Head of Wikimedia resigns over search engine plans

Departure

The executive director of the Wikimedia foundation, the body that manages the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, has resigned following a row within the community over leaked plans to apparently build a search engine and compete with Google.

Lila Tretikov, who joined the organisation in May 2014, offered her resignation to the board this week, and will work out her term until the end of March, according to Patricio Lorente, a member of the Wikimedia’s board of trustees.

In a letter to Wikimedia employees and members of the community, Tretikov wrote: “I am both inspired by, and proud of, the many great things we have all accomplished at the Foundation over the last two years, most significantly reversing the loss of our editorial community … I remain passionate about the value and potential of open knowledge and Wikimedia to change the world.”

When Tretikov started at Wikimedia, the number of active editors on the English version of Wikipedia had been falling for seven years straight.

The site, which is edited by volunteers, had peaked in 2007 with almost 5,000 very active editors, defined as more than 100 edits a month; but by 2014, this had fallen to just 3,000. In the first year of Tretikov’s time as executive director, that rose to 3,200, and currently stands at 3,500.

But that success, along with others Tretikov cited including the introduction of new editing tools, a focus on anti-harassment initiatives and the creation of a new endowment for the encyclopaedia, wasn’t enough to counter opprobrium from the community about the Wikimedia foundation’s aborted search plans.

Motherboard’s Jason Koebler reports that the key reason for Tretikov’s departure was a plan, leaked earlier this month to build the “Wikipedia knowledge engine”.

Described in grant documents as “a system for discovering reliable and trustworthy public information on the internet”, there was considerable doubt over what the tool was actually intended to be: a search engine aimed at halting a decline in Wikipedia traffic sent by Google, or simply a service for searching within Wikipedia?

The latter was the initial suggestion put out by the Wikimedia Foundation in a blogpost after the news broke, but was contradicted by the terms of a grant from the Knight Foundation, which described instead “a model for surfacing high quality, public information on the internet”.

It also explicitly described competition from Google or Yahoo as a risk to the project, and the “biggest challenge” that the group had to face.

The plan to build the Knowledge Engine was controversial within the Wikimedia community. Many objected to the perceived mission creep that such a project would represent for an organisation that had previously been very focused on the creation of a singular item of human endeavour.

But equally controversial was the fact that the plans had been put in place without consulting the wider community. Wikimedia prides itself on transparency, but had apparently planned the project, and applied for a grant, without any disclosure.

This, added to the fact that the initial blogpost about the knowledge engine still failed to fully explain why the first grant application seemed so much bigger than simply building an internal search engine, lead to Wikimedians calling for Tretikov’s resignation. Those calls were granted this week.

Wikimedia’s Patricio Lorente says the organisation’s board is meeting “to develop a clear transition plan that seeks to build confidence with community and staff, appoint interim leadership, and begin the search for a new Executive Director”.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Friday 26th February 2016 15.46 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010