rodo: angry nuns are angry (angry nuns)
I mentioned to [personal profile] anehan a while back that I had Thoughts on how to save the OTW and that I should really post them. This is that post. There are a lot of posts out there about what is wrong with the OTW (and OH GOD, it is a lot), but very few on how to change things for the better, so I thought I’d give it a try. Caveat: I am not an expert on anything, least of all all of the things mentioned here, so take it with a grain of salt. I am mainly speaking from my experiences in International & Outreach (IO) and Translations too, which are sort of the red-headed stepchildren of the OTW, at least it feels like that to me.

Part 1: Radical restructuring

By now it should be quite obvious that the way things are currently set up doesn’t work. It might work with fewer people, but it doesn’t with dozens of committees and hundreds of people. The organisation’s current set-up is much too flat and needs to be more hierarchical. There also have to be clear guidelines on who has the power/responsibility to do and decide what, which is currently … well. It works on the level of a committee. The chair is the boss and that’s that. But as a part of IO, I experienced lots of inter-committee work, and many things we tried needed the approval of the board, because we did not have the power to do anything. Which meant that whatever we wanted to do had to be done by consensus – we had to talk everyone else into doing what we thought would improve outreach. Looking back, it’s a miracle we ever got anything done, or rather, [personal profile] julia_beck is very good at talking to people.

I think it is basic logic that if you recognise a problem and try to solve it, the people you appoint to it need to be given the authority to do that, but within the OTW framework, a chair is a chair, a staffer is a staffer and they are all on the same position in the hierarchy. A chair cannot tell another chair what (not) to do, only a board member can do that. And that, of course, leads to an increased workload for the board and the org politics we’re all so sick of.

I have a vague idea on how to reorganise the structure, but explaining that is a bit complicated. On top of it all is, of course, the Board, but I think it should take over some responsibilities from Communications (namely, the PR part not based on website posts) and Volunteers (appointing people to a committee or team). The current committees Wiki, Systems and Legal I would leave largely untouched and Finances and Membership/Elections could, in my opinion, merge.

Another committee should be Website (including Webmasters and parts of IO), which would be responsible for managing the various things related to the website, with the Journal as a sub-committee and Content as another sub-committee which would be responsible for creating the content on the website (duh), like the FAQ and the blog posts, thus taking on the other part of Communications duties and the entire Vidding committee.

The next big committee would be Archive (including the rest of IO and the current content policies committee), with the sub-committees Coding, Tags and Abuse & Support (having worked on both on another archive I can assure you that merging them works). AD&T would probably be split between the most appropriate places, mostly Coding and Archive.

The two odd ones out in this case are Translations and Open Doors, because they are associated with both the Website and the Archive, so I would create them as sub-committees to both, Translations being told what to translate for Website and the Archive, and Open Doors working with the archive or the website, depending on the needs of the project. This is all still rather rough, since I probably forgot some committees or teams, so I’ll explain using an example:

The Board gives people broad directions of what to do, say “Prioritise introducing fanart to the archive”, the Archive team decides on how to do that by telling the Coding team “Include a way to mark type of fanwork, code specific posting forms and categories, hosting, etc.”, the Abuse and Support team “draft possible image-specific policies/FAQ to hand over to Legal for approval” and the Tagging team “Work out list of canonical tags/categories for fanart, e.g. ‘drawing’, ‘digital painting’”. And the teams would then go to work, with the Archive team answering questions and mediating the interest. When someone on Coding has an idea for a new feature, they tell the Archive team and that works it into a rough work schedule and maybe amend the plan with details and considerations.

The Board would, of course, receive scheduled reports from all the teams so that they are informed of what progress they have made, so that they actually do know what all the parts of the organisation are doing, which informs their broad directives.

An important element to this hierarchical approach would be the rule that one cannot occupy more than one position within a chain of command. I don’t think there would be a problem with, say, a Fanlore editor also working on Tags, but there is a conflict of interest in a Board member coding the archive (really subtle example here, I know). For one, the other members never know whether or not they are speaking to the coder or the Board member. For another, the Board member will likely be tempted to bypass the chain of command, and lastly, the “middle management” would have problems receiving and giving orders to the same person. Of course, this also frees people from juggling multiple responsibilities and allows them to focus on one thing.

