Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Why the US doesn't have a Wikimedia chapter

There's a significant amount of discussion right on the Foundation public mailing list over the embryonic "Wikimedia Pennsylvania" chapter. It's really a Philadelphia-area chapter, but it's being called Wikimedia Pennsylvania because Delphine insisted that US chapters organize along state lines, and this is a significant part of the discussion. The lack of a US national chapter is a notable characteristic of the Wikimedia Foundation, in any case, and is due to a number of different factors: WMF's presence in the United States, the size of the United States, and sociocultural differences in between the United States and Europe.

The fact that the WMF is chartered in the United States takes away one of the significant incentives for the creation of a chapter. The German and French chapters got started, from what I can piece together, at least in part to have nationally local entities that could act as charities within those countries. The WMF, being an American organization, cannot be easily certified as a charity in Germany (just as Wikimedia Germany is not a charity in the United States). Because the WMF is certified as a charity in the United States, there is no need for another charitable organization to be certified in the United States to act as a charitable recipient of giving, and so this incentive goes away. Of course, the funds donated to Wikimedia Germany and Wikimedia France never reach the WMF, at least not directly, because the national laws in those countries prohibit them from using charitable proceeds for the WMF's benefit; as a result, these national chapters actually act to divert giving away from the WMF global organization and to the exempted local charities, which may or may not then spend the monies received on activities that benefit the WMF's interest. (I have no idea what the nature of the agreements between the WMF and the various European chapters are to ensure that the WMF gets sufficient value from the chapters for the use of WMF's name and marks; I would hope that such agreements exist, but my suspicion is that they are not nearly as favorable to the WMF as they should be.) Anyway, would-be American donors can simply donate to the already tax-exempt WMF; there would be no tax incentive to donate to WM United States, which would doubtlessly hamper fundraising. The Foundation is also likely to be reluctant to license away its right to exploit its marks within the United States to a US chapter the way it has to the French and German chapters. Giving up the right to exploit the marks in Germany or France, while significant, has nowhere near the economic significance of giving it away in the United States. It is unlikely that a Wikimedia US would be allowed to become a signatory to the standard chapter agreement without at least some modifications.

Second is the sheer size of the United States relative to Europe. The United States is huge in comparison to any of the nations that currently have Wikimedia chapters (all of which are in Europe). France is the largest Western European country in terms of area (Russia is larger, but only part of it is in Europe, and anyway Russia doesn't yet have a chapter). The United States is over fourteen times the size of France, and is 40% larger than all of Europe combined. Europeans often fail to appreciate the physical size of the United States; even Russians often fail to appreciate this, despite Russia being the world's largest country, because Russia's population is so heavily concentrated in relatively few western cities. The US population, in comparison, is spread across the country (albeit unevenly), resulting in a population density that is less than half of Europe's (31 persons per square kilometer versus Europe's 70). As a result, a national chapter in the United States would necessarily represent several disaggregated groups that would not share much other than citizenship; they would not be able to easily gather and meet (especially given the much sorrier state of public transportation in the United States as compared to most European countries) in the way that Wikimedia France or Wikimedia Germany can. This is another major driving force behind establishing chapters that loses power in the United States and hampers the formation of a US chapter.

Finally, we get to the socioeconomic differences between the United States and Europe. The vast majority of Wikipedians are in their late teens or early twenties. In the United States, that means they're high school students, college students, or graduate students. In Europe, it seems that the demographics are about the same, although the terms used vary. It is my impression, however, that the average European Wikimedian is older than the average US Wikimedian, and I'll discuss that in a moment. Anyway, the common factor here, though, is a combination of significant free time (relative to those who are employed for a living) and limited funds. Here's where the differences come in. In Europe, it is relatively easy to travel from city to city on relatively little money: the public transit system is pretty good and there are extensive networks of youth hostels and other inexpensive ways to overnight somewhere other than one's normal abode. Americans, on the other hand, must rely on private transportation for such jaunts, and on considerably pricier hotels and motels, and must travel, on average, two or three times as far. European Wikipedians, therefore, are likely more mobile than American Wikipedians. In addition, Europeans have more leisure time than Americans. The average work week in Germany or France is eight hours shorter than that in the United States. As a result, a greater proportion of employed Europeans will have enough spare time and liberty to allocate time to a chapter activity without compromising other personal interests than employed Americans. (It is the greater ability of employed Europeans to participate that pulls up the average age of European Wikimedians.) Furthermore, virtually every European country has a broader social welfare net than the United States, which increases the possibility of unemployed Europeans being able to meaningfully participate (in the United States, an unemployed American will likely have trouble obtaining consistently reliable Internet access, let alone the means to travel even across town, let alone out of town, to attend a meeting, and will not be a likely candidate for a significant role in a chapter organization). Basically, the socioeconomic realities of American life leave less time for voluntary activities for the employed, and less opportunity for the unemployed. And this too reduces the incentive for the creation of a US chapter.

As a result of these three factors, there just isn't a critical mass of people with both the ability and enough desire to gather together on a regular enough basis to form a coherent organization.

Now, forming subnational chapters in the United States instead of a single national chapter (or, alternatively, a national chapter with subnational subchapters) might actually get around some of these difficulties. It probably is the case (almost certainly, in fact) that there are localized regions where sufficient concentrations of interested people with enough time and resources to form and maintain a chapter exist -- as long as they're only being called upon to represent just their local area and not areas that are "foreign" to them. Keep in mind that Boston, Massachusetts is only slightly closer to Seattle, Washington than it is to London, England. Forming chapters on a regional basis is almost certainly more likely to be successful. That's what's going on in Philadelphia, from what I can tell. I'm not surprised: Philadelphia is a decently large urbanization; its urban area contains several colleges and there are a lot of convenient venues that are reachable on foot or via public transit in order for even those of relatively limited resources to attend and participate. The problem with this approach is that it clashes with the way the European chapters have evolved. Regional chapters such as these only serve one of the three purposes of the European chapters: they act only as social gathering bodies, without also having the fundraising and economic exploitation aspects that are so important to Wikimedia France and Wikimedia Germany.

I'll continue in a subsequent post on why state-level organization of US chapters is a bad idea, and what I think the proper trajectory of chapter development in the United States, toward the goal of a unified United States chapter functioning as an equal to the European national chapters, should be.