And we have a winner!

April 16th, 2014

Katherine Maher joins the Wikimedia Foundation as Chief Communications Officer. One of the four interviewees from December. Also see here Twitter and her blog posts at her previous work.

Things I swore I would never do ever again.

March 7th, 2014

Accept a position on the board of a small charity.

I guess I won’t be editing the Kent Hovind article any time soon, then.

(2014 fundraiser in progress! And if you don’t have money, START EDITING. We accept souls.)

What I did on my not-a-holiday to SF.

December 21st, 2013

My passport got back in time and off I went last Wednesday afternoon, to help Wikimedia hire their next Chief Communications Officer, in my capacity as press volunteer of nine years. It’s no longer just “press officer”, but a C-level job, so much more powerful and able to wreak more damage. So, days of interviews, we run them through the combine harvester both ways, they get grilled and tested and we demand they produce shrubberies. The reason to bring an experienced volunteer in is because it is literally impossible to do the job without leveraging volunteer efforts — you simply can’t scale. Apparently I asked highly suitable questions.

Let me reassure my American readers that United’s customer service is every bit as legendary in the UK as in the US. They were actually completely nice, but the trololol comes in (a) making “economy” into fourth class rather than third class (you want “economy plus”, for another $117, if you’re over five feet tall) and (b) having a total of two toilets for the two sections. The pilot’s announcements were mostly doggerel poems about flying.

Arrived at SFO and through border control in about two seconds — I knew wearing the Wikipedia shirt was a good idea. (Seriously, get a shirt — it opens doors. The world loves us!) At 5:40pm (or 1:40am the next day by my body clock), SFO is all but deserted. Called WMF, taxi to meet Sue and James at the office. James offered me one of the several hundred varieties of coffee on hand, I mimed cramming a coffee pod directly into my arm. I got the cup of caffeinated mud I desired. (Jet lag is a major theme of the next week and what I laughingly thought of as a circadian rhythm is still scrambled.) Off to hotel, checked in, discovered the room wifi sucked. #firstworldproblems

Every tech loft conversion in the world is identical. I realise they were modelled on the SF ideal, but I could not tell from the place if I was in Market Street or Old Street. Buy a tube of instant extruded tech loft product, squirt it over the walls and the big silver air conditioning pipes just slide into place! Sprinkle with MacBooks to taste. My visit was marked by a disconcerting lack of culture shock.

To Wikimedia Thursday morning! … for a meeting that was cancelled. So I spent the day hanging out on Facebook. (And discovered Deepak Chopra’s been busted sockpuppeting Wikipedia for the past five years.) Apparently no-one wanted to interrupt me in case I was working on something important, bah. Off with Danese to some coffee shop I forget the name of for an exquisitely nice iced coffee. Wander back (via another couple of tech lofts identical to every other tech loft … really) for the Wikimedia Christmas party, where I got to catch up with all manner of people I knew only online. There exist photos.

Courtesy jet lag, I could get away with caning it once (and delighted in doing jumping jacks at a severely hungover Oliver, who is half my age so should have done rather better), so off to Wikimedia Friday morning for some serious candidate grilling. We set up a particularly evil potential PR disaster (which I won’t detail until all this is over) to see how they handled it. I told them how usually I just post about six paragraphs of “this is the situation, this is what we’ve done before, this is how to get this one to die” to the mailing list, but this time they had to work out the answers. A test of their PR instincts and whether they could ask the right questions. Then a two-hour meeting to go over how they all did.

Then out to the bars with Jed to do what any two techies in a bar do, i.e. complain about work. He took me to Zeitgeist, a rock’n'roll bar filled with pretty young hipsters with script tattoos on their feet. Tell you what, if you’re in SF you can’t complain about American beer. Oliver notes that script tattoos are the direct 2010s equivalent of the 1990s tribal tattoo; so for the 2030s we’ll need tribal script tattoos, in fluorescent and glitter. (I’ve said it, now it’ll happen.)

