A letter of thanks from Katherine Maher, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation

Katherine Maher Dances with Punjabi Dancers – Opening Ceremony – Wiki Conference India

Hi friends, fellow Wikimedians,

It has been my life’s joy and pleasure to be a part of this movement with you for the past seven years.[1] I came into the Wikimedia movement as a believer in open culture, open source, and free knowledge. I leave my work at the Foundation today knowing the Wikimedia movement stands for those things, and something even greater. 

To be a Wikimedian is to embrace humanity’s curiosity and fallibility, our generosity and irascibility. It is to look across a world that we’re told is divided — by arbitrary borders, linguistic conquest, fear of the unfamiliar — and instead see our common interest. It’s to know that we are each flawed, unreliable narrators, and to believe that the best remedy to our intrinsic failings is to patch our individual flaws with our collective strengths.

In the spring of 2016, I shared a pizza in Berlin with (our then-future, now former, board chair) Christophe Henner. We were attending Wikimedia Conference one month into my role as interim executive director, and had just finished a challenging day of plenary meetings that brought us together as a community in catharsis. Christophe was a candidate for the Wikimedia Foundation board. He asked me, “What are we here for?” 

I didn’t know what he wanted me to say, so I just told him what I thought. “We’re here to make the world better.” It was a cliche answer, but true for me. He laughed, and leaned back in the chair. “Yes.” 

This has always been what I read into the unstated part of our vision. “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” This is a spectacular, inspiring, aspirational ambition, but it is also missing something critical. For the past seven years, I have imagined this world every day. And every day, I have asked myself, “Why?” Why does free knowledge vision matter? What happens then? What change have we effected in the world?”

Even after I leave, I’ll keep asking myself this. And as you continue your work here, as colleagues, as contributors, as volunteers, I ask all of you to ask yourselves as well — with all that you do, and all that you contribute, and all that you build. What are we here to do? Do our values, our structures, our practices, and our constructs serve our purpose? And how do we ensure they remain as alive and vital as our projects and vision? 

The former president of Wikimedia Chile, Marco Correa, would say, “The knowledge may be neutral, but the act is not.” I always understood him to mean that while our projects endeavor to serve the most accurate, verifiable, and neutral knowledge, our movement has never been impartial. We have always stood proudly for a set of values: freedom of inquiry, expression, and assembly, the right to privacy and memory, and the foundational value and dignity of every human. We have defended them under duress, and must continue to do so.

We should never lose sight of how revolutionary the act of producing free knowledge is in the first place. I’ve always been struck by the myriad motivations that bring people to this movement. There are those who write their language into the future, their identity into public consciousness, who use our projects to grapple with historical injustice. There are some who edit Wikipedia because an act of fact is itself an act of self-determination in places where information is used to suppress and subject. 

If we let ourselves believe that we’re simply a free encyclopedia, we risk losing sight of our work. Knowledge has always been a tool of power — great empire and wealth have been built with its service, and great injustice has been done in its name. The very idea of liberating knowledge from power, decoupling it from access and wealth, and placing its construction, utility, and value in the hands of every person on the planet is fundamentally radical. 

Wikimedia itself is a radical act. It is a verb, a constant action of interrogation, revision, and evolution. It upends history, it challenges the status quo. It is the confidence to ask ourselves why we believe what we believe, and whether our knowledge may change in the future. It is the conviction to defend our values against pressure and threat, while robustly debating among ourselves whether those values continue to serve the world. It is the humility to cooperate, collaborate, and learn from others. 

Someone asked the other day, “what is the biggest challenge Wikimedia faces?” My answer was the same as on my very first day. Our biggest challenge is ourselves. Our success, our complexity, our size — it could be easy to believe that we’ll endure forever on our current momentum, to see ourselves as a website rather than a global movement, or to accept that our knots are too knotty to ever properly unpick. It is often easier, and more comfortable, to swim in the eddies of incremental evolution rather than face the urgency of collective change.

But we carry out our mission against great odds, and it is essential that we are clear-eyed about both the risks and the opportunities. There are the challenges of competition and scarcity: We operate in one of the most heavily capitalized and competitive sectors in the history of civilization (digital technology), we trade in one of the most valuable (yet nonrivalrous!) assets of humanity (knowledge), we aspire to serve the entirety of the world equitably, despite all of the ways in which the world itself builds implicit and explicit barriers to that goal. 

