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Fork in the Road?

I’ve been watching the MediaViewer debate unfold with uncharacteristic silence. I figure every point to be made has been made by others far more eloquent than I. Just to get my opinions out of the way:

  • I share most of the concerns with MediaViewer.
  • I believe that the way the WMF and the broader community collaborate to develop and release software going forward is the bigger issue by far.
  • I don’t think that adding another level of privileges to Mediawiki is a good solution to any problem.
  • Having had to make go/no go decisions on software releases myself, I reserve rollbacks for releases that break existing use cases with no workarounds. Since users can opt out of MediaViewer, I don’t think that a rollback is called for where it has already been deployed.
  • I believe that MediaViewer can and will be a great addition to Mediawiki.
  • I know that development cycles are long, that big changes have been made at the WMF since the MediaViewer project was kicked off, and that Lila was appointed specifically for her expertise in managing software releases. Patience may pay off now, even if it hasn’t before.

As far as I can tell, with the possible exception of the necessity of a rollback, my beliefs are consistent with those of most people speaking up on wikimedia-l and elsewhere. If this post were just about these issues, I’d leave it at “+1″.

There is one plot twist here that I’d like to add something to. In my opinion, the Letter to the Wikimedia Foundation is the best thing to come out of the MediaViewer debate by far. The letter is very well written, and it captures the sentiment of many members of the community well. I think it’s possible to misread “for the first time, a software feature has been designed to take the ability to edit pages away from Wikimedia project communities,” as the new superprotect privilege having been introduced to prevent edits to articles. As far as I know, it has only been applied to a JavaScript file. Of course, JavaScript files are a part of the software as opposed to content served by the software, but I’m sure the supporters are aware of that distinction.

It’s the number of those supporters that blows my mind. 500 and counting! This is exactly the kind of community engagement and outreach that can revitalize the project. That’s 500 voices rising in unison to say that the Wikimedia Foundation should 1) remove the “superprotect” status recently enacted on the German Wikipedia’s “MediaWiki:Common.js” JavaScript page and 2) clearly assert that it will permit local projects (such as German Wikipedia, English Wikipedia, and Wikimedia Commons) to determine the default status of the Media Viewer, for both logged-in and non-logged-in users, uninhibited. This specificity really gives the community something of substance to rally around.

Where this letter comes up short, however, is in consequences. A fork is mentioned somewhere. That’s one possibility. Or maybe mass retirement? Another option would be that everyone who signs the letter will refuse to donate money to the WMF going forward. Or maybe it makes sense to leave the negotiating table by refusing to discuss further collaboration until these demands are met? There are lots of candidates, but the letter ends on a rather weak “but we need the Wikimedia Foundation to act decisively before it is possible to move forward effectively.” If I’m asking what exactly this means, my guess is that the WMF isn’t sure either.

When I created a petition to allow Greg Kohs to attend all open Wikipedia conferences, I wrote it as a pledge that supporters would refuse to attend any event to which Greg was banned. Of course, it can be harder to get signatures that way; after all, the signees must accept some consequences themselves, as well. For example, since I created that petition, Greg revisited a statement that would have been a showstopper for the petition if not for what seemed to be a very sincere apology. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t create a petition supporting Greg by name now, but I still believe that Wikipedia conferences should be open to all and I committed to my beliefs by signing the petition, along with around 30 others. Just imagine what could be accomplished with 500 community members committing to the cause like this!

However this plays out, we’re at a turning point for both the WMF and the community. The WMF has new leadership. The community has proven that it can rally significant support around a cause, although more needs to be done to clarify the members’ commitment to that cause, IMO. The question comes down to whether they will be navigating this tricky terrain together or turning their separate ways.


Filed under: Wikimedia, Wikipedia Tagged: MediaViewer

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More Stories By Wil Sinclair

Wil Sinclair works on technologies that facilitate and encourage cloud adoption in the PHP community. His Simple Cloud API enables “cloud native” applications that can be deployed on all major clouds. He brings 10 years of experience in the software industry at companies from the smallest of startups to large multinationals such as Oracle and Amazon. Most recently he served as project lead on the leading PHP framework: Zend Framework.

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