Back in on Saturday morning for more candidate interviews. Then more dissection of the day’s many interviews … then down the upscale bar with Geoff and Jove for all manner of confidential on-topic (I assure you) discussions.

Sunday morning, I woke up and realised my plane was going at 7:30pm, not 2:30pm. I would have spent the day at SFMOMA, but it’s shut for renovations! Bored, I eventually just went to the airport to leech their wifi. SFMOMA has a lovely shop at SFO, including their catalog for a mere $20. YOU MUST GET THIS.

Got back Monday afternoon London time and went to work Tuesday. Still falling asleep and waking up at random times. Oh, there’s still credit on my BART card.

I am slightly amazed how brilliant just about everyone is at Wikimedia. They put out job specs that say “magical flying unicorn pony that farts rainbows, must have rocketed from Krypton as an infant” … and then they get them. I was amazed how good the CVs were. But the same goes for the people working there. They work like they’re at a hot startup, not a dot-org. Because they’re changing the world.

I’m running for the Arbitration Committee.

November 27th, 2013

Probably due to a rush of blood to the head. Candidate statement, answers to questions, how I voted myself. You need to have 150 mainspace edits on en:wp to vote. Please discuss on the discussion page.

Update: Didn’t get in. Ah well!

This is why we do this.

November 6th, 2013

Go and test the Visual Editor. It’s meaningfully testable.

June 28th, 2013

The Visual Editor is live and in testing on English Wikipedia.

People are past the stage of shouting IT’S A DISASTER AND THE WHOLE PROJECT MUST BE SHUT DOWN (that was last week); it’s reached that sweet spot on the upslope of the logistic curve of progress where the basic functionality is in place, it’s usable enough to beta properly, and all the little finicky bugs are coming out. (“Yes, it edits now, but I WANT A PONY. A nice one, mind you.” “IF YOU CAN MAKE A PONY, A UNICORN IS TRIVIAL.” “YOU CALL THAT A UNICORN? YOU’VE GLUED A CORNETTO TO THE PONY.”) And the devs are actually keeping up with them. Holy crap, they’re successfully flying this beast TO THE MOON.

So, experienced editors: please go test the visual editor on your gnarliest articles. Report any breakage, big or small. Save a bad diff, self-revert then report the breakage. Give Oliver something to do with his copious reserves{{cn}} of free time. (In between coming up with “cornetto unicorn.”) Update: and please check and report problems with newbies using the visual editor. (HT Nemo.)

(The visual editor is somewhat annoying, but it works well enough that the bug reports are useful. I find it easier, if slower, for correcting a typo; harder for adding a sentence with a reference. But the main reason experienced users should be testing it is that it’s important — and experienced users will give it the serious kicking it needs to get the bugs out.)


January 20th, 2013

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz is fighting to hold on to her job, and to avoid professional disciplinary proceedings. FUCKING LOL.

(Here are the Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann petitions, if you’re a US citizen and haven’t signed them already.)

Congress spent the last year wondering every day “is this the next SOPA?” Now they’ve found out what is, and it’s the dude who started that one too. No wonder they’re panicking.

(When Aaron Swartz met the US senator. This is why they killed him. You don’t understand just how much they loathe and despise the Internet.)

It sucks so much Aaron isn’t here to see all this, and laugh and laugh. Guess we’ll all have to make up the difference. It’s incumbent upon every one of us to FUCK SHIT THE FUCK UP. In an orderly, creative and productive manner. So, what’s a good project? I’ve spent the last week depressed and pissed off; it’s time to get moving.

Uncyclopedia has left Wikia.

January 7th, 2013

The new home is Press release with reasons, old site move thread, new site move thread. I need to go through and copy all my old UnNews to NewsTechnica too.

PR people in the EU: obey the bright-line rule, or suffer legal consequences.

