Leading the future of free knowledge: Wikimedia welcomes CEO Maryana Iskander
What will it take to create—not just imagine—a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge?
The answer, according to Maryana Iskander, Wikimedia’s new Chief Executive Officer: activating a truly global community in our shared work.
Maryana seeks to realize the founding vision of Wikimedia, and her inclusive approach has been developed through a career of breaking down barriers to opportunity.
In a welcome letter to Wikimedia, Maryana recounted meeting a leading American academic named Rebecca, who exemplified the need for a knowledge source like Wikipedia:
“Rebecca told me a story of her primary school teacher asking the students to raise their hands if they did not have an encyclopedia at home. Rebecca was one of those students, and it made her feel that she didn’t have equal access to the resources needed for her education,” Maryana shared. “The work of (Wikimedia’s) collective community, should we achieve our vision, will make it unnecessary for a teacher to ever ask that question again.”
While working as CEO of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, a nonprofit tackling South African youth unemployment, Maryana had met another “Rebecca”—a young woman growing up in circumstances where it was a struggle to afford text messaging, let alone more meaningful engagements with the digital world. Maryana believes that as Wikimedia looks ahead, it must give all the world’s “Rebeccas” a point of entry into the online exchange of knowledge. Her first step, commenced before she formally started in January, was a global Listening Tour—a series of consultations with hundreds of Wikimedia volunteers, staff, and supporters.
Life experiences spanning three continents inform Maryana’s work. Born in Cairo, she is a Yale Law School graduate, has served as Chief Operating Officer for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has clerked for the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. She is a Rhodes Scholar and recipient of a 2019 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.
On accepting the Skoll Award, Maryana paraphrased from the book Lean Impact: “For those of us committed to solving the world’s most pressing challenges, our work is to stay in love with the problem, not our solutions when they no longer serve us.” She is ready to bring this adaptive mindset to her leadership of Wikimedia.
Creating a more welcoming movement: Wikimedia leads Universal Code of Conduct
Every day, tens of thousands of volunteer contributors add and edit information on the Wikimedia projects—Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and Wikidata to name a few. Volunteers regularly interact and collaborate with each other, whether in online discussions debating the nuance of a particular edit, or at in-person workshops and edit-a-thons focused on advancing free knowledge. In order to support these volunteers and build safer community spaces, the Wikimedia Foundation worked for eight months with the contributor community to co-create a Universal Code of Conduct (UCoC) that will help establish a more welcoming environment for people who curate the knowledge we all use.
The UCoC expands on our projects’ existing policies to elevate expectations for contributor behavior, and it outlines the types of supportive, collaborative participation that characterize Wikimedia’s communities at their best and most productive. By clearly defining harassment and unacceptable behavior, and by addressing power imbalances common in online communities, the UCoC signals the Wikimedia Foundation’s commitment to creating spaces that foster diversity of thought, religion, sexual orientation, age, culture, language, and other embodiments of peoples’ lives.
Going forward, the UCoC is an opportunity to create a more welcoming environment for volunteer contributors and, in doing so, to reduce knowledge gaps across the Wikimedia projects. For example, the UCoC can empower communities to address Wikipedia’s gender gap both through the increased participation of women and a more equitable representation of articles about women on Wikipedia. We believe the UCoC can be a model for other digital spaces and internet platforms to learn about community-led governance and diversity practices.
Refining the user experience: Wikipedia undergoing desktop design refresh
Wikipedia was intentionally created using a software design that emphasizes text over images, so that it is easy to load on any device—which is one reason why Wikipedia incorporates wiki, the Hawaiian word for "quick.” This design choice has made Wikipedia simple and straightforward to read from its start in 2001. But our last major revision of Wikipedia’s desktop design was in 2010—and in the past decade, design best practices have continued to evolve, reflecting changes in how people use websites and what people expect from online resources such as Wikipedia.
That’s why, through 2021, we continued to expand on our ongoing project to improve the desktop user experience for Wikipedia. The work, which began in 2019, introduces design elements that allow Wikipedia to be more intuitive for today’s internet users. We developed these improvements in close consultation with our global community, piloting a range of changes on different language Wikipedias to develop compelling features that improve both the reading and editing experience.
