Wikipedia volunteers at war with the Wikimedia Foundation over new software feature
By Andreas Kolbe
The Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) is facing yet another community backlash over the introduction of a major new software feature, the Media Viewer. One month after implementation, volunteer administrator Pete Forsyth unceremoniously switched the new feature off, only to find his change reverted by none other than the Wikimedia Foundation’s Deputy Director and VP of Engineering and Product Development, Erik Möller, who threatened to remove Forsyth’s administrative privileges. Möller in turn has now been hauled in front of Wikipedia’s arbitration committee, accused of overstepping his authority.
The spat follows similar controversies over other new software features the Foundation has tried to deploy in recent years, such as the now-defunct “Article Feedback Tool” and the “VisualEditor”, both of which were met with concerted resistance from the international volunteer community. The VisualEditor, too, was disabled by a volunteer administrator last year. Faced with massive community rebellion, the Wikimedia Foundation backed down then, allowing the change to stand. But this time, fearing a complete loss of authority, the Foundation seems to want to stand its ground.
The Media Viewer
The Media Viewer, a Facebook-like feature enabling users to view larger versions of images included in Wikipedia articles, had been in beta testing since November 2013. According to the Foundation’s 8-strong Multimedia team led by Fabrice Florin, the rate of favourable feedback had been “increasing across all languages over time”. This changed rapidly, however, when the tool was finally launched on June 3, 2014, becoming the English Wikipedia’s default image viewer.
Four days later, the English Wikipedia community began an “RfC” (Request for comment) on the new feature. Wikipedia’s requests for comment usually run for about a month, and are then closed by a volunteer administrator. In this case, the RfC’s conclusion came to read as follows:
There is a clear consensus that the Media Viewer should be disabled by default for both logged-in and non-logged-in users.
A similar Request for Comment in Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia’s central media archive, is still ongoing, but strongly tending towards the same result. In fact, even the Wikimedia Foundation’s own survey results and generally negative feedback show that most users of the English Wikipedia, both readers and editors, do not find the feature useful, something the Foundation attributes to software changes always being unpopular initially.
The Wikipedia RfC having concluded, a computer-savvy volunteer editor posted a line of code which would switch the unloved feature off. Less than an hour later, admin and former Wikimedia Foundation staff member Pete Forsyth implemented the change, citing the RfC result, thus disabling the Media Viewer in Wikipedia. Seven minutes after that, WMF Deputy Director Möller (user name “Eloquence”) reverted the change and left an eloquent message on Forsyth’s talk page:
This got the Wikipedians’ backs up. WMF Office actions are very rare, and have generally only been taken when there was a clear external threat, say of a copyright or defamation lawsuit. They are not taken to enforce internal policies.
While no one reverted Möller’s re-implementation of the Media Viewer, less than a day later the WMF Deputy Director found himself the subject of a request for arbitration, faced with potential loss of his admin rights for violating “community norms”. By threatening to remove administrative privileges from a volunteer who was merely implementing community consensus, Wikipedians argued, Möller had overstepped his authority.
At the time of writing, five members of the arbitration committee, the highest dispute resolution body within the English Wikipedia, had voted to accept the case, one arbitrator opining that Möller’s conduct “may have fallen below the required standard”. None have declined the case (one recused, four are undecided, and two more are yet to comment).
Buggy software releases
Perceived shortcomings of the new Media Viewer include inadequate protection of copyrights and personality rights and a consumerist design that fails to draw new editors into Wikipedia’s steadily diminishing volunteer community. And “design flaws and bugs”, as described by Wikipedia administrator John Vandenberg in a parallel discussion on the Wikimedia mailing list:
… sometimes the licensing and attribution information isn’t correct, sometimes you get resolutions which are silly (especially svgs at launch, but also slideshows on a file page include a very large license logo), it takes extra clicks to get to the full-size version, only some of the categories are shown including otherwise ‘hidden’ categories, and sometimes the summary isn’t shown.
These are a combination of design flaws and blatant bugs which were known before launch. Has the WMF done a quick estimate on the amount of time before these basic functions of media viewer are working correctly? Has the WMF allocated developers to ensure these basic functions of media viewer work correct? I would be much happier to support it remaining opt-out if WMF could give an estimate on when this will be completed, rather than reading WMF directors say ‘most of the functionality people expect … is there’. It’s not, except in the ‘proof of concept’ mode. It’s a long way from being ready to leave beta, much like VisualEditor was.
The VisualEditor, announced with great fanfare in the press last year and described as “epically important” by Jimmy Wales, was a WYSIWYG text editor that was supposed to revolutionise Wikipedia, making its articles as easy to edit as a Word document and bypassing the site’s complicated and idiosyncratic markup language. When the VisualEditor was finally launched, years behind schedule, the community hated it, calling the new feature “buggy” and complaining that it broke articles (which it did). It was simply substandard. Eventually, an administrator went over the Foundation’s heads and disabled the code that made the new feature the default editor. The Foundation backed down.
This time, however, Möller apparently considers that his credibility as Wikimedia’s VP of Engineeering and Product Development is at stake. Already there are widespread misgivings in the community about future software changes such as Flow, a planned Facebook-like revamp of Wikipedia discussion pages. If the English Wikipedia community were allowed to disable the Media Viewer, just like it scuppered the VisualEditor, Möller’s department might as well forget about its efforts to modernise the site’s antiquated user interface.
The Wikimedia Foundation is rolling in money. At the end of June 2013, its net assets stood north of $45 million. Earlier this month, it was announced that the WMF had generated another $50.5 million in donations in the July 2013 – June 2014 financial year. (To put this into perspective, in the 2006–2007 financial year, when Wikipedia was already a top-ten website, the Foundation’s total revenue amounted to $2.7 million.) Wikipedia’s fundraising banners work so well that the Foundation practically has money on tap. And it is this new-found wealth that has funded the growth of Möller’s Engineering and Product Development Department.
A few years ago, the Wikimedia Foundation got by on a handful of employees, and the site’s software was written and maintained by unpaid volunteers. Today, Möller presides over an empire of around 130 staff, their salaries paid from Wikipedia donations.
The department has grown so large, encompassing about two-thirds of all WMF employees, that Möller may be out of his depth. In November 2013, he announced on the Wikimedia Foundation blog that he was looking for a Vice President of Engineering to enable him to carry on as VP for Product only, thus splitting his present department in two. Apparently, the WMF are still looking for that person who will share the load.
Meanwhile, a good number of the rank-and-file engineering staff at the Foundation are simply former volunteer Wikipedia editors, with little or no relevant industry experience, who were looking for a job and career. The quality of the software they produce is attracting increasingly strident criticism from the unpaid volunteer community, who say that the work is inept, complain that volunteer editors’ views are disregarded, and begin to feel that they and their fellow Wikipedians are “no longer a customer of the WMF. They are now a hostage.”
Not a good sign for a project that has no shortage of readers and donors, but a steadily diminishing volunteer base.
A new Executive Director
It remains to be seen whether Lila Tretikov, the Wikimedia Foundation’s new Executive Director, can turn this dynamic around. Given her professional background, including a stint as Chief Information Officer and Vice President of Engineering at SugarCRM, Inc., she certainly would seem to have the necessary qualifications and experience.
Earlier this month, in a staff presentation citing The Lord of the Rings and Yoda, Tretikov reminded WMF employees: Remember … You work for the Users.
However, there was consolation too. One slide provided the reassuring reminder, “In practice … CHEER UP. If all else fails, you can set the building on fire.”
Ever onward, Wikimedia.
Image credits: Wikimedia, Flickr/PatLoika ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 unported, 2.0 Generic