November 15th, 2012

I’d heard of the German ruling, but hadn’t realised it meant that editing with a commercial COI, violating the bright-line rule, could be a legal hazard in the EU, violating the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. In Germany your competitors may be able to sue you for it, and in Britain you could be prosecuted. That’s as well as the media hanging you and your client out to dry.

(The Signpost article claims with no justification that the ruling “complicates” the issue of COI editing, rather than making it much simpler, i.e. damn well listen to us and don’t do it. Some PR people may not like it, but that’s rather a different thing.)

PR industry: “Our bad actions are Wikipedia’s fault.”

November 12th, 2012

Fig. 1: Your client’s reputation when you get busted.

Yet another PR agency is blatantly busted doing the thing we patiently warn them against over and over, with the consequences we warn them of over and over.

The apparently-unanimous industry response, per PR Week: “It’s all Wikipedia’s fault, they should make it easier for us to spin.”

PRCA in particular appear to have turned their opinion 180° since June, when they heartily endorsed the CIPR/WMUK guidelines.

Guys, this really doesn’t help your case.

(CIPR have strongly dissented. PR Week didn’t get around to asking them.)

“it does get to the heart of the accuracy and lack of control of social media” – yeah, it’s accurate and you don’t control it. — Denny de la Haye

Update: Followup from PR Week. They’re also doing a print piece.

Internet Brands versus Wikitravel admins updates.

November 11th, 2012

For the curious: the official Wikimedia blog post on Internet Brands’ legal action against all rational thought has a string of updates.

Please do not email me an infographic to run in this blog.

September 19th, 2012

Have you ever wondered how some infographics seem to show up across the blogosphere all at once? It’s because the PR people who make these things actively promote them to bloggers.

I fully concur with Tom Morris’s excellent post on the matter, Infographics are porn without the happy ending. I’ll just steal the good bit, explaining why these things are actually seriously problematic, and why you’d have to be a bit of a cock to send one to anyone to do with an organisation like Wikimedia:

If you make an infographic, you are basically saying fuck you to blind people, fuck you to the Googlebot and often fuck you to people with colour-blindness. And you are definitely saying fuck you to people on slow connections. If you are paying £4 a megabyte to get data in Paris (yeah, I hate you too, Orange), putting an infographic where text could do the job isn’t just a giant fuck you but a waste of actual money. And by the time you notice, you can’t complain. If you are out in India and your only connection to the WWW is a phone we Westerners called shitty and threw away about three years ago, the infographic is completely inaccessible to you.

If I run a graphic here, it’ll be either because it’s pure decoration, because I think it’s important to getting the point across or because the image is the point. It will not be because five lines of text is best expressed in 200 obfuscated kilobytes.

A piece on corporate representatives and Wikipedia for iABC’s CW Bulletin.

September 8th, 2012

I wrote this for CW Bulletin, a magazine for PR people whose September 2012 issue has several articles on Wikipedia. Minor gratuitous changes from the original text, but nothing actually wrong. I tire somewhat of liaison with PR, but it’s arguably worth doing.

Internet Brands sues people for forking under CC by-sa.

September 6th, 2012

Wikitravel was started in 2003, as a Wikipedia-inspired collaborative travel guide, under the Creative Commons attribution-sharealike licence (CC by-sa). The founders sold it to Internet Brands in 2006, who promptly plastered it in ads. The German and Italian versions forked, forming Wikivoyage. The English version held on until 2012, but finally, when the technical neglect got too much, asked if they could bring the content to a similar project hosted by Wikimedia. Wikivoyage asked to join too. After the requisite bureaucracy, the board approved the project.

Along the way, Internet Brands did their best to derail the proposal, which is stupid and annoying but not actually intolerable — until they went as far as lawsuit threats against several Wikitravel contributors for encouraging a fork, and then actually brought a suit against unpaid volunteer contributors James Heilman and Ryan Holliday — for using the word “Wikitravel” in the phrase “Wikitravel community” in promoting the fork. (And various other spurious complaints. Read the suit, it’s gibbering.)