One example of Wikipedia’s desktop refresh that logged-in users began beta testing in 2021: We made searching easier by making the search box bigger and moving it to the top-left side of each page—a prominent spot that aligns with the placement of search boxes on Google, DuckDuckGo, and other search engines. We also improved searching by increasing the context around search results. Beta testers now can see images and article descriptions in searches, and not just article titles, which makes it faster to find the correct results. When work on these modifications is complete, all Wikipedia users, whether logged in or not, will be able to use the new features.
Another improvement: We moved the language menu to a more prominent place on the page, which will give users an easier, more noticeable way to read Wikipedia in their language of choice. Wikipedia is in more than 300 languages, so this particular redesign will give multilingual contributors around the world an easier way to translate articles—and a faster way to contribute knowledge in different languages on Wikipedia.
Over the past three years, we have piloted these and other myriad new features across different language Wikipedias and improved and iterated based on community feedback. We expect the newly redesigned desktop version of Wikipedia to be completed later this year and made available to all users. This project is another example of how we work in close collaboration with our volunteer communities to improve and innovate how we serve free knowledge to the world.
Accelerating article growth, language parity: Abstract Wikipedia to drive cross-language knowledge exchange
When Wikipedia debuted on the internet in 2001, the first articles were in English, but everyone from founder Jimmy Wales to Wikipedia's first volunteer editors wanted the website to quickly evolve into a multilingual knowledge source. Wikipedia is now in 312 active languages, and while English Wikipedia has 6 million articles, and 17 other languages have 1 million articles or more, the majority of Wikipedias—more than 200—have fewer than 50,000 articles, despite representing languages spoken by more than 1.5 billion people. A new, two-part project called Abstract Wikipedia seeks to close this gap.
Abstract Wikipedia will accelerate language equality across Wikipedia, evolving Wikipedias with small article bases into full-fledged knowledge sources that benefit hundreds of millions of people. The project utilizes a new technical architecture that will translate baseline content into text that can be used across Wikipedia’s language editions. Wikimedia’s Head of Special Projects Denny Vrandečić, an international expert in technologies that categorize and process data in advanced ways, is leading this new project.
We expect the project’s first new articles to be published in 2023, but the first key element of the project, Wikifunctions, has already launched in a beta phase. Through Wikifunctions, volunteer editors will contribute technological functions to translate language-independent articles from Abstract Wikipedia into articles for different language Wikipedias—from Urdu to Igbo, and Swahili to Burmese.
The Wikimedia Foundation’s vision is a world where “every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” Abstract Wikipedia will help us achieve this ambitious goal.
Since 2011, the Wikimedia Foundation has highlighted the exceptional achievements of inspirational community members with its annual Wikimedian of the Year award. The 2021 awards, announced at the virtual Wikimania 2021 conference, were an expansion from years prior, acknowledging for the first time not only our singular Wikimedian of the Year, but a broader array of major contributors to the Wikimedia movement.
Alaa Najjar, Levant region | 2021 Wikimedian of the Year
Active in a variety of areas across the Wikimedia movement since 2014, Alaa is a Board member of Wikimedians of the Levant, an editorial board member of WikiJournal of Medicine, and a member of the Wikimedia Stewards User Group and the Arabic Wikipedia social networking team. Alaa is a busy medical practitioner, and when he’s not at work, he spends his time creating and improving health-related information on Wikipedia. He has made more than 170,000 edits to Arabic Wikipedia, and more than 472,000 edits across all Wikimedia projects. He is a frequent contributor to WikiProject Medicine, and he spearheaded a COVID-19 content team for Arabic Wikipedia that included the work of nearly 100 editors. Together, they combatted medical misinformation with timely, scientifically sound, and thoroughly referenced information throughout the ongoing global pandemic.
“Most of the participants in the project in Arabic Wikipedia belong to the medical sector, which means more accurate and reliable Wikipedia content. We managed to produce 46,000 medical articles, and the role of the project has become very prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Lodewijk Gelauff, U.S.A. | 20th Year Honouree
The Wikipedia 20th Year Honouree award spotlighted a contributor who has played a significant role in growing the site’s global community since its early years. Recipient of this milestone award, Lodewijk is an innovator, a community organizer, and a member of the Wikimedia movement since 2005. The Dutch-born Stanford University Ph.D. candidate is one of the initiators of Wiki Loves Monuments, an annual photo contest highlighting the world’s historic architectural heritage. Since it began in 2010, Wiki Loves Monuments has grown into the largest photography competition in the world, with 60,000+ participants submitting more than 1.7 million pictures of over 1.5 million monuments across Wikimedia sites.
