Exclusive Interview with Katherine Maher
Katherine Maher in 2016. Photo by VGrigas (WMF), lisenced under CC-BY-SA 3.0
Katherine Maher is the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization that runs Wikipedia - the largest online encyclopedia on earth and many other vital community projects. She has been in this position since June, 2016. Before joining the foundation, she was attached to several international organizations including the World Bank, UNICEF etc.
She was requested for an interview with WikiBarta in August this year during Wikimania in Stockholm. Katherine happily accepted it and later in the afternoon of 18 August, she talked about her challenges ahead, shared her thoughts about the whole movement. She also expressed her desire to visit Bangladesh in future. By Ankan Ghosh Dastider.
[সাক্ষাৎকারটি বাংলা ভাষায় পড়ুন উইকিবার্তায়]
WikiBarta: At first I would like to thank you for accepting my request for an interview with WikiBarta.
Katherine Maher: Thank you for the invitation!
WikiBarta: You were attached to a number of popular organizations. World Bank, National Democratic Institute, UNICEF are some of them. In policy related issues, what are the principal differences between Wikimedia and all these?
Katherine Maher: What a great question! In those organizations, I worked on similar issues in a sense they were global, they had different challenges depending on the country or community we were working with. But the primary difference for me was that, in each of these organizations you are not working with a community in the same line. I think these organizations have very noble mission, they are trying to reduce child mortality, trying to increase peoples’ access to education, or healthcare, or democratic rights...The big difference is that those organizations had staff members who did their work in those communities and countries.
And in Wikimedia, the communities are the ones, deciding what is important to their community, what should we be working on - should we be focusing on education or should we be focusing on access to knowledge, should we be focusing on cultural integrity and heritage. Every Wikimedia community has different interests that are really tied very much to what is appropriate for their language community, culture, country etc. That builds the movement as a whole, as suppose to the movement deciding what it works on, and then telling communities what to do. It’s like you take the model and you turn it upside down.
WikiBarta: Internet is changing quite fast; people’s tastes are gradually changing as well. From your view, how Wikimedia websites are changing with that flow?
Katherine Maher: That’s a great question! I think the biggest changes have really happened on mobile phones for Wikimedia! If you look at the desktop version of Wikimedia or Wikipedia - it is pretty similar to what it was 5 years ago. It hasn’t changed very rapidly. The editing software has gone more powerful but in general, the way people look at them, the user experience hasn’t changed that much. But our mobile phones...if you are using the apps on android for example, or if you are using mobile web, Wikipedia feels more like the rest of the internet in the sense that the design has really tried to keep up with how the world is changing in terms of the way it consumes information.
One thing I think is really interesting is that the Wikimedia Foundation has experimented with this year, is creating a new user experience for Wikimedia content that doesn’t look or feel like Wikipedia, but is Wikipedia. I don’t know...does Bangladesh have a national team that plays in the Cricket World Cup?
Katherine Maher: OK great! So for the Cricket World Cup this year, the Wikimedia Foundation experimented with creating a microsite based on Wikipedia’s knowledge that was all about the Cricket World Cup! And it looked really different - the images, the experience was more like swapping images on instagram. The contents were presented on the snippets of contents so you had short quick facts about the players, about the history of the world cup and about different teams. We just experimented to see whether that be a different way to consume information on your mobile phone that people might be interested in. So it was meant to be an experiment and we want to see what we’d learn from it. And I think that increasingly we may see similar experiments as we go forward.
WikiBarta: Has the result been published yet?
Katherine Maher: They presented about it in this Wikimania.
Bangla Wikipedians with Katherine Maher in 2016. Photo released under CC-BY-SA 3.0.
WikiBarta: We are now going forward to fulfill our targets for 2030 following the strategic directions. If I am not mistaken, it started at the very beginning of 2017, now it is August, 2019. How things are going till now? Is the speed of our movement is on the right track?
Katherine Maher: I think that there are two different questions: are we on the right track and are we moving fast enough. I think we are on the right track, I think the conversations we are having as a community about what should our directions will be, and then you know the sessions here at this Wikimania, each of the strategy sessions have been very well attended. There we had lots of people participating or we keep people asking questions about our recommendations, seeing discussions about them.
I think that's a really good sign, a sign of a healthy community - asking itself questions about its future. The other thing I’d say, one thing I was really excited to see the sessions on diversity, there were so many people who came to the session that they ran out of chairs! They had to bring chairs from other sessions...It’s great! So I think that’s a sign of a really healthy community.
Are we on track? I think we are on track, because we are talking about what our future needs to look like. I think similar things we were talking in the movement strategy, that if we tried to talk to them about 5 years ago, people would have a very different reaction. I think our community is evolving, we are becoming more global, we are becoming more diverse, we are becoming more representative. We are interested in new technologies...you know you just asked me the question about how Wikipedia continues to evolve, I think these are very positive transformations.