Part 2: The Leviathan of Our Own

It’s become obvious that the AO3 has problems, and that the current efforts are a bit like chugging water out of a sinking boat. I don’t know anything about coding, but people who know more about it have written detailed posts on what is wrong. I only know that a translatable interface was promised to us years (four, I think) ago and that the whole “international” part of IO isn’t much good without it. And nothing happened. Instead, new bells and whistles were added, which didn’t make much sense to me since a translation interface would affect the whole site, so shouldn’t it be done first? The biggest problem there was, I think, that the coders weren’t up to or interested in the problem, and so it wasn’t solved.

There are probably a lot of problems in the code that the volunteers either can’t or won’t work on, and that is not their fault. They’re doing their best for free. So I think it would be best to hire a specialist, even if part time, to fix things. Maybe even more than one, if necessary. That way, the volunteers can still work on what interests them, while the other, less interesting things get done too. And if the funds don’t cover that, introducing a way to donate only to the AO3, without any membership rights attached to it, might help. I remember seeing some people say that they would donate to the AO3, but not to the OTW, so why shouldn’t that be possible?

A paid coder would also make it easier to stick to a roadmap without veering off the path too much, which is pretty much what happened to the last roadmap that I remember so well because I translated it in painstaking detail, just a thought.

And before I forget it – please differentiate between freeform tags and tags like pairings/characters/fandoms, because those are the most important for browsing and people will probably be able to deal with not having all the freedom in the world there. Yes, it will lead to problems – I wrote a fic that would be without a character in the character field without the current system, but on another archive, I dealt with it. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked. As does “Hey, I’d like to have X character added to Y fandom, please” – hell, having wranglers who do only that would definitely improve on the ff.de solution, where you have to wait for weeks or months to post your fic.

Date: 2012-07-19 06:29 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] yvi
yvi: (Dreamwidth - Developer: spring)
I am almost clueless as to the structure of the OTW, but #2 is a very good point: volunteers work on what's fun to them or important to them - and that's good! But that may not be what the site needs - and also, volunteers are often best served with small and medium projects, while the large projects lend themselves to people who are paid. At least that's been my experience, but I also seem to be a coder with the attention span of a squirrel most days - it's only at work where I am forced to work on bigger projects :)

Date: 2012-07-19 11:37 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] amaresu
amaresu: Sapphire and Steel from the opening (Default)
The entire reason I don't donate to the OTW is because I'm a tag wrangler. I can see just how broken my section of the system is and I can't in good faith give them money until I see some changes.

And I just learned that apparently most of the board misses 20-50% of the meetings? With NN and FC being the worst offenders? I would actually become a member if it meant the ability to call for a recall. I'm certainly not giving money to an organization where the heads can't be bothered to show up and do their job.

An important element to this hierarchical approach would be the rule that one cannot occupy more than one position within a chain of command.

The fact that this isn't the case already is outrageous. When the OTW was first getting off the ground that was perfectly fine, but not now. There are more than enough people chomping at the bit to help out and occupying multiple positions is doing nothing but hinder their ability to do so. You can't expect people to be both your boss and your underling. There's no way that's a healthy relationship with good power dynamics.

As for the AO3, the thing is sinking like the Titanic. It won't happen today and probably not tomorrow, but if something isn't done in the next few months I don't see how it's going to get through Yuletide. Not with the amount of resources that non-OTW project hoards every year.

Date: 2012-07-20 10:47 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] amaresu
amaresu: Sapphire and Steel from the opening (Default)
Tag wrangling policies are just stupid at times as well. We can't tell people when they've, probably accidentally, mis-formatted a tag. Not even a form letter sent out automatically after we click a button on our end, which is kinda what we've been asking for. We also can't make the process for deciding canonicals available for people to look at. It's horrible.

I mean, just for myself, I've gone back and looked at the first fic I uploaded and I can see how messed up my tags are just because I had no clue what I was doing. I can fix that because I know that what I did makes it impossible to actually find my fic on the archive. Other people can't.


From what I understand the low attendance is the reason the board can't get anything done because it can't reach a quorum. So clearly there are board members not doing their job. People who don't do their jobs don't deserve to have them. I can't believe there isn't a bylaw about how many meetings a board member is allowed to miss. I also can't believe there's no policy for recalling members who fail to do their job. These are basic things that should've been planned for.

The thing that gets me about Yuletide is that we're constantly told that it's not an OTW project and they don't get special treatment. Last year some bright eyed and bushy tailed wranglers asked about what needed to get done to prepare and they were snapped at because it wasn't tag wrangler business. Yet, a month later. For a non-OTW project that's not supposed to get any special treatment, they sure get a lot of special treatment.