(Internet Brands has a track record of scorched-earth litigation against perceived competitors. Google “Internet Brands” “vBulletin” “xenForo” and wince.)

Apart from being an excellent way to render both their own brand and that of Wikitravel utterly toxic, and hopefully collect a mob of geeks with pitchforks and torches (it’s just gone Friday as I write this, after all), this also prompted Wikimedia to act. This Wikimedia legal blog post buries the lead somewhat, but what WMF is doing is asking for a declaratory judgement that you can in fact fork free content, given that’s pretty much essential to what we do. Read the PDF, it’s a cracking good tale in the genre “legal brief readable by humans.”

Jani Patokallio posts a useful diagram of how this is going to play out:

(Forked and edited from Gyrovague under CC by-sa 3.0 without even asking. SUE ME!)

PROTIP: if you rely on unpaid volunteers to run your website, don’t sue them. — Tom Morris

Update: A Slashdotting is about 6000 hits these days, if you were wondering. Hacker News netting 3300 hits in two hours was a slightly more noticeable strain until I correctly tweaked WP Super Cache. Techdirt: 17 hits total.

Update 2: Spammy oblivion. It turns out 48 dedicated volunteer admins can’t be replaced by one incompetent employee.

Why you should work for Wikimedia if you possibly can.

August 31st, 2012

Just go and read Brandon Harris’s explanation of why you should work for Wikimedia if you possibly can.

(Getting a tattoo with Brandon is not in fact mandatory.)

Deprecating Creative Commons -NC may not be a good idea.

August 29th, 2012

There are serious calls to remove the -NC and -ND license options from Creative Commons 4.0. The reasons are solid in their domain (software, science and education) and well thought out, but I suspect they’re still badly wrong and will hinder the idea of sharing culture outside that domain. Culture is not (quite) software.

I’m not a fan of -NC and I do think the world would be better off without it in the long run, but you can’t just declare it so in the short run. My thesis is that there is a strong demand for an -NC option, by-nc-sa accurately describes how Internet culture actually works and that without -NC, people will share significantly less in general than they would with it. Either the -NC licenses will linger without maintenance, or stuff that would have been released -NC will just be left all rights reserved.

I’ve had occasion to explain to people how proper free licenses work and why Wikipedia uses them. You can reliably explode their heads by explaining just what “free content” means. For them, by-nc-nd is radical openness. There’s a lot of room out in the big world to spread the very notion of shareability and letting go of control.

For an encyclopedia, and education in general, you actually want to allow all the stuff -NC forbids. For other fields, you may actually not. People also have a strong resistance to allowing someone else to make money from their work when they don’t. (For whatever reason.)

Quite a lot of photographers happily -NC their images but want to be able to sell them. I submit that having their images -NC is better for the world than having them all rights reserved. (That being so very concerned about £5 a year from Getty Images is frankly delusional when you’ve spent thousands of quid and hundreds of hours getting there doesn’t change this.)

Bloggers don’t necessarily want to put everything under a CC-by-sa licence. Ask the ones who’ve had the Guardian reproduce their stuff in Trolling Is Free without asking, notice or preserving the licence (but with their name and a lifted photo). This blog isn’t under any CC licence. Even Richard Stallman doesn’t put everything he writes under a free licence.

I noticed a while ago (though I can’t find where I said so Update: here) that Internet folk culture — Tumblrs, fan fiction, LiveJournal icons, that sort of thing — tends to an ethos of the following:

  • can reuse each other’s stuff;
  • give credit;
  • not doing it for money.

Note that that just happens to add up to by-nc-sa. So that licence is a good fit for the categories in people’s heads. And it doesn’t matter that -nc is a magical category, which sounds simple in English but turns out to be fractally complicated when you look closely, nor that the ethos of “noncommerciality” is a First World luxury that, applied to science, software or educational materials, results in reifying various privileges at the expense of doing the thing you thought you were actually doing.