“The majority of participants in our national competitions never contributed to any of our projects before. For some, this is their first encounter with the free knowledge movement, and maybe the first time they realize that if they contribute something, it can actually change Wikipedia, that website that they use so frequently…. Nothing is as encouraging as when you see someone’s face light up when they realize that yes, they are really invited to participate, to contribute.”
Carma “Citra” Citrawati, Indonesia | Newcomer of the Year
Established last year, Wikimedia’s Newcomer of the Year award recognizes Wikimedians who make significant contributions in their initial one or two years of involvement. The award’s first recipient, Citra is a Balinese literarian who joined the movement in 2019 to help build WikiPustaka, a library of Balinese language sources. Citra is an enthusiastic participant in Wikimedia Indonesia’s online community and an organizer of Densapar, Bali-area Wikimedians. Through her work with the Balinese WikiLontar project, she has helped catalog more than 600 Balinese palm leaf manuscripts on Wikimedia Commons for anyone to freely use—which will help us achieve the goal of growing underrepresented language content across Wikimedia projects.
“The most interesting part of contributing on Wikimedia is meeting different kinds of people who make great contributions to my local language. Wikimedia is a good place not only for free knowledge, but also to meet people who are passionate about language.”
Jay Prakash, India | Tech Innovator
The Wikimedia movement includes many Indian language communities that work to create and share valuable knowledge in dozens of local languages. Wikimedian Jay Prakash is invaluable as a provider of technical support to these communities, fixing bugs, building new tools, and spearheading technical outreach in Indic languages. Along with establishing and managing Indic-TechCom, a gathering of Indic-language technical volunteers, Jay has contributed over 20,000 edits to Wikipedia and is a lead developer for MediaWiki, the software underpinning all of the Wikimedia projects.
“Love, appreciation, and community health are the core of Wikimedia projects. I contribute to many free and open-source software (FOSS) and programmes, but the appreciation and respect I receive in the Wikimedia community is unmatchable.”
Ananya Mondal, India | Rich Media award winner
Known as the “Butterfly Wikimedian,” Ananya started the Wiki Loves Butterfly project in 2016 after realizing that there was no “butterfly” article on her native Bengali Wikipedia. Since then, she has led four editions of the campaign, which aims to add more information and images about butterfly species, particularly those of the eastern and northeastern parts of India, on Wikimedia projects. The campaign has resulted in over 3,000 images being added to Wikimedia Commons so far, capturing 428 different butterfly species and subspecies and expanding on non-text content across Wikimedia projects for an enriched user experience.
“The main motivation here is the free knowledge pattern and knowledge sharing—a grand, noble purpose that our celebrated Wikimedia movement is ushering in human society.”
Christopher Seiwald, U.S.A. | Wikimedia Endowment Benefactor
Christopher shares that after founding Perforce Software in 1995, the company greatly benefited from open-source content. Motivated to give back to providers of this invaluable resource, Perforce in 2012 would become a corporate donor to Wikimedia. Christopher described Wikimedia’s undertakings at the time as “a tool, but not yet a movement,” the broad benefits of which had personally resonated with him. Having watched the growth and refinement of Wikimedia’s projects over the past two decades—and having witnessed the impact of independent, reliable, accessible, and no-cost knowledge on people around the world—Christopher now considers himself a full-fledged champion of free information… or, as he more precisely puts it, “freedom of information.” He sees Wikimedia as a chief agent in this freedom, and his continuing personal financial support is evidence of his appreciation.
“I see Wikimedia as the single largest counterweight to the dis/mis/un-information that plagues our modern digital lives. The best answers are on Wikipedia.”
“(Wikipedia) is the 21st-century Library of Alexandria. We don't really stop and think about how crazy it is that we have detailed, high-quality, multi-page articles about anything you can think of in over 300 languages. Wikipedia has 4 billion words across 6 million articles and has collectively undergone about 1 billion edits. There’s simply nothing else like it.”
-Julian Deville, data integration specialist and Wikimedia donor
“The continued existence of Wikipedia is one of the reasons I have some optimism for the human race still. I very much hope that Wikipedia outlives me by centuries.”