(Last year is the year I decided that I'm only still volunteering because I want access to tag landing pages because Fuck Yuletide.)

Date: 2012-07-20 11:27 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] amaresu
amaresu: Sapphire and Steel from the opening (Default)
Exactly. If people dare to ask about Yuletide they're told it's none of their business. But when Yuletide needs special help for X, Y, and Z, reasons it's suddenly absolutely necessary to put everything else to the side.

It either needs to be an OTW project or it needs to stop getting the special treatment. AO3 should not be responsible for picking up individual mod slack. It should not be diverting the number of resources it does. Not without Yuletide being an OTW thing.

Date: 2012-07-20 12:33 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] inlovewithnight
inlovewithnight: (Default)
they would donate to the AO3, but not to the OTW, so why shouldn’t that be possible?

The OTW is the nonprofit, not the AO3. AO3 is a project of OTW. Legally, you can earmark a donation for a specific project, but you must give to the nonprofit.

Date: 2012-07-20 06:21 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] inlovewithnight
inlovewithnight: (Default)
Well, it's also the right of nonprofits to decline to accept earmarked donations. They ultimately decide whether or not, accounting-wise, they want to divide up funds that way or keep all donations as a flexible pool. If they don't want to allow conditions on donations, that's not terribly unusual. Restricted funds are very difficult to work around, which is why when there's a natural disaster the Red Cross etc encourage people to donate to the general fund instead of earmarked funds. Earmarked funds are great and all, but flexibility is not something you want to throw away.

Sorry, I do this (nonprofit development/fundraising) for a living. :\

Date: 2012-07-20 02:30 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] foxinthestars
foxinthestars: cute drawing of a fox (Default)
(Here via unofficialnews). I'm also quite ignorant of the structure of OTW, but this was very interesting reading. I admit I was a bit surprised by the suggestion of breaking up I&O, but that was based on my quite-ignorant idea of what it does. Given all the recent trouble, maybe it would be good to have an ombudsperson or committee with an appropriate level of authority?

Date: 2012-07-20 05:23 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] jennyst
jennyst: Jenny on a photo of space (Default)
Thanks for posting this. It's great to see different perspectives on issues, even when I disagree with some bits. And the Strategic Planning workgroup pointed this entry out, which kicked it back up my agenda enough that the back-burner email I've had for the past fortnight has finally gone to board.

So even though I don't currently have the time and energy to engage properly with everything you've said, and I apologise for that, I also want to thank you and let you know that people are already thinking, and will continue to listen, and at some point we hope to include discussion of restructuring in the strategic discussions we're having.

Date: 2012-07-20 05:48 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] branchandroot
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
Hear, hear! A flat structure for an organization this big does not work, and otw is demonstrating why not.

And amen to hiring a coder or two. Looking at the last published budget statement, there's 'free' money there to hire at least one and possibly two coders for a year. Maybe not full time, but at least half. And that /could/ be enough to get the archive re-written (which is what it will take). And that would give the user/member base enough faith to have another good fund-raising drive to replenish the coffers, I think.

And you're entirely right, a translation system has to be included from the start or else it's a hot mess to add, even on a system that isn't on the brink of collapse. There are so many labels and headings that have to be translatable. I'm guessing it would be impossible with the current code, because those bits of text increase the dynamic-calls load. Definitely need a re-write.

Date: 2012-07-20 06:39 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] tavella
tavella: (Default)
Yeah, I'm utterly boggled by the fact that they didn't build in translation from the beginning. You essentially have to rewrite every bit that involves text to use a resource bundle, when you could have done it on the fly with essentially no loss of time. And resource bundles are so lovely -- you can essentially hand them over to someone who knows nothing about code and they can translate them without pain.

(I'm not a Ruby coder, but I assume they use resource bundles or something similar? If they don't, they really should have thought about using something that does, if they considered website translation to be at all important.)

Date: 2012-07-20 05:51 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] ruric
ruric: (Default)
Good to read the perspective of other people involved. I definitely hear you on the focus on roles and not have people doubling up because that sounds like a recipe for burnout! Interesting perspectiveo on flats vs more heirarchical structures too.

I know nothing at all about the structure of the OTW but as someone who has a professional background in Communications I get very worried when a proposal is made to split internal, external and ecomms into a number of different depts.

