(not Movement, or Max McBride will forcibly castrate me).
So, a couple of days ago I had a conversation on IRC about a project I’m working on for Gayle to provide some guidance to new staffers about the wider movement, all its main working parts and the principles that inform what we do. All very nice and cheery.1
A comment I got was along the lines of “I’m kind of ‘meh’ about the idea of the movement. I appreciate everyone else is all free culturey – I just like improving the encyclopaedia. I don’t so much care what it’s used for”. The interesting element here? “everyone else is all free culturey”. This is a myth that needs nipping in the bud.
Based on the available and reliable data we have, a lot of Wikipedians do not contribute with their primary aim being to advance the movement. Most Wikipedians are here to edit. That’s their concern. That’s their priority. And it’s okay to have it.
Up until…less than a year ago, actually – we didn’t have any reliable data on why people contributed. Don’t get me wrong, the 2011 editor survey came out with the number that 66 percent of Wikimedians started contributing to share knowledge, and 71 percent continue editing to share knowledge, but that’s not particularly helpful. For one thing, the question is fundamentally flawed; it’s not an equal set of options. You’re looking at someone and going “you! In front of us all, right now, as part of a survey, pick from this list of predetermined reasons to contribute to the projects so that we may judge you and your data”. Yes, 66 percent of editors said “I joined because I like free knowledge!” – it’s a more attractive and socially acceptable reason to edit than the others you’ve presented them with.
Even if this data were reliable, there were some hints in other answers that people weren’t that excited about The Mission ™. When asked about Chapters, 46 percent of respondents didn’t know if there was a Chapter in their nation (which was disappointing) but, more importantly, 82 percent of those who had heard about a Chapter in their nation weren’t members. In other words, when faced with another opportunity to contribute to The Mission ™ 82 percent of Wikipedians – who had above reported that they were here and/or had joined to contribute to The Mission ™ – said “no, thank you”.
Obviously, this isn’t conclusive (and doesn’t directly point to deficiencies in the previous question). Wikimedians could join to contribute to The Mission, but feel that editing is as much as they’re capable of and have no interest in the actual activities Chapters engage in, whatever the motivating factors or goals are for their activities. There may be travel constraints, time constraints, or maybe the previous question is fine and the answers to this one are incorrect. But when you have two thematically similar questions, aimed at the same pool of respondents, something has to give.
What gave was some research done by Dana, Steven, Maryana, Howie, Aaron, Ian, Matthew, Victor and I late last year. The original idea for it was Dana‘s, and I don’t feel she gets enough credit, so she’s the one who gets linked. If you’re reading this, fricking hire her. She’s a genius.
What we did was take the editor interviews done as part of the Fundraiser, hand-code them for common themes and words, and look what came out. This had a few advantages over the survey data:
- It was qualitative, not quantitative. People were not restrained by the pre-conceived and pre-selected options picked by staff when it came to choosing their motivation; they were restrained only by what they were comfortable saying.
- The data wasn’t gathered through a direct question. Sure, there was the question of “why do you contribute” – but a lot of the actual answers came from the person just rambling. Talking about themselves, what they like to do, so on. People let their guard down.
- It wasn’t a faceless survey. Rather than being presented with the Parliament of the Daleks and asked to ANSWER! THE! QUESTION! They were presented with a lovely guy called Victor who wanted to talk to them, Genuine Human Being to Genuine Human Being, about their hobbies. People open up to people; they don’t open up to surveys.
The results were presented at Wikimania and kinda flew in the face of what the Survey said. Most people didn’t contribute because of The Mission, or out of a sense of charity to the world – they contribute because it’s fun. Because they make friends here, or gain a sense of satisfaction from fixing stuff that is broken,2 or because they like the metrics of success and rewards.3
So, a lot of people contribute for non-Mission reasons. And yet, every time I speak to somebody about it, they feel like they’re the only one. If this is you, you can calm down and feel a lot less guilty; it’s a lot more than just one editor standing out from the herd of free culture people. But that isn’t a known; whenever we see a discussion on anything relating to the movement, it’s filled with people who are enthusiastic about it one way or another, and the people who are more “meh” tend not to know that there are other people who are “meh”. Why is this? Well, a few thoughts:
- On the “everyone in a discussion about the free culture elements is all ‘woo, free culture!’” bit: yes. It’s how humanity works. If you care about a subject, positively or negatively, you’re going to get involved – if you’re ambivalent towards it, you won’t. So, when looking at a discussion of the free culture elements of our work, you will see a pool of commentators overly biased towards those who have an opinion about it (and I’d hope that most of those people would be positive towards free culture). What you don’t necessarily have is a representative pool of commentators.
- On the “I’m the only one who feels this way!” element – communications channels on Wikipedia are shoddy. Some of this is to do with the way we work (people are very much concerned with practicalities, not the hopes, fears, dreams and motivations of other editors) and some of it to do with where we work (we’re on the internet, in an almost-exclusively text-based format. It’s hard to get into a situation where you feel comfortable telling Faceless Voiceless Nameless Person from the Internet No. 322 “I don’t care about the movement” and, hearing back, “hey, me neither!”
- Even if the subject does come up, there’s an incentive to, how to say this nicely…lie, flagrantly. On Wikipedia, everything is public. Everything is transparent. If someone comes up to me on my talkpage and says “so why do you edit, then?” I’m well aware that my answer will be seen not just by the person asking the question, but anyone else who stops by in perpetuity. There’s the temptation to gloss over things that (see above) I might think would be unpopular.
- We kinda promote this view. Every year, we have the fundraiser, in which (in the last few years) we’ve stuck up big photos of smiling editors from all over the world. These are seen by every Wikipedia reader, and tend to feature inspiring stories about the visions our volunteers are here to promote. Crucially, they’re also seen by every editor as well, which promotes this idea that editors tend to be (and are expected to be) movement-dedicated.
But this isn’t the case. We’re a movement of volunteers; nobody has the right to tell any editor what they should care about, or do care about. And for a lot of volunteers, “the movement” isn’t on the do-list. And that’s fine, and it’s something that we should accept and discuss and, most importantly, feel much more comfortable about discussing than we do.
- final principles: Collaborative and bottom-up, NPOV, openness, transparent and accountable, supportive of privacy and anonymity. Free love, Grabthor’s Hammer and Tendentiousness were all considered and rejected. [↩]
- I refer to this as Something Is Wrong With The Internet Syndrome, and am an incurable patient [↩]
- GAs, FAs, barnstars, edit counts, moving up the heirarchy of user rights, whathaveyou [↩]