(The other reason for noncommerciality is that culture as it’s actually practiced these days is a string of copyright violations, and not taking money increases the chances of being allowed to keep doing it. And with much Internet folk art, tracing the copyright is just stupidly unfeasible. Copyright doesn’t encourage culture, it blocks it by claiming ownership of the building blocks of thought.)

I suspect this is a subclass of “nobody gives a shit about freedom 0 until the lack of it bites them in the arse personally.”

I think the correct course of action for us is:

  1. Maintain Wikimedia as a firm bastion of proper free content, without any -NC or -ND.
  2. Continue to encourage sharing in the wider culture, using -NC where suitable.

I could, of course, be wrong in practice.

Anyone who advocates advertising on Wikipedia is still a drooling moron.

June 26th, 2012

Remember when Google AdSense messed around TVTropes a while back? They’ve done it again. Every trope with “rape” in the title, or porn tropes, has been deleted, even when it’s absolutely valid with a ton of good examples (and ridiculously relevant to current popular culture), because AdSense doesn’t consider that sort of thing suitable. The Geek Feminism Wiki has stepped in to recover the culled stuff that’s useful and important.

If you have advertisers, that’s who your customer is.

(This is also why Wikimedia tends to try to get as many small donors as possible, rather than rely on a few large ones: to reduce the risk of a large donor deciding that their opinion counts more than the readers.)

CIPR TV webcast on PR people and Wikipedia.

June 21st, 2012

Recorded yesterday. Put together by Philip Sheldrake and the Chartered Institute for Public Relations, hosted by Gemma Griffiths who has previously done PR for Wikimedia UK.

I took the approach of assuming good faith and trying to be as helpful as possible in getting the encyclopedia improved and PR people not shooting their foot off. I don’t think there will be hordes of Wikipedians at the door with pitchforks and torches. I hereby invite nitpicking from Wikipedians, PRs and the general public.

The draft guidance for PR people, as facilitated by Wikimedia UK, is still live for editing. Please dive in. (I think it should be about half the length, but Wikipedians are wordy, picky and didactic.) The idea is to help inform the people of good faith, as the people of bad faith don’t care.

The suit suitably frightened my coworkers. Cheers to Stevie Benton for the Wikipedia lapel badge. I really look my age, though — I kept seeing mannerisms I’ve picked up from my father — and I promise the ponytail is going, however much the loved one might protest.

You need to read Nonprofit Kit for Dummies.

May 26th, 2012

I have an inchoate (and, of course, all-encompassing) theory of collaboration. I think in terms of someone desiring an improvement to the world. They may form a conspiracy to achieve the given end. They may set up as a tax-deductible charity. Or just a non-profit corporation. Or a for-profit corporation. Or a trade association. Or a political party. Or a rock band. Or a poetry collective. Or a religion. Or a cult. Or no defined body at all, just a bunch of people.

Most such groups are incompetent and fail. This is normal.

In the case of charities, the failures tend to linger arse-disabled, shuddering along, sputtering out occasional results, burning out good people and not dying. The organisation can be a net negative for its actual goals, as it can appear to have staked out its area.

It can take years before a not-quite-competent charity finally works out how to transition from a board-run/individual-run tax-deductible band of conspirators to being a professional staff-run organisation tuned to doing the particular thing it does. The changes always seem simple and obvious in hindsight and everyone involved feels stupid at having taken years to achieve the retrospectively obvious.

I have seen this pattern close-up in the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikimedia UK (the first attempt at which died before achieving adequacy) and the West Australian Music Industry Association, and I have considerable anecdote from others. (I ran the ideas in this post past Sandra Ordonez, WMF’s first communications director, and James Forrester earlier this week. Both got that post-charity stress disorder look in their eyes.) All of these professionalised and are going great now, but it was not a sure thing.

