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Wikimedia Hackathon 2013 - Flickr - Sebastiaan ter Burg (30).jpg
Wikimedians sometimes interact both online and offline — and these experiences are very different from each other, says anthropologist Lionel Scheepmans. Hackathon photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg, freely licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0.

For me, it is a real pleasure to meet people face to face, without having to use a computer to express myself. Because of my dyslexia, I have to concentrate a lot when I write — though I can now use the keyboard without looking at the keys. Despite a deep concentration and good keyboard control, l still make many spelling or grammar mistakes. These mistakes can sometimes discredit me with the people I communicate with.

Besides, words are clearer when they are accompanied with a facial expression. A sad, proud, shy or upset face gives more meaning to our words, so others can understand us better. When we speak face to face, there is no need of a smiley. A real smile or a puzzled look instantly add emotions to our words. All this makes communication easier, more spontaneous, more enjoyable.

Wikipedians in real life

When I visited the Wikimania 2014 conference in London, it was a real pleasure to meet Wikimedia projects members face to face; and I was suddenly surprised to meet people that seemed nicer and more civil than during my Internet exchanges. Was it just a personal feeling? Were they the same people online and offline? It is hard to tell. I don’t think that any of the people I have interacted with online were present at Wikimania. But how can I be sure? Our pseudonym culture does not allow people to easily recognize each other offline. On Wikipedia, real user names are rare. Profile photos are also rare, unlike on social networks like Facebook. And wikis do not let you identify people by looking at friends you have in common.

Does anonymity cause this difference between online and offline behavior? I’m not sure about that either. I have had a number of altercations with people who identify themselves “openly” on Facebook, using their real names. On the Internet, people can be rude to others, even when they are not under the cover of anonymity. Though there is a difference between Wikipedia and Facebook: it is easy for me to cut all contact with unpleasant people on Facebook; but this is not possible in a wiki environment. The simplest solution is to leave and stop all community interactions; but that’s also the most harmful choice for our encyclopedia. Sometimes it’s possible for a community to ban a user from contributing; but this solution usually applies only to serious acts of vandalism or repeated abuse, and can only be applied after a collective decision, and only by a site administrator.

From this perspective, the Wikipedia environment can be seen as promoting a lack of courtesy, in the sense that it’s not so risky to be uncivil. In fact, there is no real way to mute or ignore a Wikipedian contributor who is “merely” unpleasant — as long as he/she remains polite. Blocking accounts or IP addresses only occurs in cases when there is proven long-term antisocial behavior. This type of exclusion is very rare, in proportion to the number of contributors.

These reflections lead me to believe that the behavior of Wikipedians is influenced by whether they are online or offline. In the same way that we behave differently during a meeting at work or a conversation in the street. But that’s just a personal belief, more social research is needed to know what is really going on.

I know several new users who have stopped contributing to Wikimedia projects, because of unpleasant interactions with other users. This phenomenon also occurs with experienced contributors from one project, when they try to join other Wikimedia projects. Personally, I quickly gave up contributing in Wikinews, after a heated discussion on their Village Pump. Same kind of experience on Wikivoyage, after an administrator deleted one of my sub user pages.

Even recently, I had an exchange with a researcher in sociology from Quebec, who was quickly discouraged to participate in fr.wikiversity. I am therefore not the only one to have experienced this abrasive behavior. Of course, I have no statistics on hand to back up these observations; but discussions like ‘A Culture of Kindness, a Wikimania session focused on the lack of courtesy in the Wikimedia community, make me believe that the problem is real and that solutions have still not been found (see blog post) .

Working in the shadow of the Internet

I first discovered the French Wikipedia community on February 26, 2011, while I was researching my master thesis in social and cultural anthropology. During this study, I observed the organization of the French contributor community for almost six months.

After taking a “Wikibreak” until 2012, I discovered a number of offline activities related to the Wikimedia Foundation, including: a one-day visit to the offices of Wikimedia France in Paris; meetings to start a Belgian chapter; discussions during the French contribution month of 2013; my attendance at the FOSDEM 2013 booth; and finally Wikimania 2014 in London. This last event gave me the opportunity to experience the magnitude of the Wikimedia movement. I was very impressed by this large network of Wikimedia national associations from around the world, and the existence of a significant number employees and administrators in these associations like in the foundation it self.

After meeting the employees of newly recruited Wikimedia France, I thought it must be hard for them to navigate this vast organizational field. It is even harder to understand when the organization, structures, and behaviors are so different between online (within projects) and offline (in the volunteer and staff networks).

Wikipedia principles and values

Wikipedia’s principles are the pillars that hold this global movement together. Lincoln Memorial by azucaro, LGPL.

Before comparing Wikipedia and Wikimania, I will try to summarize my understanding of the Wikipedia community’s organization and characteristics.

