Berlin diary

Instead of blogging I finally wrote down my impressions on the Wikimedia Conference 2012 in the literary form of a diary. The Berlin diary informs you about ‘movement roles’ (new entities in the movement), the Wikimedia Chapters Association and other subjects now important to the movement.

Communications in the Wikimedia movement

Sad clown (Melissa Wiese CC BY SA)

Today I read another complaint in German language Wikipedia about the Wikimedia Foundation. Someone said that he found many of the candidates to the WMF board incompetent, and that he had candidated himself if he was capable of that difficult commercial English they use at the Foundation.

One might put this on the pile of easy reproaches: leaning back, let the others work and take responsibility, and complain that ‘I was not informed sufficiently’. But this sorrow has a true and honest ground. For a non native speaker of English, or even a native, it is difficult to follow discussions on Meta Wiki or the Foundation mailing lists. The language there

  • is full of colourful colloquialisms, nice for the natives, terrible for the rest
  • delivers a lot of Wikimedia jargon which you have to learn separately for every language
  • often contains an aggressive tone

When the Foundation asks volunteers to translate something, then the texts are not always as comprehensive and concise as they should and could be.

In theory, the Wikipedia language versions have ‘ambassadors’ who are supposed to link the national or ethnic level with the international level. In practice, this hardly happens because the ambassadorship is non-binding, it bears no obligation. People put their names on the list and then forget about it.

Such a position, a contact person for a single language version, should be assigned by the concerning community, maybe by vote. And it must be clear to the ambassador what people expect from him: translating the most important messages from the Wikimedia blog, giving feedback from the community to the international level.

It should be obvious by now that the pure wiki way does not work.

What kind of board members for Wikimedia Foundation?

Survey slip

Next year the national organizations of Wikimedia are going to select two new Foundation board members. Due to the nature of the selection it is difficult to make the members of a chapter part of the procedure.

In the Netherlands we did at our general assembly yesterday the follwing. We asked the members what qualifications or traits they find important on a 1-5 scale.  Here the results of the paper slip survey (thanks to Hay Kranen for the ‘math’):

Hardly anybody found it important that the candidate supported by our chapter is Dutch or comes from a poor country. There was a little more sympathy for supporting explicitly a woman.

Very important the members found that a candidate can makes things happen, that he is a goalgetter (most important) and is a socially binding factor. Nearly all gave the last question – is it important that the candidate is very familiar with Wikipedia/Wikimedia – a 4 or 5.

Of course, there can be no automatism. The WMNL board will see which candidates apply, are nice to work with and have a realistic chance. But it was important to me giving the members a little bit of say and having a little guidance for hard decisions.

Decennial ABC: S as in sister projects

Does an encyclopedia publisher publish only encyclopedias?

When a publisher of an encyclopedia is successful he might want to use its brand success also for other  publications. Take Brockhaus, for example. In 1935 it came up with a pictorial dictionary Der Sprachbrockhaus.

‘Wikipedia’ has other ‘publications’ too. Or, to be correct, there is the Wikimedia Foundation that runs other wikis than Wikipedia such as Wikisource, Wikinews and Wikispecies. When Jimmy Wales in 2003 founded the Foundation he choose a different name than Wikipedia, and there we are.

To Wikipedia/Wikimedia evangelists this creates quite a problem because everyone knows Wikipedia and nobody Wikimedia. Try to phone to a cultural institution and present yourself as someone from Wikimedia Deutschland – it won’t help much. They think that you are from a publishing house and that you want to sell something. Say that you are ‘from Wikipedia’, and the doors will open.

When a WMDE employee at a seminar explained that he presents himself as someone ‘from Wikipedia’, he harvested immediately negative response: it is not correct, they said, and unfair to the other Wikimedia projects.

But is this really so? To the present day all projects but Wikipedia are very small. Most viewers have Wikimedia Commons and Wikisource, two projects relatively closely connected to Wikipedia. All projects benefit from the links with/from the world’s largest encyclopedia.

