May 29, 2008

Looking out for number one?

I've recently been thinking about the attitude sometimes known here as the "Jack Man" syndrome, which is nothing to do with the actor, but is a typically Australian contraction of the phrase "I'm all right, Jack" (itself a polite version of "F*** you, Jack, I'm all right!").
This vivid expression of selfish complacency probably originated on the battlefield, along with similar phrases such as "every man for himself" and "let the devil take the hindmost". In each case, the speaker is unashamedly announcing that his own interests come first.

The subject came to mind during my weekly tutorial with 1st year medical students (all of them graduates in their 20's). Their course requires them to undertake 20-30 hours of voluntary community service each year, but this week I asked whether any of them would consider a volunteer position later on, as a qualified doctor with Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Operation Rainbow, for example. I was rather taken aback when they all responded with either a straight "No way", or "Only if it didn't interfere with my career", or "Only if I could get credit towards my specialist training". In many cases, even their predicted choice of specialty depended on its expected impact on their lives, and only one or two even mentioned what they felt they could offer to patients and society, or where they perceived the greatest need to be.
Of course they still have several years to refine these opinions, but I was surprised that in a group of self-motivated, well-educated, financially secure young people there were none whose social conscience outweighed purely personal considerations.

Further discussion revealed an almost dismissive attitude towards those health professionals who choose to work in volunteer organisations, or in under-funded, low-status positions such as rural and indigenous health care. The clear implication was that undertaking such roles indicates a lack of skill, ambition, self esteem, or good sense. This was so at odds with my own belief system (and personal experience) that I found it difficult to contain my astonishment, and I spent the whole journey home wondering if I had a singularly selfish tutorial group, or if they were simply typical of Generation Y.

Unfortunately it is not just these younger people who seem to have difficulty with the concept of altruism. Some people look for a self-serving (or at least self-interested) motive even when there is none, and I had included a recent example relating to the volunteer editor community of the Open Directory Project, but I will save that for another time.

May 22, 2008

ODP Replacement Therapy

Next week will be my 2 month anniversary of leaving the Open Directory Project, and I'm very relieved to report that I am finally starting to recover from my addiction. :-)
Like all successful rehabilitations**, this has required the patient support of friends, the discovery of healthier alternatives, the passage of time, ... and the consumption of quite a lot of chocolate (although the less said about that, the better).

Needing to fill the 40-50 hours a week (yes I know, crazy!) that I used to spend editing in the ODP has been a challenge, but things are starting to fall into place at last.

I have almost completed my training to become a volunteer adult literacy tutor, after which I will be matched up with a student for weekly sessions.
Tomorrow I finish a staff development programme at the university where I work part time, and this will enable me to undertake additional tutoring roles within the medical school. I have also been accepted as a volunteer mentor for 4th year medical students at another university, which will be an interesting contrast.

Of course I have not been able to tear myself away from the computer entirely, so various ODP friends have helped me to find other online activities where I can volunteer my time and use many of the skills I learned in my years at DMOZ.

Then there's my ongoing volunteer activities in the local bushfire brigade and community learning centre, and my woefully neglected studies in forensic medicine.

That should be more than enough to keep my thoughts from turning back to the friends I left behind, the things I left unfinished, and the satisfaction and fascination of working on such a worthwhile project with so many people from all over the world.
Yes, it should be enough, and one day soon I hope it is.

**[Added 26 May: my tongue-in-cheek reference to "therapy" was more accurate than I realised, according to a recent "Scientific American" article I read today.]

May 17, 2008

Power corrupts ...

I'm sure most of us know the famous phrase, or perhaps more likely, we've heard it misquoted many times, usually in reference to politicians. Here's Lord Acton's original statement in full:
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority."
Many people probably suspect (or even expect) that corruption occurs, to varying degrees*, in politics, business, organisations, even families. 
On a more personal level, I have seen the disappointing change in people I knew well, when they were elected to the local council of the small country town where I lived and worked for several years. Not that they broke the law, I hasten to add, but their priorities became more focussed on what was good for them and their fellow councillors, rather than what would most benefit the community. This unfortunate shift in principles happened despite these same people having long railed against exactly the same behaviour in previous councils.
Hence the truth of Acton's observation: the position itself tends to corrupt, regardless of the person who occupies it.

