February 25, 2016
Many Wikipedia editors finally got what they wanted Thursday. After weeks of revolt on social media and Wikipedia mailing lists, Wikimedia Foundation executive director Lila Tretikov resigned amid concerns the foundation wasn’t being transparent with its community about plans to develop a search engine.
Patricio Lorente, a member of the Wikimedia Board of Trustees, announced her resignation in an email to the Wikimedia-L mailing group Thursday:
“This week, the Board of Trustees accepted Lila’s resignation. Her last day will be March 31, 2016,” Lorente wrote. “The Board of Trustees is meeting regularly to determine next steps. Our top priority is 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.”
At issue was Tretikov’s apparent plan to have the foundation develop a search engine originally known as “Wikimedia Knowledge Engine” that, according to leaked internal documents, would have been “the internet’s first transparent search engine … completely free of commercial interest.”
The plan was controversial both within the Wikimedia Foundation and with the community that edits Wikipedia. According to former executives who spoke with Motherboard, it was being developed to help drive traffic to Wikipedia, which has seen a huge dip in traffic as users move to mobile and as Google begins displaying Wikipedia facts on its own search pages.
There were disagreements at the foundation about whether the search engine was necessary, which led to the departure of several employees over the past few months. Eventually, the project was scaled down, but not before news of what Wikimedia was initially planning leaked to the community.
Many in the community were furious that details of such a large project had been withheld by an organization that prides itself on radical transparency. Wikimedia’s public story—that it was never working on a search engine—was directly contradicted by a grant proposal made to the Knight Foundation and leaked internal documents.
After those documents leaked, many on the Wikimedia-L mailing list, which is made up of employees at the foundation (including Tretikov) and community members, began actively been calling for Tretikov’s resignation for much of this week.
After Motherboard and other media covered the controversy, Tretikov and the Wikimedia Foundation published a blog post that said the foundation was interested in improving search on the site, but wasn’t interested in developing a search engine in the traditional sense.
After publishing that blog post, calls for Tretikov’s resignation intensified, because her employees said the foundation still wasn’t being forthcoming with the community. Namely, employees and the community wanted her to admit that, at least initially, the scope of the Knowledge Engine (now called Discovery) was much larger.
“My concern is that we still aren’t communicating it clearly enough. This morning’s blog post is the truth, but not all of the truth. Namely that we had big plans in the past,” Max Semenik, a Discovery team member told her, according to notes of an internal meeting posted on the foundation’s website. “It would have been much easier to say that we did have big plans, but they were ditched … there is clear evidence of something, but we still haven’t acknowledged it. We can’t deny it.”
Tretikov took over as executive director of the organization, which runs Wikipedia and other volunteer information services, in 2014. She was the top executive at the organization. Founder Jimmy Wales has had more of a hands-off advisory role since 2008 Her departure means the foundation will need to scramble for a new executive, but more importantly it means it needs to decide what it wants to be moving forward.
In an email to the Wikimedia-L mailing list, Tretikov said she will help select a successor.
“I move on with confidence that the Foundation can meet new challenges in a challenging environment,” she wrote. “I believe in our ability to continue to lead through this change.”
The question now is where does Wikimedia (and Wikipedia) go from here? In email threads and Facebook groups dedicated to the site, several Wikimedia community members have said it’s now “time to pick up the pieces.”