There are also the opportunities, which are themselves a form of challenge. We see more people connected around the globe, more communities in search of knowledge, more languages represented, more need for trustworthy general knowledge, and sharper, more urgent questions of power, representation, and agency. We see an increase in appreciation for the value of knowledge in society, and for the importance of facilitating agreement on even the most contentious of issues. Whether we make the most of these moments will be up to us.

If we are to meet these moments, we will have to find new strengths. We must be more clever, more bold, simply better than we have ever been. We must be uncompromising in our generosity, and adamant in our excellence. We must be more expansive, abundant, and inclusive. We should grapple with the ways in which we have failed in the past, including instrumentalizing participation and recapitulating exclusionary canons at the expense of truly global representation. We must cherish our integrity and independence, while also understanding our interdependence.

In recent years, our movement has begun doing just this. We’ve been reconsidering our definition of “community” and “contributor”. We’ve been interrogating our understanding of what knowledge is, how it is constructed, and who is represented. We have been pushing for participation and enfranchisement of underrepresented geographies, languages, and demographics. We have been asking ourselves whether the paradigms of encyclopedic notability and verifiability can sustain our mission, growth, and relevance. We have been exploring what about our current work and practices might need to evolve in order for us to meaningfully live into our mission of every single human. 

We have been asking questions not only about our knowledge in Wikimedia’s ecosystem, but about the means by which we realize our mission. We have always been committed to open architecture and code, but those commitments have been passive — common tools, common rules. What does it mean to be actively open? To go beyond protocol to practice, from standard to value? How do we ensure that our technical infrastructure and experiences enable participation, agency, and ownership by everyone, everywhere? How can our projects lead in privacy, security, and openness by the light of their example?

In a very real way, this is all in our hands, and in the hands of anyone who might seek to participate. Our projects are not owned by anyone, but they are owned by all of us. They are edited, on average, 350 times per minute, representing the opportunity, every moment of the day, to be a work in progress — to aspire to better versions of our movement, our projects, of ourselves. To change in response to the world around us. Wikimedia changes as we do, and change is what we make of it. 

This is a constant invitation — and obligation — to make and remake ourselves. Do the values that served us from our first day compel us to our future? Are the decisions that we make, as staff, as volunteers, as movement leaders, as community members, in service of our purpose? How do we adapt our work for the world we live in, while maintaining our vision for the world we seek? What are we growing toward? What are we here for? What is the point, the purpose, of free knowledge? 

The answers to these questions may change, but the way we arrive at those answers should not. We are first and foremost a community, and we should arrive at our answers through open dialogue and consultation. We can’t bypass the difficult bits, we must go through them to build the lasting parts. And the only way we can do that is by committing, to consistency, communication, and continuation of difficult discussions such as those raised through movement strategy — questions of power, agency, decentralization and autonomy. It is in seeking the answers to these questions that we will find the ways in which our movement will thrive.

We must see one another as mutual stewards and allies, finding the means to disagree while valuing one another as people united in our mission. We should practice compassion, courage, and kindness for one another and ourselves, and to accept imperfection in the spirit of evolution. As staff, we must show our volunteer colleagues respect as full partners. As volunteers, we must return the sentiment to staff of the Foundation and affiliates. We should break bread together, solve problems together, and see one another as equals. 

To be a Wikimedian is to place your faith in the goodwill of people you’ve never met. It is to believe in the power of an idea to connect a community; to be an incorrigible humanist, wise to our failings but returning each day to do better. We not only seek to do the radical thing of making knowledge freely available, we trust the world to use it well. To contribute in good faith, to read us critically when needed, to donate to keep us going, and to criticize us when justified. 

We place our confidence in the world, and they place it back in us. We serve as stewards, anticipating that our work must support and sustain free knowledge as a public good for decades to come. We forge ahead against the implacable odds, and we somehow keep moving. We throw our lot in together, bind ourselves in our success and failure, and accept that our progress is a work in progress. We believe that we can change the world, because we already have. [2]

I am grateful to you all for this time we have had, and the ways in which your passion, empathy, and determination have expanded my world. I have been fortunate to make lifelong friends with many of you, and believe there are still many friendships ahead. While I am leaving the Foundation, I am not leaving the movement.

We are so fortunate to live in Wikimedia’s glorious moveable feast. It’s taught me that there is rarely goodbye, just until we meet again.

See you round the wikis!
Katherine

[1] Sure, there have been moments of exhaustion, exasperation, and heartbreak, but those aren’t for right now. And anyway, they’re entirely overshadowed by that bounteous joy.
[2] And as of the end of today, this is officially just another Wikimedia essay! YMMV. Thanks for reading!