Foundation 360: Celebrating 20 and beyond. Interview with Anusha Alikhan, Mayur Paul and Zack McCune, Communications Department

The Foundation 360 series profiles important work happening at the Wikimedia Foundation, and the people behind it.

Anusha Alikhan, Mayur Paul, Zack McCune

At 20:00 UTC on any given day, the directors of the Communications Department are doing about as different things as one could possibly imagine. Zack McCune, Director of Brand, is wading out into the choppy San Francisco water on his surfboard, braving the grey sky and icy winds to catch a few good waves during his lunch break. Anusha Alikhan, Senior Director of Communications, is trying desperately to wrap up her 7th call in a row to make it to an interview with a particularly tough reporter. Mayur Paul, Director of Movement Communications, has just finished doing the dinner dishes, and is now editing Wikipedia articles about Indian public transport in bed. Together, they lead a dynamic department of people with as diverse timezones, life situations and passions as theirs.

If the Communications Department were an instrument in the Wikimedia Foundation’s orchestra, it would be “the string section,” according to Zack. “It’s where the narrative is, and the feelings.” 

Wikipedia turned 20 this year, and it was cause for a celebration of epic proportions. It was a celebration full of melody and feelings, spanning across the movement and the general public. We talked with Zack, Anusha and Mayur about their work at the Foundation, and their roles in bringing the movement together to celebrate and collaborate.

Q: Zack, you’re one of the longest standing members of the Communications Department. What inspired you to join the Wikimedia Foundation?

ZM: I was raised by a computer teacher outside of Boston. She instilled a belief that technology is a unique tool for human betterment, something that can help everyone. Wikimedia embodies this social good promise better than anything else on the internet. When I saw a job posting in 2015 that could use my skills in brand marketing to support the Wikimedia movement, I jumped at the chance. Hilariously, I then discovered that the Wikimedia Foundation office was just 1 block away from the ad agency I worked at in San Francisco. So I started going over to talk with the leaders of the Communications department during my lunch breaks, which at the time were Heather Walls and Katherine Maher. Secretly from my employer at the time, of course.

Q: Anusha, you’ve had a long career in many different fields. What motivated you to come here?

AA: I’ve switched careers a few times going from law, to journalism, to communications, and promoting information technology work for the United Nations and technology innovation for Knight Foundation. My role at the Wikimedia Foundation is an ideal coming together of my career passions blending together technology’s promise as a great equalizer, the power of knowledge to build stronger communities, and advocacy and policy work that influences decision-making on a global scale. It is world changing work and I’m grateful to be a part of it! 

Q: Mayur, you are new here. Give us a metaphor to understand your work at the Foundation and with the movement so far.

MP: Actually, the Movement Communications team and I are both new to the Foundation. If we were a Wikipedia article, we’d be a stub. The brilliant thing about that is that we get to build the stub together with the Wikimedia movement. It means I get to meet the many wonderful humans behind our projects and work with them. I enjoy being able to combine my community organising experience with my love of a free and open internet. The ability to make obscure sci-fi references (I’m an unabashed Trekkie) to the people in meetings with me and them understanding it is an added bonus! I am amongst my people. 

Q: Wikipedia’s 20th birthday was a big moment for the whole movement. Can you tell us about what went into making it the global event that it was?

ZM: Wikipedia’s 20th Birthday with the theme of “20 years human” was a celebration of the movement’s journey and involved a great collaboration between movement affiliates, committees, individuals, and Communications department teams. Our strategy had several pieces: digital communications, brand partnerships, creative, media, storytelling and executive thought leadership.  

The 20th birthday needed to be as inclusive and global as the Wikimedia movement itself, so we took a more decentralized approach. Our vision is free knowledge, knowledge that doesn’t recognize borders, so we asked ourselves – how can we bring that same sense of inclusivity and collaboration to our 20th birthday? 

We built a system of symbols that people could mix, share and add to in order to make this celebration their own. Communities used these symbols to create over 100 symbols of their own, unique to their culture, their language and their history. All symbols that celebrate knowledge and tell local stories. This was really exciting to see. I also loved seeing the ways that different communities chose to celebrate: in total, communities hosted 115 birthday events across 62 countries. The pictures communities posted of their celebrations were a lot of fun.

