Tuesday, July 17, 2007

More on a Wikimedia US Chapter

A while ago, I promised to explain why I think state-level organization of Wikimedia chapters in the US is a bad idea, and to offer my thoughts on what the proper trajectory should be. And so, here we are.

As I previously noted, Delphine mandated state-level organization for Wikimedia chapters in the United States, although no really solid reason was given. What I haven't seen said by anyone except possibly Gerard is that the agreement between each chapter and the Foundation grants exclusive marketing rights to the chapter within its geographic region, which necessitates that chapters have well-defined geographic regions that don't overlap. (You can't give exclusive rights to two different entities in the same region, obviously.) Delphine obviously gravitated to states because states are well-defined, nonintersecting, and exhaust the United States (disregarding the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the various other outlying territories, the exact details of which Delphine is likely unaware of). However, state divisions aren't really that well suited for the purpose at hand.

I listed three main purposes for a chapter in my previous post: tax-exempt fundraising, exploitation of the Wikimedia marks, and social organization. There is a fourth reason I did not mention: influence brokering. Chapter leadership, and especially chapter presidents, have a very high level of access to the Wikimedia Foundation; therefore, creating a chapter has historically been a pathway to power at the Foundation level. Note that two chapter presidents have gone on to be Wikimedia board members. Of these four purposes, the first three tend to create reasons to favor or disfavor specific partitionings of a target population. In Europe, the first two have strongly militated toward national divisions, because both of them are driven by considerations of jurisdiction. Having a chapter cross national boundaries in Europe will require the chapter to interact with multiple inconsistent legal systems and will quite likely defeat, or at least make quite difficult, obtaining tax-free status in all of the countries in which it has a legal presence. The third also tends to militate toward national boundaries. National boundaries in Europe (with some notable exceptions) tend to follow cultural and ethnic divisions to a greater or lesser degree, and so the national boundaries also serve as reasonable social boundaries.

Contrast this to the situation in the United States. As mentioned in my previous post, tax exemption is irrelevant because the WMF is already tax-exempt in the United States, and it is unlikely that the WMF will grant exclusive marketing rights to a US chapter or any chapter representing a subordinate region of the United States. Furthermore, legal systems in the United States, while not totally uniform, are far more uniform from state to state within the United States than they are from nation to nation in Europe. An organization legally organized in one state will typically only have relatively minor paperwork to complete in order to operate in another state; therefore, operating "across state lines" is not particularly challenging, and so these factors, which are already diluted by the special circumstance of being in the same country as the WMF, also only militate weakly toward a state-by-state organization. And the third factor, the far more powerful social factor, militates against state-by-state organization in favor of a more organic metropolitian-area organization.

To a large degree, state boundaries in the United States are arbitrary; they were drawn in many cases by people who hadn't even seen where they were (leading to quite a few interesting border disputes when it turned out that the boundary definition made no sense because of survey errors or other misunderstandings of geographic reality). In addition, the relatively uniform laws in the country, and special factors such as the Interstate Privileges and Immunities Clause, have made crossing state lines for virtually any purpose a relatively trivial matter for most of the nation's history. Many urbanizations have developed near state boundaries, and the urbanized area of many cities cross state lines. Social networking tends to follow urban area boundaries far more consistently than they do state lines. It's actually easier for me (living as I do in suburban Cook County, Illinois) to travel to northern Indiana, southern Wisconsin, or even southern Michigan than to travel to Springfield, Illinois. And that's nothing in comparison to California or Texas. Someone who lives in Houston would find Mobile, Alabama (which isn't even in an adjoining state) a shorter drive than they would El Paso. Someone who lives in Merrilville, Indiana would likely find a Chicago group to be "more their style" than they would an Indianapolis group, not to mention a shorter drive. I could go on and on listing places where culturally and socially distinct populations in the United States cross state boundaries, but I think I've made my point.

So, given that social factors militate away from state organization and toward a more organic metro-area organization, and that legal and economic considerations play almost no role, it makes little sense to mandate state-level organization. Given that, my advice is simply to let chapters form within the United States organically, wherever a sufficiently organized group of people can be found. Philadelphia seems to be leading in this respect, although New York is also a prime candidate. People outside the natural catchment area of any existing chapter can either join one of the existing chapters as a satellite subchapter, or start their own chapter (with or without assistance from one of the existing ones). Once there are enough chapters operating (which is probably five to seven, maybe as many as a dozen), the existing chapters may then wish to come together and establish some sort of federation or other organization to represent their joint interests throughout the United States. If and when that happens, that entity would then become the United States chapter.

My main point is that state boundaries are, for the purpose at hand, totally artificial, and imposing them without thought is both silly and counterproductive. I strongly advocate organic growth in this area rather than artificially imposed structure. I'll be quite honest: I have little faith that a US chapter will arise any time soon. There are too many factors that are disposed against a successful US chapter at this time. That's all the more reason not to put arbitrary obstacles in the path of accomplishing one.