Saturday, July 18, 2020

What to do to counter an institutional bias of the Wikimedia Foundation (part 1)

The bias for Wikipedia as a project is strong, the bias for English makes it worse. When our aim is to share the sum of all knowledge, we have to acknowledge this and consider the consequences and allow for potential remedies.

"Bias" is a loaded word. When you read the Wikipedia article it is only negative. Dictionaries give more room an example: "our strong bias in favor of the idea". The Wikimedia Foundation is considering rebranding and it explicitly states that it seeks a closer relation with its premier brand Wikipedia. 

This is a published bias. It follows that other projects do not receive the same attention, do not get the same priority. For me it is obvious that as a consequence the WMF could do better when it intends to "share in the sum of all available knowledge" let alone the knowledge that is available to it.

Arguably another more insidious bias is the bias for English, particularly the bias for the English Wikipedia. Given that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we have a world wide public and the use for our information hardly grows. Research is done on English Wikipedia so in effect we arguably do not even know what we are talking about.

When we are to do better, it means that we be need to be free to discuss our biases, present arguments and even use the arguments or publications of others to make a point. The COO of the WMF states in the context of diversity in tech and media that "when the bonus of executives relies on diversity, diversity will happen". It is reasonable to use this same argument. When the bonuses for executives of the WMF rely on the growth in all our projects, it stands to reason that they will make the necessary room for growth. When one of the best Wikipedians says "There are only a limited number of projects that the WMF can take on at any time, and this wouldn't have been my priority", this demonstrates a bias against the other projects. Arguably the WMF has never really, really, really supported other projects, it does not market them, it does not support them, they exist because the MediaWiki software allows for the functionality. 

When we are to counter the institutional bias of the WMF, we have to be able to make the case, present arguments and ask for the WMF to accept the premise and consider suggestions for change. This proves to be an issue and makes our biases even more intractable.

1 comment:

Nate said...

To your point about support... The WMF has never really supported any of the projects in a way that was meaningful to their success. Marketing? I don't recall the WMF marketing en.wp at any point.

The WMF has been a very expensive way to accomplish the goal of maintaining basic technical functionality of MediaWiki and hosting. Most of its other functions represent nice efforts with nominal effect.

The theory seems to have been that the value of the idea behind the project is the determining factor in success. There's some truth to that - some of the more 'failed' types of WM projects have flawed premises, while the most successful - Wikipedia, Wikidata, Commons - have clear fundamental value.

I think what you see is more that the WMF really does not have the core expertise necessary to lead a new project to success beyond what it can obtain under its own steam. It has never done that, and there are no signs that the capability is improving.