(I have sufficient experience with lame-duck charities that I am at the stage of my life where small charities ask me onto their board. I say “no,” because my experience is in failing. If only more people realised this sort of thing.)

The example that provoked me to write this post is the Singularity Institute, an artificial intelligence research organisation (that also runs LessWrong) full of computer scientists and philosophers. Since it’s made of humans, even startlingly intelligent humans, it spent about ten years failing to get much done in a manner just like lots of other charities. It was founded in 2001 and only got its shit together in about the last year, having been kept alive in the meantime only by rich fans like Peter Thiel. It got a detailed and cutting assessment from Holden Karnovsky of charity directory GiveWell, who considered that at this stage, “withholding funds from SI is likely better for its mission than donating to it.” Ouch.

Luke Muehlhauser, the Singularity Institute’s Executive Director, described his perspective on events in response to the founder, Eliezer Yudkowsky:

I had significant ambiguity aversion about the prospect of being made Executive Director, but as it turned out, the solution to almost every problem X has been (1) read what the experts say about how to solve X, (2) consult with people who care about your mission and have solved X before, and (3) do what they say.

When I was made Executive Director and phoned our Advisors, most of them said “Oh, how nice to hear from you! Nobody from SingInst has ever asked me for advice before!”

That is the kind of thing that makes me want to say that SingInst has “tested every method except the method of trying.”

Donor database, strategic plan, staff worklogs, bringing staff together, expenses tracking, funds monitoring, basic management, best-practices accounting/bookkeeping… these are all literally from the Nonprofits for Dummies book.

Everyone who’s ever interacted with a sub-competent charity will know that feeling.

Luke’s recommendation, Nonprofit Kit For Dummies (Wiley 978-0-470-52975-1), is precisely the book all the examples I’ve been involved in desperately needed to have someone throw at them before they even formed an organisation to do whatever it is they wanted to achieve. Even those not in the US — the legal details are US-centric (a UK or Australian version would be nice), but the framework to help you actually get your shit together is the key takeaway.

  • Maybe you have an idea that will help solve a problem in your community, and you believe that starting a nonprofit organization is the best way to put your idea into action.
  • Maybe you serve on a board of directors and wonder what you’re supposed to be doing. [Oh dear Lord, yes.]
  • Maybe you work for a nonprofit and need some ideas about fundraising, managing your organization, or working with your board of directors.
  • Or maybe you’re simply curious about the nonprofit sector and want to find out more about it.

I wish I’d had this book twenty-five years ago, when I first needed it.

(The “For Dummies” series is reliable introductory-level material on pretty much every subject. It’s like one-day courses in everything.)

Of course, a charity is only a tool to get something done. Positing a thing called “the charity sector” over here and a pool of potential donations over here and a not very differentiated flow of money from one to the other is an economically accurate and useful model, but not necessarily the best way to solve an actual problem the donor is interested in solving. But that, like the iron law of institutions, is a problem of success. Think in terms of there being a group of people in a conspiracy to achieve a given end — going to all the faff of setting up as a charity may not be the right approach.

But even if you’re just at the stage of a couple of people who think something is a good idea, and even if you’re not in the US, Nonprofit Kit for Dummies is a thoroughly worthwhile read.

Charles Matthews on the public relations problem.

April 19th, 2012

Charles Matthews on wikien-l discussing this paper (on which I’m sure there will be more to say) on this vexed topic. I’ve had this conversation a few times:

“Look, we’re all impressed with Wikipedia. But you seem to be saying that to edit I have to put your project ahead of my day job; and so I think you guys are just a bit crazed.”

“Right both times.”

“And you’re now telling me I have to flack for the opponents of the guy I am paid by, and put their criticisms into due form in the the way that, frankly, they are too dumb to do, using the skills I have but against the brief I have been given.”

“Yup, that’s what it says on the page about neutrality.”

“Well … where I come from … words fail me …”

This is really not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.