As a community project, Wikipedia operates in a more or less closed environment, in which user actions are recorded and accessible to the rest of the community. In this environment, all users have virtually the same editing rights. Only a few maintenance tools are reserved for certain user groups, which are statutorily elected by the community. To put it in a more systematic way, the Wikipedia user community is organized around a general ethic, based on the following principles and values:

  • A respect for privacy and anonymity.
  • An organization without a contractual relationship or monetary exchange.
  • A freedom of expression and participation based on mutual respect.
  • No statutory hierarchy for editorial and political decisions by all users who have reached a certain number of contributions.
  • A commitment to the principles and ethics of the free software movement, with the adoption of free licenses and open software.
  • A total transparency for everyone’s actions, except when they conflict with external laws in each juridiction.
  • A willingness to pursue an altruistic project to produce knowledge accessible to every human being.

Using this partial set of principles, let us now review the differences between Wikipedia and Wikimania, in terms of organization and ethics.

Incompatible with a desire for anonymity

It is evident that physical presence at an event like Wikimania makes anonymity impossible, because of obligations related to the registration. Also, unlike Wikipedia, Wikimania does not take place in a closed universe where everything can be organized and controlled by the whole community. At Wikimania, you have to worry about travel, food, accommodation, host structures, paperwork, etc. All this inevitably requires the exchange of money and contractual relationships between organizers, vendors and participants. For example, renting a bike to get from my hotel to the Barbican Center required me to make a monetary exchange to lease it from the Barcley firm.

Less freedom of expression and participation

A workshop at Wikimania 2014 in London. Photo by Katie Chan, CC BY-SA 4.0.

In the Wikimania temple, you’d better understand the language of Shakespeare to understand what is going on. Unlike the Wikipedia projects, where communities can use their own native language, Wikimania London was organized mainly in English. I think it was the only language used for meetings published in the program. Of course, I also had the opportunity to communicate in my native language, around a table dedicated to Francophone participants — or even in Portuguese during side discussions. But why should the entire program be organized in English?

The use of other languages could make it easier for non-English speakers to connect more easily. This would give them the opportunity to express themselves more freely in their native language and thus make their Wikimania experience more enjoyable. In 2015, the Wikimania event will take place in Mexico, in a non-English speaking country. I imagine that some activities will be scheduled in Spanish, but why not in other languages?

To attend Wikimania, you must also be able to go there, either by funding your own expenses — or by getting financial support, as was my case. In terms of freedom of participation, Wikimania is therefore not comparable to Wikipedia.

Moreover, I noticed that the freedom of expression and participation can be very different depending on whether you are just a visitor — or have a statutory position in the organization. During the Hackathon, roundtable discussions could be started by any member, as on Wikipedia. But during the Wikimania conference itself, everything was programmed in advance. A selection was made by a program committee, presumably influenced by community interest on the submission pages. Subsequently, participation in the actual meetings varies, depending on whether they take place in a small meeting room or a large auditorium. Though meeting rooms are well suited for discussions, a large auditorium often limits public participation to only question and answer sessions.

Here is an example: during the virtual community roundtable, I was not able to speak — even though this is a subject that interests me and that I know well. This roundtable was held in the largest amphitheater, and its panelists included four employees of the Wikimedia Foundation and three external guests specializing on this topic. The discussion took place between them through microphones. Towards the end of the allotted time for the meeting, the audience was invited to submit questions for one of the panelists to answer. Before he had a chance to speak, time was up and we had to leave the premises.

This experience was even more frustrating when I detected several errors and deficiencies in the panel discussion. For example, I wanted to emphasize that the term “virtual” was not ideal as the session title. The word “virtual” can be interpreted as “latent” or “imaginary”, which is not a good description for the Wikimedia community. It would have been more accurate to use the term “online”. This would avoid creating some confusion — just as the use of the term “democracy” to describe the oligarchy found in the western states can make political debate difficult. When a word is used incorrectly, it becomes difficult to use it well. On the other hand, the word “environment” was never mentioned during the meeting, when it could have made for a much more interesting debate.

Finally, in terms of freedom of expression and participation, what I observed during the five days ranged from one extreme to the other. One day, I had a productive dialog with a student in anthropology who had posted a handwritten sign on one of the tables, that simply said “Digital anthropology.” But the next day, I found myself watching a roundtable discussion on a topic to which I could made useful contributions, but where it was impossible for me to speak.

A clear hierarchy

A panel discussion with the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation. Photo by Ziko, GFDL.

Unlike in Wikipedia, a clear hierarchy is present in the context of a conference like Wikimania. First, the Wikimedia Foundation itself follows a classic relatively organizational chart, with Directors, Vice-Presidents, Heads, Managers, etc. And we also see a more discrete hierarchy in local chapters such as Wikimedia Switzerland or Wikimedia France.

