Wikimedia evolution in terms of governance and the creation of a Foundation

NOTE: I thank the organisers of the CPOV events for their effort on putting all of this in place. It it is important to create channels and spaces to meet, exchange, discuss among the several and multiple critical perspectives in the research of Wikipedia and in general in thinking about the implications of open collaboration forms.

In my presentation during the CPOV event in Amsterdam, I will address the role of the Wikimedia Foundation for the Wikimedia eco-system (and its international-global expansion). Furthermore, my approach starts from the thesis that there is a lack of attention in Wikipedia research to the Foundation and in general to the more formal organizational aspects.

With this post I would like to contribute with an overview of the evolution of the Wikimedia governance and the role of the Foundation across time.

Comments, critiques and suggestions are very welcome! Mayo

Wikimedia evolution in terms of governance and the creation of a Foundation

I. January 2001: From a benevolent dictator model to a community driven model
II. June 2003: The community sets up a voluntarily run Foundation
III. 2007: From a community-driven Foundation to a traditional Foundation

Several governance phases over Wikimedia evolution can be distinguished.

I. January 2001: From a benevolent dictator model to a community driven model

In 2000, Jimmy Wales, an American entrepreneur in search of new business models though the Internet, wanted to create a free encyclopedia. Wales was educated though an alternative “home made” system and wanted to make the encyclopedia free in order to facilitate accessibility to knowledge. He first made Nupedia, which was freely accessible online, but the articles were produced in a traditional expert base model. Nupedia required a large effort without many results. Nupedia team then came to know of wiki technology and wikis could be a good infrastructure for collaboratively writing encyclopedia articles. Wiki technology was created already in 1995 by Ward Cunningham. and facilitates the editing of web contents. In this move, Wales was inspired by the free approach in the Free Solfware Movement and asked Rikard Stallman (inventor of the Free Software) for advice, and in doing so, the project attracted people who were supporters of the idea of expanding the Free Software model to other areas of knowledge. However, Wales also emphasized that he wanted a free encyclopedia, and the community – driven nature of it was derivate “out of necessity”. Wikipedia was born in a context of economic crisis in the technological sector, a context in which Wales could not find venture capital to support the project. In his own terms Wikipedia is “a child of the crash”.

“When Wikipedia began to grow if I would be able to go and get some venture capital funding and have money to run it then I would have thought very differently about these issues. So for example, if you see a problem on the website or some problem in the community, the normal instinct at Yahoo is to hire moderators or community managers who work for the company and deal with the end users”. (..) we didn’t have any money to hire so this innovation of really pushing all of the decision making into the community was just because there was no one else to do it.” (Jimmy Wales Interview San Francisco December 2008)

Almost anything was planned and defined at the beginning. It was more an experimental period. This can also be applied to governance structure. In fact, during this first stage the project was legally part of a Bomis for-profit company which Wales was part of.

“In the beginning, very little was thought about (governance structure). (…) It’s like a bunch of people got together to do something really cool then after the fact we have to think about oh what are the institutional structures to make it work. Can it be a non-profit? Can it be a for-profit? What are the advantages and disadvantages and stuff like that. That kinda all came after the fact. Mostly, it was the idea that brought people together. So it is a little different from a lot of other kinds of things where people explicitly thinking — I’m founding a non-profit organization or I’m founding a for-profit company to do what ever”. (Jimmy Wales interview)

This first stage can be characterised as leader – driven, where the founder is the main driver of the project around whom a community of supporters of the idea congregate. This evokes the idea of the benevolent dictator model, a model characteristic of Free and Open Source projects. In this regard, in the beginning Wikipedia was driven by the force of Wales’ personality that defined and shaped the personality of the community around Wikipedia, and which defined rules which had remained at the core of the project. For example, concerning social norms, Wales strongly disliked personal attacks (which are common in other online communities) so he pushed to avoid an aggressive environment. This shaped Wikipedia and resulted in the characteristic “be bold” Wikimedia community character. Concerning rules, Wales defined the neutrality policy that says that Wikipedia should not take a stand on controversial issues but just report on them and Neutrality policy remains today central.

