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Katherine Maher on a generosity of spirit and contributing to the Commons


The Wikimedia and Creative Commons communities are inextricably linked, sharing networks, content, and a vision of the world’s knowledge collaboratively governed in a Global Commons built on gratitude and sharing.


Photo by Victor Grigas, CC BY-SA 3.0

Katherine Maher has been the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation since 2016, and is one of the leading advocates for Open around the world. As a leader, her centering of community voice and the Wikimedia global network, as well as a strategic vision built around Wikimedia 2030 has led to some of the organization’s most creative growth and evolution.

Katherine will be speaking on Friday, April 13 at 11AM at the CC Global Summit and will follow up her talk with a panel on “The Big Open,” exploring how networks for Open can work together collaboratively and effectively.

The Wikimedia 2030 strategic document proposes that Wikimedia become the essential infrastructure for free knowledge. What does this strategic statement mean to the Wikimedia organization and what does it mean to the movement?
Wikimedia is one of the largest and most widely used free knowledge resources in the world. More than a billion devices visit our sites every month and we have been supported by millions of people over the years. In some ways, to the extent that an open source project is successful and has a daily tangible and visible impact on people’s’ lives, Wikimedia is the definition of that success.

What we’ve also seen… is that Wikipedia is the essential infrastructure for free knowledge in many places in the world. We have stepped into that role in different language communities where free knowledge may not have as robust an ecosystem.

Both Creative Commons and Wikimedia provide valuable infrastructure for the open web. As institutions working towards complementary goals, how do you see this these organizations as part of a larger global community of open knowledge?
Like in open source, CC and Wikimedia are part of the core infrastructure – but we play different roles on the stack. More than 50% of the content across the internet relies on open source and Wikimedia is the largest website or open media property on the planet. That means that we have been successful in achieving our open goal. The Creative Commons licenses power billions of freely licensed content that is accessible to the whole world. We’ve reached a point in which our model has demonstrated its success. Now the question is, “Where do we go from there?”

As communities and projects that started based on the premise that individual contributors and individual people all over the world create and build open culture and the Commons, we now see that other institutions and players are getting involved.

As successful projects, how do we go forward from here? What’s the course that we chart?

Practically, how do you see the networks working together and sharing resources?
As Ryan [Merkley, Creative Commons CEO] likes to say, “Many Creative Commoners are Wikimedians, Mozillians, Open Street Mappers…” If you are part of an open community, the distinction between those communities is artificial.

There’s already collaboration and mutual support across these communities. What are the fights that we want to fight together and how are we more effective when we [collaborate]? How can we bring in more institutions that historically haven’t been part of our ecosystem, and how can we scale up at this size?

Those are great conversations for us to have as partners, and to learn from our successes and our failures as well, as we try to take these missions forward.

What does a vibrant, usable Commons powered by collaboration and gratitude mean to you? What do you think sharing will look like online in the future?
A vibrant Commons is something that everybody has access to and people can give back to in a meaningful way. The work of creating a Commons doesn’t just happen –there’s labor involved… When we think about the importance of supporting and ensuring that the Commons is a part of the world in which we live, that speaks to the issue of generosity.

Those people who contribute to the Commons are actually a very tiny fraction of the overall whole. Some folks contribute directly, because they contribute their work, their creations, their ideas, and others contribute financially.

But again, it’s a small group – although it is a very generous group. If we were to imagine a future in which [the Commons] is a vibrant and robust ecosystem that continues to grow and thrive, then generosity needs to be something that’s reflected by a much larger group of individuals than it is today.

And we need to be generous in return.

We need to be generous in the spirit in which we approach these conversations, in the way that we welcome people into our communities, in the way that we think about the folks who use the content that we create. Generosity flows both ways.

How do you complement the work that Wikimedia provides as a tool or a product on the open web with the community building work you’ve done as an organization?
They’re deeply interrelated. I often talk about how what makes us different is the fact that we are a community project, but what makes us powerful is the fact that we are a website that’s used by hundreds of millions of people all over the planet. I don’t think you get to have one without the other. Wikimedia would not exist without the incredible community that has built it, that supports it, that has defined its values, and that ensures we stay true to those values.

We support the websites because they are how we achieve our mission, but that support has to be in service of the people that we are trying to serve, like our community members and the people who read, use, and learn from the knowledge we support.

How is Wikimedia working toward a better web as an organization and a community? How are you working toward a better world?
To a better web – we are one of the larger open source projects that exists today and every single thing that Wikimedia produces is open source. We believe that a web that is open, interoperable, and rewriteable is the right sort of web.

We stand apart from any other platforms in that we are largely trusted, we are community governed, we present a model for what we can and should be, and we hearken back to the ideals of the early web [of sharing].

In terms of working for a better world? What animates all Wikimedians is the belief that when more people have access to knowledge the world is, in fact, a better place. People are more informed and have access to critical information that shapes the way they make decisions in their lives. They have the opportunity to educate themselves in their communities.

While we don’t necessarily say in our vision statement that “we’re out here to change the world,” that is exactly what most Wikimedians believe we’re doing every day.

Posted 10 April 2018