For a org that has historically struggled with both internal and external comms (but which now seems to have a significantly better grasp) splitting the comms function off to a variety of committee sounds like the kiss of death to me.

I'm not sure you could improve comms in the OTW by isolating the various parts, I'd think it would be much fast to improve it by having a team/sub-committee/committee who's remit is to sort it the heck out and has the focus, knowledge, power, ability and enough bums on seats to be able to do that.

Whether those things exist at the moment I have no knowledge, but just reading and skimming I think improvements have been made at outward facing comms. I have no concept of what the OTW's internal comms processes are like but I could hazard a guess! *G*

Date: 2012-07-20 10:09 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] ruric
ruric: (Default)
Ah, now I see - thanks for the clarification!

Centering in one place definitely for the good, getting things signed off by multiple committees is a headache.

We spent a long time in my ex organisation working out how to speed up the comms process and ensure that by doing so we avoided any fuck ups. *G* A lot of it boils down to trust (that the comms people will do their stuff) and knowledge (of the org, critical hotspots and politically sensitive issues) that other people may hold.

It took a while to build the confidence that people could just ring/drop by in person or email us if they thought there was going to be a comms/PR issue and that it was our job to take the flack on behalf of the org if there was a hot issue. But in the end we had a good process where our staff felt supported and less vulnerable and our audiences felt they had enough good quality info and stats and were informed about what was going on.

I think good comms is one of the key things that can make or break an org so I'm hoping all goes well for the OTW.

Date: 2012-07-21 05:00 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] lian
lian: Klavier Gavin, golden boy (Default)
This is no longer true -- communication is being consolidated into, well, Communications.

Date: 2012-07-21 06:13 am (UTC)From: [personal profile] ira_gladkova
Thank you for posting about this! I was actually trying to put together a post covering similar ground (in a follow-up to my earlier one), but you beat me to it. We might diverge on many points, but we're in overall agreement about the need for restructuring, so I'd definitely be interested in your thoughts on my version, when I get there!

I'd like to save most of my take for that post, but did want to note a couple things here, too.

While Board purview does include allocation of resources — and this certainly could be interpreted to mean actually putting individual people on individual committees/workgroups — this work is actually very specialized and in itself forms most of a full-time job. Volunteers & Recruiting is meant to act roughly like our HR department, including placing people. There's definitely a lot of overlap in interests between VolCom work and Board work, but almost no intersection in skillsets and level of management: VolCom work is far more fine-grained and hands-on. Evaluating Willing to Serve forms is a specialized and time-consuming task; some of that is surely an artifact of our current recruitment system (focusing on open-ended recruitment rather than mostly job-specific ads), but there will always be a (large) place in our organization for people who show up "just wanting to help", with all the personnel management work that that entails. This is micromanagement on the level that does not befit Board — Board should concern itself with broader-based resource allocation. Ideally, VolCom would be providing information of what sorts of people with what sorts of skills are concentrated where, and Board would work based off that larger-scale view. If this is what you meant, I apologize for going on!

But basically, VolCom does a lot of work, and I actually feel it's one of the more appropriately defined and placed committees — if one of the more poorly understood both within and outside the org. That's certainly a problem, but I don't think it's a problem related to VolCom's scope, and more related to VolcCom's limited resources at the moment (which is currently being worked on) and Board (especially as liaisons) not making it clear enough throughout the org what it is that VolCom does and how the org can use them as a resource.

The other bit I wanted to note is that Transformative Works and Cultures — the main product of the Journal committee, along with the TWC Symposium blog — is a distinct product separate from the website, and this not at all related to the Web committee's purview (either current or proposed/imagined). It's a project on the same level as Fanlore or the AO3, and should have pretty much the same length of chain of command between it and Board (namely, nothing). I'm sorry if I have misunderstood your suggestion about Journal being a subcommittee of Web!

I know both of these are based around the very fact that org structures are confusing, overlapping, and poorly communicated. I completely agree that that's something that needs to be worked on.

So those are some things that were more like, checking if we are on the same page? I do apologize if I've misunderstood you!

One point of mixed agreement is to do with Board holding positions elsewhere in the org. In broad principle, I definitely agree that no one should occupy more than one position within a given chain of command. Specifically, in an ideal world, Board members would not be chairs or leads (of workgroups or subcommittees), or any other position that is integral to the functioning of the org. However, positions that are completely duplicable (ordinary staff work or volunteering), can I think still be acceptable as long as (a) there are structures of recourse in place to make sure that no Board member is a ever a bottleneck of authority within a chain of command (e.g. staffing and liaising on the same committee), and (b) that Board member is careful about respecting those structures.

