opinions, because non of these groups can overwhelm the other groups and one must work with each other in a constructive way. For example it was members from the Hong Kong community who began to write articles about individual bus lines of Hong Kong: Bus line 110 is operated by this company, its start point is station x, its end point is station y, it is operated most frequently during the rush hour and less at Sunday, it was started in year 1997, changed the root this or that in year 2006. And so on and so on. At the beginning there was a big dispute about if such articles are notable. And some of them were deleted at the beginning. But because of the maintenance of those community members from Hong Kong slowly there was a turn of opinion. And now people from Taiwan or even from some of the big cities of Mainland China like Shanghai start to write such articles. I like this example especially because I believe it shows the vitality of the Chinese Wikipedia. Hey, Hong Kong is only a city, although a very big one and a very diverse one by the way, but at some point everyone "notable" is written and people want to contribute. As long as they contribute in an informative way, bus lines are valuable informations! This is a very good example of Be Bold. I have always big fun on Chinese Wikipedia and see it evolve and change. Sometimes on Chinese Wikipedia I still feel that innovative spirit that was so characteristic for our projects, let's say five or six years ago.

Why did traffic to the Chinese Wikipedia grow so unexpectedly ?
China is a mystery. I don't know why. What we observed is that since the begin of this year, with Wikipedia Ten, we got a lot of media coverages in China. Not only small and provincial newspapers covered Wikipedia Ten, even the official newspaper of the Communist Party and of the People's Liberation Army covered Wikipedia Ten, and both in a very positive way. Maybe these coverages are one of the reasons for more participation. But why the government is at once so benign to us, I cannot say. But if the newspapers of the party and the army talk about us, there must be some impulse from the high level. But why I don't know. Personally I believe that back in 2008 when Jimmy and I went to Beijing and visited the vice minister Cai there Jimmy made a very good work. We were able to despatch the fear and suspicion of the Chinese government that we are sort of an agency of the US government (sort of like Voice of America) or other anti-Chinese organizations. We were successful in explaining how we work, how we got funded. November 2008 Mr. Cai visited our shabby office in San Francisco. I am sure he didn't expect to see such a small office, without air conditions, in a formal workshop. I believe all these really dispatched any fear from the Chinese side. Fear leads to the dark side of the Force, right? So overcome fears is the right direction to peace, I am sure of that.

When have you been last in China ? How does it feel going there being the chair of the WMF when Wikipedia is blocked ??
I was last time in November 2010 in China. Mountain organized a Wikipedia meetup in Shanghai. It was planned as a inofficial national meet-up in conjunction with the Chinese Blogger Conference there. When I was in the Underground of Shanghai, which should bring me from the airport to my aunt, by whom I stayed in that time Mountain SMSed me to tell me that the Blogger Conference would not happen because of (external imposed) organizational difficulties. But because we had put up a central notice on zh-wp we got our own meet-up in a café in Shanghai, with about 40 to 50 attendants from most big cities over China. It was a mix of old and new volunteers and it was a lot of fun. Wikipedia is currently not blocked in China. There is a general keyword blockage to all foreign (since our server is in the US, we count to the foreign) server traffics. Since my first visite in the role as a board member in China I always thought that maybe someone would follow me, or try to break into my laptop when I am not in hotel, or things like that. But actually I never detected anything like that. Maybe I am simply too stupid and inexperienced on those.

What opportunities  do you see for us in the Chinese GLAM world
That depends on where. In Hong Kong our chapter is working on a contact. In Macao our chapter has traditionally a good connection with the culture institutions, so I would expect there to have our first Chinese good news. In Taiwan our chapter is dormant, or reorganizing, I hope the latter. I hope they can get their breath again and restart and work on this. On mainland China I had a long talk with Shizhao and Mountain on this. In the current situation, lack an official representation in China itself, and with our focal activities on India, Africa and Latin America, I don't expect much news from there. Maybe in a few years, when we shift our focal point, or when China changes its attitude on civil organizations.


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