Though there was a growing amount of interaction between the people around the project, a community dynamic began to emerge. The community started to be the definer of the following rules and norms. The process of defining norms and rules became depersonalised from the Wales figure.

This first stage ended with the Spanish Fork, an episode that forced the need for formalisation, and for clarification into the governance structure. The rumour that Wales wanted to incorporate advertisements into Wikipedia circulated. Independently if it was Wales’ intention or not, the current stage of things of dependence on Wales resulted in part of the Spanish community deciding to split or “fork”. Forking is based on shifting the content to another platform in order to develop a different direction, in this case to make sure that advertisements are not introduced.

Furthermore, as Wikipedia became more and more popular, maintenance costs were growing and as an interview said “Wales can not pay the bills forever” (Phoebe Ayers Interview San Francisco November 2008). Wales paying costs from his own expenses was becoming unsustainable. A tool to help to sustain the project was increasingly required. Finally, Wales conceived the project as educational philanthropy. All these elements together ended up with the creation of a non-profit Foundation to which Wales donated the infrastructure.

II. June 2003: The community sets up a voluntarily run Foundation

Wikipedia community was formed before the Wikimedia Foundation. In June of 2003, when a big and vivid community was already in place and with a site which was increasing in popularity, the Wikimedia Foundation was founded. The Foundation was based at Florida, USA, where Jimmy Wales was based, and was voluntary run.

The Foundation was used as a tool for fundraising to sustain the infrastructure. The Foundation became the owner of the infrastructure and the trademark while the community remains owner of the contents. The adoption of this distribution of ownership was key, but it was not an innovation from Wikimedia, but continuity in a culture which had emerged in previous online communities on the Internet. This distribution of ownership is also shaped by the US legal system in which, looking to assure free expression on the Internet, the providers are not made responsible for contents posted by users.

Concerning the Foundation’s structure, the Foundation was directed by a board. In parallel to the Foundation’s creation, national chapters with local members were created in other places all over the world. However, in answer to questions of legality, it was considered that the Foundation itself did not have members and had centralised the ownership of the infrastructure.

Thanks to the site growing in popularity, more and more people found Wikipedia though Google search results and started contributing. In 2003 a key new generation of “Wikipedians”, called “the crooked wave”, started participating and became the core of the project. Everything was taking place mainly though the online channels until 2004 when local “meet ups” of “wikipedians” began. In august 2005, an international meeting of “wikipedians”, called Wikimania, was organized for the first time in Frankfurt. Many wikipedians did not know about the Foundation until the Frankfurt Wikimania.

As previously mentioned, during this period, the Foundation was run by volunteers and experimental in its spirit. However, gradually as Wikipedia gets bigger and bigger, it was more and more the work to maintain the servers, cover the costs and solve legal questions. To cover this need, the Foundation gradually started raising more money and hiring one person at a time. However, it was an unsatisfactory situation and was becoming apparent that the Foundation was not growing in a way that scaled, while chapters, such as the German Chapters, and was increasing in importance in terms of gaining autonomy in initiatives and business deals. Some interviewed described the Foundation of this period as an informal “club” that transmitted a sense of arbitrariness in the decision-making. Others said that the Foundation was still depending too much on Jimmy Wales’ influence. Furthermore, being base at Florida was “a little bit out of the mainstream” (Mike G. Interview San Francisco December 2008) as most emerging ventures are mainly concentrated in San Francisco Bay Area. Some suspiciousness and anxiety was present in the community. “The Foundation’s relationship itch the community was more fraught, tenser” (Mike G. Interview)

Some voices claimed it needed reparations and improvements by turning around the Foundation structure and taking the professionalized path. Furthermore, with the community growth, the community had increasing demands and the work required from the Foundation becoming larger.

In this context, in 2007, the voices in favour of a “professionalism” of the Foundation gained in influence and the board decided to contract a specialised Executive Director external to the community and move the headquarters to San Francisco.

III. 2007: From a community-driven Foundation to a traditional Foundation

Since the second half of 2007 saw a restructuring of the Foundation to become more “professional” and reinforcing a long-term strategic perspective for assuring stability, sustainability and growth.