I know this places some weight on individual action rather than on the strength of the system, and on the whole this is something to steer away from (and also, incidentally, where we basically sit right now, heh). But I think this stems from the OTW's position as both a nonprofit and a fannish project: two statuses in fundamental and constant tension. It would be counter to our ideals to forbid even Board members to do the work they love elsewhere in the org, and on this particular issue, I fall a bit on the fannish side of the scale. It sounds like you fall more on the nonprofit best practices side, and honestly, that is great, because we need people pulling from both sides to ever get an appropriate balance.

(That said, right now we fall so far towards "fannish" and so far away from "nonprofit best practices" that we need to be listening far more to the latter to get any momentum in that direction.)

Anyway. Overall, I definitely agree on the need to restructure. I hope to engage with more of your points in more detail later, or to at least cover my own version in my post soon. Thank you again for posting!

Date: 2012-07-21 04:09 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] autumnus
autumnus: A purple monochrome portrait of Zoe from Dreamfall, with drawn stars in background and "the Dreamer" written on bottom. (Default)
First of all thank you for the thoughtful post.

now onto details :)

First of all I agree with Ira's comment above on journal. Journal committee maintains an academic journal, and a lot of the work they do has very little to do with webdesign. You are on to something here through. One of the biggest organizational hiccups of the current system is that technical skillset is mixed up with projects and sometimes in a very dysfunctional way.

I'll post something more detailed on this on my journal but essentially we have this problem where it is not clear if say Journal needs technical help, where they will get it. I THINK the current solution is that there are people assigned to help out, and web does help if further assistance is needed? But then again, is a fulltime person needed just for that job? It seems a lot more straightforward if everyone who needed coding or designing could put a ticket in, and someone from the pool would respond. Granted we would have people specializing in projects (in addition to skillset) and some projects would have a lot more bugs etc than others but it would help using the people we DO have more effectively.

Second issue this on about ao3 development is that it is again mixed in coding. There is no design process (which in all fairness is a common problem in a lot of OSS or probably in small companies). You cannot just add a feature out of blue because a coder wanted it, or anyone wanted it really. /o\ There needs to be a reason, an understanding of the user base, how they will use it then optimize the UI for it. Similar types of consideration goes into feature and bug prioritization. On this note I agree that having a paid coder, even on contract basis to make things that volunteers will not or can't do could be useful. Again more on this in my post since I am already hogging the space here but the point is that, I do agree with the whole archive project management, its just... we have bigger problems in our software development system. (a lot of it is due to sudden growth of the projects, so it is probably normal: we just need to fix it)

About the donation issue I disagree, a lot. The reason is that the OTW projects are part of an ecosystem. The AO3 might be more visible (and for now taking most of the money anyway) but for example works on AO3 and from there AO3 would be affected if legal wasn't there protecting the org from being sued :) and working to defend the legality of fanworks all over. We do need the internal resources the org uses to keep track of documentation,to make sure we can recruit the personnel that the archive needs like all other projects, do outreach to increase our visibility, etc etc. You can just put the servers in a vacuum, and expect the rest to work. The issue is that this is not necessarily visible to average AO3 user. The situation is actually a little similar to Mozilla's case where their flagship software are Firefox and Thunderbird (and a lot users probably don't know what Mozilla exactly is or do) but the donations are generic (as far as I can tell at least. Ye goodness it was hard to reach to their donate site!)

Date: 2012-07-21 07:06 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] autumnus
autumnus: A purple monochrome portrait of Zoe from Dreamfall, with drawn stars in background and "the Dreamer" written on bottom. (Default)
I see. However I disagree that technical aspects should be the criterion in this case. There is a lot that happens in the Journal completely unrelated to the Web, that is not just internal to the committee (stuff that pertains to the quality and the reputation of the journal within academic circles, joining or not joining citation indexes, general goals, etc). Think of the Journal, not like a second blog within the website but more like a project like Fanlore or AO3. It is a full fledged academic publication. We just don't happen to print copies. There are things that needs to be escalated up to the board, that has nothing to do with web design and development or even org website content. I hope this helps clarifying a little why we were disagreeing with you. :)
Edited (fixing grammar fails, and clarifying the wording in a couple of places) Date: 2012-07-21 10:12 pm (UTC)

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