This depressing tendency came to mind because I have recently been reading one of the webmaster forums where regulars repeatedly direct unsubstantiated accusations of corruption at the Open Directory Project (DMOZ) . I speak from considerable experience when I confirm that specific reports of editorial abuse are promptly and thoroughly investigated, whereas persistently vague insinuations are merely tiresome and pointless. 

Corruption in the ODP is not as universal as some disaffected people like to pretend, but I am sad to say that it does occur at all levels, to varying degrees.*  Unfortunately, watching for and investigating true abuse by fellow volunteers is a very unpopular task. Not only is it unpleasant, difficult, and very time-consuming, but it is often viewed with suspicion by other editors, who are naturally reluctant to believe that anyone they know could act in a self-interested way.
With a new community management team in place, I sincerely hope that some encouragement and support will now be given to those volunteers who devote a lot of their time to trying to keep the directory honest in this way. 

Throughout this post I have used the term "corruption" to mean any behaviour where an individual uses their position to their own advantage at the expense of others lacking that position. 
Under this broad definition of mine, the behaviour may not even be against the laws of the organisation concerned, and certainly there is not always a financial gain. But in my view, it is at the very least morally wrong to abuse any influential position in this way. 

May 10, 2008

"DMOZ is Gold"? Well yes, but not like that.

After more than a month with no updates to the official (staff) ODP Blog, it was pleasing to see a new post this week, and one with such a proud title too. It looked as if the unquestionable value of DMOZ to web surfers was being celebrated. Unfortunately, despite what were probably excellent intentions, the post is inaccurate, distressingly misleading, and seems to be directed at webmasters and search engine optimisers rather than the actual users of the directory.

For a start, the enthusiastic attribution praises someone who had apparently copied an older article from another site. One of the basic tenets of the ODP is to list sites with original and unique content, so this was an embarrassing oversight in an official publication.

Secondly, the recommendations in that article are quite simply wrong. 
My friend and former editing colleague shadow575 has written a comprehensive explanation of all the errors, so there is no need for me to do the same, but the following has to be stressed:
  • anyone following the advice given in the original article risks delaying or reducing their chances of being listed in DMOZ. 
(True, the staff post does quote a previous one from the Editor-in-Chief, but that message is very hard to find amidst all the underlining, updates and strike-throughs that litter the latest contribution.)

From my point of view, by far the the biggest problem is the fact that the misleading advice appeared to be endorsed and promoted by ODP staff. This is no doubt causing considerable angst among many of the volunteer editors. As shadow575 says, 
"editors have long been battling the magic bullet theory. This article basically continues all of the mis-information that editors have tried to correct for a long time."
In other words, ODP staff have undermined the long-term and patient efforts of volunteer editors in explaining the role and purpose of the directory. Even if this was unintentional (as was surely the case), it indicates a sad absence of understanding between ODP management and the volunteer community. Such a lack of communication and respect for the efforts of volunteers is an issue about which I feel very strongly, as my previous posts have demonstrated.

I sincerely hope that efforts are underway to redress the harm done by that ill-advised staff post. The quickest and easiest solution would be a follow-up post acknowledging the errors, rather than relying on the confusing and apparently hasty corrections. A far more reliable solution to the whole problem, and one which would help more than just those reading the official blog, is covered in my comments there:
"it is rather unfortunate that both the lauded article and the official ODP guidelines ("Last update: 2004") are at odds with the above-mentioned post by the Editor-in-Chief.
This inevitably results in confusion, which then requires further explanation, and often unnecessarily heated discussion.