The guidelines of the Foundation in a philosophical sense were trying to strike a balance between the need to be communicative and transparent with the community and have community input, and the need to have experts and strong professional knowledge basis. With regard to this last point, the Foundation reinforced a final authority (through a contractual obligation with the Foundation’s employees) to make sure that certain goals and required fast decisions and reactions were achieved. This was also required in order to sharp the division of tasks between the Foundation and the community. In sum, the Foundation deeply reinforced the creation of a sustainable and solid infrastructure for the projects, while reducing Foundation interventions in terms of community work on contents.

In this process the role of Jimmy Wales was redesigned. Jimmy Wales’ role as platform provider and Foundation leadership has been reduced.

In this more “professional” stage, the staff increased to more than 30 employees dedicated to technical maintenance, legal issues, fundraising, communications and administration. Some of them have a community background and some do not have any previous relationship with the Wikimedia projects. A revision of the board’s composition during 2008 had been also applied based, on the one hand, on the formalized need to have board members with professional backgrounds to help with governance issues and on the other hand, to formalize the relationship between the chapters and the Foundation by having the chapters select some board members.

Some examples of the new re-organization of the Foundation are bringing rationalization of the trademark strategy and domain names to the forefront. A plan for business development and partnership has also been put in place. These changes represent both a centralization of certain tasks in the Foundation (i.e.: infrastructure ownership, control of the trademark) and decentralization as the Foundation is supporting the increase of some functions by the chapters (i.e. in fundraising).

In this new phase, the qualities that characterise the structure of governance for the Wikimedia Foundation mentioned are “maturity”, “assertiveness”, “do things in the way things are done”, “seriously”, “professionally”, “coherence” and “stability”. Looking at the surroundings of the San Francisco Bay Area this appears surprising. In Silicon Valley the new “managerial” values emerging and which are driving the web 2.0 innovations, in companies such as Google and Facebook, are those of “fun”, “youth” and “enjoyment” and the work place is designed as a “play-ground”.

These changes also represent an ambivalent move in the formation of a closer relationship between the Foundation with the community. The Foundation has lost and wins contact with the community. Foundation lost “organic” contact because the Foundation no longer follows the community organizational form and also partly because half of the Foundation staff and some board members are not part of the community. However, the Foundation won contact with the community because the coordination with the Chapters, which is defined by the increased capacity to coherently respond to community requests.

This review was an initiative from the board, so the situation in 2010 can be described as a moment of “lag time” in which the community is becoming fully aware of the turn and had time to formulate its adaption to the new situation. Furthermore, all these changes are very new (with “Lots of don’t know” Ariel Interview Oakland Novemner 2008) so it is difficult to evaluate its impact. However, opposite signs are already appearing and a discussion around this has emerged. Some applauded that “things are get done” while previously this was not the case, and the Foundation is winning reputation because of that. However, some expressions of suspiciousness and uncertainty also appear as it generates many open questions such as the level of expansion of the Foundational organizational form in tasks that go beyond the content creation. For example, the employment of staff is questioning the role of the volunteers that previously took care of the Foundation related tasks.

In conclusion, Wikipedia became one of the 10 most visited websites in the world and one of the largest online community. Linked to community growth over the years, the costs to sustain the infrastructure that hosts the community have increased, together with external requirements such as the need to solve legal issues. The need to cover the costs and solve external requirements, together with the willingness to have clear governance structure and control from the community, brought first the creation of a legal entity, the Foundation, and then the move from a voluntary run foundation to a traditionally organised Foundation.

Wikimedia, by employing a “trail and error” scheme, seems to have arrived at a harmonious relationship between the community and Foundation. A challenging element of such a connection, is its hybridism. Regarding the Wikimedia eco-system as a whole – including the Foundation and the communities – appears as a “hybridism” form where two different organizational forms and democratic logic are adopted. The Wikimedia Foundation has adopted a traditional organizational and representational democratic logic, while the community keeps with an innovative, but elaborated, model of organizing and a democratic logic based on openness to participation. But: How does it work? What is the distribution of functions between the different organizational forms? What are the strengths of combining two different organizational logics? What are the tensions and challenges of hybrid forms?

Mayo Fuster Morell