In terms of hierarchy, this Wikimedia world is very different than the Wikipedia world, in which a real-world authority like a university professor is not given any special on-wiki authority due to their academic title. But in the offline world of Wikimania, hierarchy clearly influences one’s ability to be heard — and therefore to influence the community. Some sessions are structured based on a presenter’s hierarchical status, without providing an opportunity for the audience to respond to their presentation. In cases like these, the Wikimedia organization opens the door to potential abuses of power, as well as risks that a personality cult and dogmatism could grow around a charismatic leader. Fortunately, I didn’t experience any of these issues at Wikimania, but I think it might be good to address this challenge before a problem arises. Why don’t the Wikimedia Foundation and its affiliates take inspiration from the distributed and non-hierarchical structure of online Wikipedia communities they serve? For example, they might consider adopting some of the principles of Wikinomics, which could be an interesting approach for offline Wikimedia organizations.

Cognitive dissonance with free culture values

In an event hosted by an organization that supports the free sharing of knowledge, I was very surprised to attend presentations where a real debate was not always possible. It was even more amazing to me that an organization that encourages the use of open formats and free software would allow the sale of copyrighted books in its conference.

If the purpose of the Wikimedia Foundation is to enable people to freely share human knowledge, why does it let authors promote and sell copyrighted books within its biggest annual event? If only open formats and free software are permitted on the Wikimedia projects, why make an exception at Wikimania? I can understand that speakers would be allowed to use a proprietary Macbook for their presentation, but I have trouble with authors coming to sell copyrighted books to project members who provided that information for free.

During Wikimania conferences, I believe that authors should share their knowledge in compliance with the rules and ethics of Wikimedia movement: if these rules are violated, this impacts the credibility of the entire movement. And I question the legality of producing a copyrighted work using Wikipedia content, considering that its CC BY SA license requires derivative works to use similar ‘share-alike’ terms.

Transparency differences

The transparency offered by the MediaWiki software is of course impossible when organizing an event such as Wikimania. In Wikimedia projects where all activities lead to the writing of a code, user actions can be easily recorded and made accessible to all. As the saying goes, spoken words fly away, but written words remain; and this is valid for the computer code when it is recorded. That said, we must not forget that nowadays, if the words fly away, they can also be captured.

I came to Wikimania with a video camera, but only used it the first few days, because my hotel was far away and other attendees were much better equipped than me. I thought it was not worth the trouble to carry all my gear, thinking that a lot of footage would be available on Wikimedia Commons to edit a movie if I wanted. Moreover, many of the activities in which I participated were filmed by volunteers or by participants. Unfortunately, to date there are only five videos on Commons within the categories ‘Wikimania 2014 presentations’ ‘and 13 in that of’ ‘Wikimania 2014 videos’. Where is the rest of the footage filmed by all these people? On other sites?

I imagine that many people would like to see the Wikimania meetings which they were unable to attend. It would be so nice to have all these videos on Commons, indexed the Wikimania site and on the cover page for each session or activity. This idea was implemented in the case of some presentations, but why not all? This requires more coordination in the production and distribute of videos, but this should be possible. An idea to consider for next year.

Altruism across projects

Altruism is the opposite of egocentricism, but doesn’t preclude individualism. The difference between egocentrism and individualism is subtle but important seems to understand the Wikipedia culture as a whole. In fact, the Wikipedia project is unique in that each article in the encyclopedia is created by a set of actions that are both individualistic and altruistic. This probably explains that there are few visible conflicts of interest on Wikipedia, but lots of conflicts of opinion. What we call an “edit war” is usually caused by a difficulty for some contributors to abandon their individual viewpoints in favor of a collective viewpoint. And it’s worth noting that throughout my Wikimania experience, I did not witness any conflict of interest or viewpoint.

Quite the opposite: the people I met or heard at Wikimania appeared to overflow with altruism, and didn’t seem very egotistical, only barely individualistic. So much so, that altruism appears to be a central value for all Wikimedia projects — and is perhaps even the foundation that bonds the community, a tool for conflict resolution and for bringing people together.

Disparity in the Wikimedia projects

Group photo of participants at Wikimania 2014. Photo by Adam Novak, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Throughout this report, I observed many disparities between the ethics, values and organizational structures of online Wikipedia projects and offline conferences like Wikimania. This diversity seems normal and even quite healthy in an international movement as large as Wikimedia. It makes it possible for members to adapt to the different environments to which they are exposed. However, these variations in values, ethics and organizations could also pose some risks.

One of those risks would be the possibility of misunderstandings between users that operate in different environments, even if they are part of the same movement. To avoid this pitfall, I think international conferences such as Wikimania are essential to bring together people from different environments within the Wikimedia movement. I also think that this annual conference is insufficient and that more regular meetings should be organized at the regional level, if they aren’t already. During these meetings, it is important that foundation or chapter employees meet contributors to share information about their work environments; and online meetings between employee and contributors should also take place, ideally within different projects. I believe this balance between online and offline interactions can strengthen the movement’s internal cohesion and ensure its sustainability.

Lionel Scheepmans

All views in this blog post are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the Wikimedia Foundation or its affiliates. An earlier version of this post included a statement that singled out an individual community member to describe a movement-wide issue. This error has now been corrected and the individual’s name has been removed.