When I present myself as a volunteer from ‘Wikimedia’ (Foundation/Netherlands/Germany), I first have to explain what that is and that it is linked to Wikipedia. Only after that it makes sence, where appropriate, to present for example Wikisource. The listener’s brain has to memorize one name already known, and two new names.

It would make things much easier to drop the name ‘Wikimedia’ at all and appear everywhere simply as someone from ‘Wikipedia’. Then I can talk, for example, about Wikisource. The listener’s brain has to memorize one name already known, and one new name.

I cannot see that with saying ‘Wikipedia’ any harm is done to the other projects. On the contrary, every marketing expert would advise to do so instead of investing money in popularizing the ‘Wikimedia’ brand. He would also recommend to find more suitable names for the Wikimedia organisations, such as ‘The Wikipedia Club’ or ‘Wikipedia-Verein Deutschland’.


Previously: A as in Advertisement, …, R as in Readers


Decennial ABC: A as in advertisement

Weren’t adverts traditionally what kept an encyclopedia running?

Wikipedia was originally a private project hosted by Jimmy Wales, an internet entrepreneur. When the project became too expensive the idea of accepting advertisements as a source of income came up. Finally Wales decided to pass Wikipedia to the newly found Wikimedia Foundation. Donations make it possible to keep Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects the way as they are, without advertisements. The issue, nonetheless, is still hotly discussed at Wikipedia.

In the history of encyclopedias, it was not too unusual to inform the readers about nice things to buy. John Harris wrote in his Lexicon technicum (1704) about mechanical instruments produced by specific instrument makers – most of them were subscribers of his work. Harris did not see anything wrong in that, it was the same to him as quoting from books, of course the best books there were. Isn’t quoting a kind of recommendation as well? [1]

Even in those times, the 18th century, there were lines that could be crossed. Dennis de Coetlogon used some treatises in his Universal history of the arts and sciences (1740s) to boast about his abilities as a doctor. At the end of the treatise ‘Chirurgery’ he mentions one of his inventions, a ‘vulnerary and styptic tincture’. His modern biographer, Jeff Loveland, calls him a ‘quack’ who mentions his tincture in several treatises and sees more and more diseases it cured. [2]

Later encyclopedias dropped that kind of business but went on with advertising for themselves. Encyclopedia Britannica in the 20th century spent much more on promotion than on improving content.[3] ‘Executives are ready to use any emotion that will help sell their product’, warned EB critic Harvey Einbinder, especially emotions potential buyers’ had for their children. He quoted from a 1961 advert: ‘How will they measure up against the kids next door?’ [4] This in spite of the fact that EB (and other encyclopedias, usually) is not written for children.

One can expect that the publisher of an encyclopedia praises his work in the preface. In the articles ‘Encyclopedia’ it is common to find at least a mention of the work one has in one’s hands. The last printed edition of the multi-volume Brockhaus-Enzyklopädie (2005/2006) uses the occasion for an indirect self-promotion.

There we read at the end of the article ‘Encyclopedia’ that ‘it must be assumed that the electronic encyclopedias will go on to establish themselves; next to them there will be a continuous interest in printed editions.’ The article also emphasizes that the high quality paper used for Brockhaus-Enzyklopädie will make the volumes endure for more than 400 years. [5]

I couldn’t help thinking of an old sketch of the German humorist Loriot, about an interview with a salesman of nuclear bomb shelters. To reuse one of the questions: ‘Can’t you imagine that even happy consumers after such a long time are no longer content with their purchase?’


[1] Jeff Loveland: An Alternative encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal history of arts and sciences (1745). Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 2010, p. 163.

[2] Jeff Loveland: An Alternative encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal history of arts and sciences (1745). Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 2010, pp. 157-159.

[3] Harvey Einbinder: The Myth of the Britannica. MacGibbon & Kee, London 1964 (reprint 1972), p. 269.

[4] Harvey Einbinder: The Myth of the Britannica. MacGibbon & Kee, London 1964 (reprint 1972), p. 320.

[5] Enzyklopädie. In: Brockhaus Enzyklopädie in 30 Bänden, 21st edition, vol. 8., pp. 174-180.