Are we moving fast enough? That’s a hard question to answer. I think the answer is yes and no. Where I say no, I would like us to move faster. You know, the world is changing very fast, technologies are evolving very fast. I think it is important for us to understand that there is a sense of urgency about our work! If there is an expression in Wikipedia about Eventualism - eventually encyclopedia will get written in total. But I don’t actually know if that’s true. I think if we don’t try to move faster as a movement, we might not be as relevant to people in many places in the world, to our younger people. As our work has been for the last 15 years or more, I think we need to move somewhat faster, we are really going to meet the challenges of the world today. At the same time, I think we as a movement move slowly because we need to talk to everyone.
And we are a very big global community of volunteers, and we don’t all agree on everything and in fact, disagreement is a healthy way the Wikipedia is actually written! Right? So in order for us to move more quickly we might have to not consulting everyone and I think that wouldn’t work for our movement. I think we move a little bit slowly so that we have the conversations we need to have, and then we do make decisions. We are good at these decisions because we have had all the conversations we need to have and we know where the trade-offs. We know the opportunities are, we know the challenges of these decisions, we know who is in support of these decisions, we know who disagrees on them. Often the decisions we take are better decisions because we had those conversations.
So I think we both are moving fast enough but also need to move faster, and so I think that the way to balance tensions is we never want a conversations...as a community we should say this is a really important conversation to have, can we move on or do we need to keep having it. Just be aware of those sense of urgency in making decisions.
Future of Wikipedia by Katherine Maher at Newspeak House (2018). Photo by Jwslubbock, lisenced under CC-BY-SA 4.0
WikiBarta: Thank you. Let’s come to the gender bias issue. We all know the situation is not good till now, though over the recent years significant changes have been brought (thanks to Women in Red and all the communities organizing more and more programs related to this). In October 2018 you wrote in a blog that the widespread tendency throughout history to describe the lives of women through their relationships with men maybe a cause of greater use of “divorce” word in the women-biography related articles. How Wikimedia movement can fight against these kind of issues?
Katherine Maher: One of the talks that I went through yesterday, in the lightning talks, a research was presented by Marc Miquel, he is a wikimedian from Amical, from the catalan Wikimedia. He lives in Barcelona and he is a researcher. He did a presentation on diversity in our movements, and he talked about some of the challenges that exists from diversity perspective which exist even before our movement started. If you think about the whole world and everyone who could participate, and then you think of Wikimedia as a subset of that world.
There are so many filters that happen to people before the even become a Wikimedian, there are challenges to access, challenge to literacy, challenges of time, who has free time of participate in Wikimedia community! The point that he was making was that some of these challenges that aren’t the Wikimedia communities’ challenges. They are challenges in the world as a whole. I think those are very difficult for us to solve for as a community, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I think the ways we solve some of these challenges might require us to think differently about...what does it mean to be an active volunteer? If you can only participate in Wikimedia movement once a month, but you are really very committed that one time in a month you are participating, does that mean that you are not an active community member?
I think that means you are a different type of community member in the sense that you bring a different perspective, you bring a different type of experience, you are able to contribute in a different way, but you still should be considered a community member just like anybody who has time to edit every single day! I think when we look at those bigger challenges, we have to be aware for ourselves, that we have our own biases and issues in Wikimedia, but we struggle to address them because those biases exist in the world as a whole.
So what I usually say, as you are a journalist, I tell people if you are going to go out and write about the world, make sure you write about women, make sure you are telling their stories too. Make sure that you are interviewing women so that their voices are being heard. I think the more we do in our work lives, our professional lives, not to state Wikimedia lives, to care and focus on issues around diversity and gender parity and equity, the more impact we can make in Wikimedia as well.
WikiBarta: From 2014 to 2019, not a small journey at all. If you look back now, what is your biggest success from your view? If it is harder for you, then we can rephrase it as what was the biggest challenge you came out overcoming successfully?
Katherine Maher: (Laughs) Hmm...I think for me...from my perspective I don’t think it’s my success. But the movement...the Wikimania feels different this year than it has in the past in a really good way. It feels like it has gone really fast this year and we were talking about why! And we thought it’s more diverse, there are more people from more places, people are really passionate about what they are talking about, and they are talking about real problems, not just the same people talking about the same topic but many different voices in the room are having workshop conversations, about the ways and by which we evolve and improve.
I don’t think that my success, but I think it’s a big success for our movement that this is where we are. Because it means that we’re focused on what our future is and that means we are focused on solving problems. I think I am most proud of that, this movement strategy work has become something that the community members own, and take pride in, and feels a sense of ownership over. It’s not something that the foundation did, I might have been the person responsible for starting it but it doesn’t belong to me.
I think that’s something I’m really proud of that this process that we started was inclusive enough and open enough that people really made a and I think that is something going to be so important for our future, I am just really glad that I was part of it at the beginning.
Katherine Maher at Wikimedia Conference 2018. Photo by Nabin K. Sapkota, CC-BY-SA 4.0.
