By Rogol Domedonfors
The Mediawiki community has been struggling for years with a code of conduct for Wikimedia technical spaces. The impetus came from volunteers at Wikimania 2015, but by September 2015 the discussion had been largely taken over by WMF staff, who appeared at that time to have ample time to micro-manage it. Since early in 2016, the participants in the discussion were mainly staff. The code remained in draft form until the end of February 2017, when the drafting process was declared complete. This is rather dilatory even by the undemanding standards of the WMF. The sorry progress of this project affords some interesting insights into the WMF way of doing things.
Late in 2015, WMF staff started to micro-manage the discussion, and WMF Legal made their first attempt to impose their version of the wording by direct command.
Early in 2016, the WMF staff decided to ask consultants, Valerie Aurora and Ashe Dryden, to help them with the drafting process. It appears that Aurora and Dryden had various discussions with members of staff, face to face and by email, and made various recommendations. The results of that deliberation (and almost all of the details) were not released to the non-staff community. At various stages, mention was made of a report that the consultants had been commissioned to produce, and a staff task was opened to summarise it for publication. There is no evidence that any formal report was ever produced, or that the task to “summarise” it meant anything other than to cobble together the disparate comments into some kind of narrative, and even this task was abandoned – it was certainly pointless nearly a year after those discussions had taken place. So the part of the discussion depending on this advice in general, and the formal contract itself were badly managed.
During 2016 the pace slackened off considerably to the extent that Maggie Dennis, Director of Support, Safety and Programs, declared herself satisfied but not delighted (from her, I take this to be a pretty strong
condemnation) but gave the excuse that the work was “secondary to main work tasks” – odd, since this was a formal Phabricator task T90908. This lack of planning and follow-through runs through WMF projects like a slogan through a stick of rock.
One reason for the delay has been that WMF Legal has mandated that in situations where there is a complaint involving a member of WMF staff, the details of the complaint must be sent to the WMF, all other assurances of privacy aside. (This is not actually permitted in some jurisdictions.)
This of course means that when a volunteer makes an allegation of misconduct against a staff member not only will they face the prospect of all the personal details of the incident being passed to a large company with no known confidentiality process, but that company will have a legal team and tens of millions of dollars ready to protect nothing but their own interests and reputation. The chilling effect of this is so obvious and has been pointed out so often, that it must surely be entirely conscious and deliberate on the part of WMF Legal.
Analysis of the !votes (‘not-votes’ as Wikimedians cutely call votes) shows that most of the support, especially in the closing stages, came from WMF staff, contractors, interns, and affiliates, with many of them posting under their non-work accounts, to the concern of volunteers. We can see this at two levels.
Firstly, as an obvious ploy to deflect the criticism that this is a WMF staff run venture, and that the principal beneficiaries of it will be WMF staff, who have an interest in having it imposed on the proletariat.
Secondly, as reflecting what appears to be a quite genuine case of doublethink. Some staff and others believe that when posting under their non-staff accounts, they are genuinely different, that their opinions are genuinely independent and they are able and entitled to act whenever they want as if they were not staff members at all. This splitting of their identities allows them to avoid what Lukacs called the tragedy of the bourgeoisie – that in order to effectively exploit the proletariat they must develop a class conscious that explicitly enlightens them to the essentially exploitative nature of their own existence. Doublethink allows them to simultaneously know and not know this, and fracturing the identity is a mechanism for achieving doublethink.
Of course, it’s causing them immense psychological harm too. Can nothing be done to help these people, perhaps among the worst victims of the Wikimedia way?
It is further worth noting that the WMF has managed to run parallel, largely unconnected, discussions on the same topic with no apparent cross-reference. In this area, apart from the Code of Conduct for Technical Spaces we have the community proposal (IdeaLab) Wikimedia Code of Conduct (adapted from open source Contributor Covenant) which was proposed on Meta in May 2016 and the grandiose Board pronouncements on Healthy Community Culture, Inclusivity, and Safe Spaces in December 2016, which may or may not have been dependent on the announcement that the Wikimedia Foundation received $500,000 from the Craig Newmark Foundation and Craigslist Charitable Fund to support a healthy and inclusive Wikimedia community announced in January 2017. There is no published connection between these initiatives, probably a reflection of an internal lack of coordination within the WMF (other theories are available).
Finally, we come to the ratification of the code. In the early days, when there was a reasonable amount of participation by non-staff, it was agreed that the code, when finished, would be submitted to the community at large, who after all were going to be bound by it, for final ratification. This consensus was overturned by staff, who chose to assert that the Code would come into force as soon as it was drafted. It happens that one of the few recommendations of the two consultants which I have managed to get sight of recommends precisely this – I do not know why. The code has been declared effective on the say-so of the WMF Engineering Community Manager.
So there we have it. A code of conduct requested by the community for their own protection, which has been drafted mainly by WMF staff, on the basis of advice and deliberations restricted to WMF staff, and which has been imposed by authority of the WMF, designed to give WMF staff a privileged position vis-a-vis the community in matters of personal conduct and safety.
Could this have been handled worse?