Q: What impact did the 20th birthday celebrations have for the movement?

AA: The campaign increased the public’s trust in Wikipedia, showcased movement and volunteer stories, and cultivated new supporters. It was an opportunity not just to celebrate the last 20 years but also recognize our gaps and welcome new people into the movement to fill them. We were able to showcase Wikipedia’s evolution from an idea that shouldn’t have been possible to one of the most trusted knowledge resources in the world.

Overall, we saw more than 800 media articles spanning 79 countries, which was a new record for us in terms of media coverage globally. We saw incredibly positive headlines such as “On its 20th Birthday Wikipedia might be the safest place online” from the Washington Post, “The other tech giant: Wikipedia is 20 and its reputation has never been higher” from The Economist, “What if the Web looked more like Wikipedia?” from Time Magazine, Because today more than ever we need Wikipedia” from Wired Italia, and “20 years of Wikipedia–Idealists, Dissidents and Activists” from SRF. More than 4 million people visited the Wikipedia 20 birthday hub, coming from 1.2 billion impressions on Wikipedia banners in 7 languages. On Twitter alone, 28,000 people shared a Happy Birthday message to Wikipedia using #wikipedia20. A detailed campaign report will be available soon with more numbers. This was a huge win for building Wikipedia and Wikimedia’s brand awareness and understanding around the world, using a critical milestone in our history to bring audiences into the Wikimedia movement in ways that are most meaningful to them.

Q: Can you share a favorite memory from the 20th birthday?

ZM: At 6AM PST (13:00 UTC) on January 15, the internet just got OBSESSED with the Wikipedia 20th birthday. There were hundreds of tweets in hours, millions of views on our celebratory banners, (virtual) events from communities in 50 countries, and tons of press about Wikipedia and what makes it different. This was a runaway success that we had been planning for months with dozens of Foundation staffers, affiliate members, and hundreds of volunteers. When The Onion, a popular satirical publication in the US, wrote facetiously that “the internet is now ****ed up enough for Wikipedia to be considered one of the most reliable sources” I knew we had succeeded as a movement in making this a jolly, emotional moment.   

Q: The Universal Code of Conduct (UCoC) project has been linked to Wikipedia’s coming of age in its 20th year. What was Communications’ role in that?

MP: On the Movement Communications side, we supported work on the Universal Code of Conduct through coordination and project management. Large consultation projects like UCoC are actually very complex to design and manage. We wanted to make sure as many Wikimedians as possible had a chance to share their ideas. This meant outreach in over ten languages both on-wiki and off-wiki, global surveys, and outreach to 190 affiliates. Then all the data had to be organized, written up into reports, and shared back with communities, before also being read and understood by the policy drafting committee. We helped organize and manage a lot of this work, calendering it alongside other projects to reduce overlap and community overload.

AA: On the external communications side, we developed a wide-reaching media strategy. We worked hard to get the type of press coverage that would elevate the work that communities had done on the UCoC. We pitched stories that talked about  the unprecedented global participation that led to the development of the UCoC, and about Wikimedia’s UCoC as a model for other tech companies. Because the work coincided with Wikipedia’s 20th birthday, we were able to tell the story of how Wikipedia was created to embrace the spirit of the Internet as a force for good, and talk about the UCoC as fundamental to our future. We got 110 pieces of coverage, and an exclusive with Reuters led to syndication in international outlets in Japan, UK, Canada, France and India. Over one third of our press coverage ws outside of the US, and our total potential reach was 615 million people. Social media posts about UCoC were seen over 217,800 times with mainly positive sentiment. These numbers provide a snapshot of how this news was received, but more than that it shows that this joint effort by the Foundation and volunteers was heard by people in all corners of the world.

Q: In five words, how would you describe Communications’ role in the larger movement?

AA: Showcasing free knowledge is transformative.

ZM: Make people care about Wikimedia. 

MP: Building bridges by bringing people together. I know that’s six words but as the first four start with a B hopefully you’ll let it slide.

Do you have questions for the Communications Department about Wikipedia’s 20th birthday? Comment below!