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2011-12-12 - 15:40:00 - by AlisonW - Topic: Open: Open Knowledge | Wikipedia |

Once upon a time there was an idea, and the idea was new and untested, but they went ahead and decided to 'be bold' by doing it anyway.

Within a few years the idea was demonstrably a very good idea indeed and welcomed around the world by lots of different sorts of people.

And the people contributed to the idea with their time and knowledge and, then, with their money if they didn't have the time because they saw that it was good and deserved to get bigger and better.

But the people who had started this weren't sure that it was sensible to keep doing it themselves, for they were sorely in need of a break, so they decided to pay someone to do the 'behind the scenes' work for them.

And it worked. Except that the idea had got SO much bigger that they realised they needed more people. And yet more people, and soon the cost of continuing to make the idea available was costing very much more that the people thought it would.

And the idea became 'professionalised'. And some thought that it was good. And some worried that it wasn't really the idea they'd supported it at the start and wondered why they were still giving of their time to do stuff.

And the Chapters – which were comprised of volunteers all over the world – became increasingly disassociated from the "central office" and wondered what would happen next.


In the BBC television political comedy Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby – a Permanent Secretary (very senior civil servant) – points out to his Minister Jim Hacker that 'the enemy' aren't the opposition party, but the Civil Service itself. Whereas ministers may believe that they set the policy and direction of their ministry the civil service will tend to try and do things their way, no matter what.

I believe that that 'idea' of ten years ago – Wikipedia – has led to a bureaucracy every bit as separated from the early contributors, many of whom still believe in the original concept, as is a civil service. And that 'civil service' will, by its very existence, tend to pull away from the volunteers' beliefs as it seeks to maintain its own position, whether intentionally or not. It can't really help itself. Wikipedia – for many years as it expanded into other projects and became Wikimedia – relied on committees to process ideas and set its direction. Now, those same committees still exist, but have been reduced to feeding ideas to a central office where decisions will be taken, rather than making that decision and getting the office to carry it out.

There are many quotations about committees. "A committee is a thing which takes a week to do what one good man can do in an hour" (Elbert Hubbard) has a strong element of truth to it, but ignores the point that a body of people can, and will be, more aware of the ramifications of taking that step. Where a staff might decide, for example, that to mention an outside organisation in a fundraising banner will not be a problem, a wider decision-taking group will be aware that thos who contribute time or money might see it very differently, indeed might take the view that Wikipedia has started accepting advertising.

Sir Barnett Cocks suggested that "A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled" and I'd argue that this is a very good thing: any organisation should seek to strangle ideas where a majority (or even a minority) of people believe it is the wrong thing to do, whereas an individual might have taken that dangerous decision without a second thought.

Sir Humphrey (in an unattributed quote of Fred Allen) says to his Minister "A Committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but as a group decide that nothing can be done." I'd suggest changing that slightly to 'but as a group decide that nothing should be done'.

The growing pains of Wikipedia and Wikimedia won't affect a lot of people directly, but the people they will affect have been responsible for making it what is has become. Changing that process and restricting that responsibility has the possibility to slowly strangle what has been achieved so far and, eventually, stunt any further growth.

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