WikiBarta: What was your biggest challenge you faced after joining the community?
Katherine Maher: Well, I think the biggest challenge (pause), well you know I started as the Executive Director of the Foundation in a really difficult time for the foundation and for the community. There were a lot of distrust between the foundation and the community...that was a terrible feeling! It was a terrible feeling for the community, it was a terrible feeling for people in the foundation. And overcoming that distrust was, was hard! Not impossible, I think we are in a much better place now.
I really believe in the mission, I believe in the community, and I know that Wikimedians are here because they believe in the mission and they believe in the community. So it’s hard when two groups believe in the same thing but can’t trust each other. So that was I think the biggest challenge - how do you rebuild trust in a time when there was very little of it! I think the second big challenge was that, it seems to me that the Wikimedia community grew fast and fastest in Europe and in North America, but our communities all over the world have been growing over the last 10 or 15 years but they didn’t have a voice.
I know many people from Wikimedia UK, Wikimedia Germany, Wikimedia France, but I don’t know many people in Wikimedia Bangladesh or Wikimedia Indonesia or Wikimedia South Africa, or at least I didn’t used to. I feel the challenge for me was how do we make sure of these communities are represented and their voices are heard? As we think about the future of our movement and how do we make sure that there are seats at the table for everyone and also the rest of the community listen about what they care about.
WikiBarta: What is your biggest challenge now?
Katherine Maher: I think in the Wikimedia projects, there are some real challenges for us if we look at the future. I will talk about more in my closing talk about how the challenges of the increased fragmentation in our society. I think there are a lot of conflicts in our society than there used to be, I think the challenges of disinformation and the lack of trust in information are really scary for the community that is focused on providing high quality knowledge for the world.
If people don’t trust information, then how can they trust Wikimedia? We can’t agree because our societies are split over issues, then how are we going to agree on knowledge? And if we can’t agree on knowledge, then how can we make decisions that are good for our society, our lives as a whole? So I think my biggest challenges are I think they are real threats to our Wikimedia movement, and don’t know if we are moving fast enough and I don’t know our community feels the sense of urgency around these threats. Some people do, I know some people very much do.
There is a meetup (at Wikimania) right now actually, about disinformation and political manipulation. These are problems that exist in many, many countries of the world. I just hope that we are aware of our challenges that we can face them and become successful in solving them.
Katherine Maher and Ankan Ghosh Dastider after this interview (2019). Photo by Wikimedia Bangladesh, CC-BY-SA 4.0
WikiBarta: What’s your perception about involvement of Wikimedia Bangladesh in the global Wiki movement?
Katherine Maher: I would like to know more! I have never been to Bangladesh which I think makes it hard to know. One of the things I’ve learnt about Wikimedia is it’s so important to visit communities, in countries where they are from! I’ve never visited Bangladesh. Before joining Wikimedia I never visited Ghana and I never visited Argentina. I went to Ghana for WikiIndaba conference, visited Argentina, and I feel like I understand more about what their priorities are, and what their challenges are, and what the community cares about.
I don’t think I know enough about Wikimedia Bangladesh. I would like to know more about what the community cares about, and what is urgent and important for you. How does Wikimedia Bangladesh work in Bangladesh, what are the programmes you focus on, what are the needs of editors you care about, how does Wikimedia Bangladesh work with other communities in this region. These are something I would love to know more about.
WikiBarta: We would very much love to have you in our country! So see you there in Bangladesh as well!
Katherine Maher: Hope so, I would love to!
WikiBarta: Do you want to say anything for the Bengali community?
Katherine Maher (in the video message): Hello Wikimedia Bangladesh, I am Katherine Maher, and I am the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. I am really excited to take the opportunity of Wikimania here in Stockholm to say hello to you and say thank you for all of the work you do in building and maintaining and continuing to grow Bangla Wikipedia which has been around, I just learnt, since 2004! So congratulations on 15 years of being Wikipedia and that is really exciting!
I understand that you have been doing some really wonderful work in the course of the past year, including collaboration with radio station, with the air force, with the football federation about how to bring the culture of Bangladesh and Bangali culture into Bangla Wikipedia. So congratulations on that great work! I also learnt that you are doing a collaboration between Wikimedia Levant and Wikimedia Bangladesh to exchange understanding of Arabic culture and Bangali culture.
I think it is a beautiful example of the way Wikipedia as a whole works, as a global community, where we learn from each other, not just in our own languages, but in terms of learning about the world as a whole. So I want to say congratulations! It is really lovely to being able to take this time. Thank you to WikiBarta for the opportunity and the invitation to send this video to you. And I want to say (in Bengali:) বাংলা উইকিপিডিয়া সম্প্রদায়কে শুভকামনা জানাই! (English: cordial wishes to Bangla Wikipedia community!)
WikiBarta: Thank you very much.
Katherine Maher: Thank you too!