It would obviously benefit everyone if all the "official" resources gave the same message, so I wonder if there are plans to implement any of the much-needed corrections and updates to public ODP documentation that have been suggested, discussed, and agreed upon by volunteer editors over the last couple of years?"

[Added: For readers fluent in French, there are posts on this topic in Aef Dmoz Blog and Kazhar.]

May 08, 2008

Volunteers are people too (2)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have recently joined a free adult literacy programme as a volunteer tutor. This week I attended the first of 4 days of training, and once again I was struck by the different methods large organisations use in trying attract and retain volunteers.

I have considerable experience with such organisations, having been active in Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades for over 10 years, and in the ODP (DMOZ) for the the last 4 years or so (see previous post). The same challenges seem to affect them all:
  • wanting to recruit more volunteers, while screening out those who are unsuitable or even dangerous
  • providing sufficient training to make these volunteers effective and reliable, without making them feel it is all "too hard"
  • maintaining the necessary standards without discouraging those who are enthusiastic but under-skilled
  • finding appropriate positions which make the most of individual talents
  • trying to avoid the internal politics and cliques which can quickly alienate members
  • and (my personal soapbox) maintaining interest and motivation.
I was intrigued to find that the literacy organisation is very similar in overall structure to the ODP, with only a couple of paid staff members and the rest all volunteers, including the "regional co-ordinators", who are responsible for recruitment, quality control and ongoing support within a specific area. 
Not dissimilar to the roles of ODP meta-editors and editalls, I feel. 

Numerically, it is smaller than DMOZ, to be sure, with only about 1000 volunteers across the state, but these are all active on a weekly basis (holidays and emergencies permitting, of course), which is a sad contrast to the steadily declining levels of ODP participation that I have observed over the last 2 years.

I think one reason for the ongoing success of Read Write Now! is that as well as the initial interview and training course, the level of ongoing support is very high indeed, with the volunteer co-ordinators regularly contacting the tutors in their region, providing resources, offering assistance, resolving difficulties, and generally providing encouragement and the benefit of their experience.  This system has worked so well over the last 30 years that the organisation is the largest and most active adult literacy group in the country, and has been used as a model by those in other states. 

I'm sure that like all organisations it has had its share of problems, internal conflicts, and disaffected members. But overall they seem to be doing things right, and their respect and support for volunteers seems to be a crucial factor in their ongoing success.

May 03, 2008

ODP/DMOZ meta-editor report card

(This summary of my activities as a volunteer meta-editor in DMOZ/ODP was originally part of the previous post about recent changes to the management of the editorial community.) Updated in 2008 and 2010.

It is too easy to comment on the work of others without providing any justification for one's point of view. Most readers can't see my own ODP history, so here's a rough tally of some of my activities over the last 3 years as a volunteer meta editor in both the main directory and in the separate Kids and Teens directory.
I was immensely proud to reach these positions of responsibility, and I took my role in the community very seriously.

However, these figures reflect what I eventually realised was an excessive amount of time to spend on a volunteer activity. In fact this is part of the reason I resigned, so I take no real pride in these figures, and post them purely to validate my earlier comments by showing that for several years I have indeed been very actively involved in many aspects of the volunteer community.
  • Total edits.......almost 85,000 [correct - see below]
  • New editor applications reviewed........many thousands [over 10,000]
  • New editors accepted.........hundreds [over 250]
  • Internal applications (to edit in more categories)....over 1000 reviewed [correct]
  • Those applications accepted (or granted).......hundreds [over 450]
  • Editor reinstatements........hundreds [over 600]
  • Internal editor feedbacks.....over 10,000 [correct]
The figures are approximate because they are based on vague recollections from the last time I glanced at my own editor log several months ago.
(I have been very conservative when guessing, but if there are big errors I'm sure someone will correct me, and I'll post an amendment.)

Added in August 2008:
Having recently been reinstated, I can now add more accurate approximations, while still preserving directory confidentiality. See the [bracketted italics] in the list above.

Added in April 2010:
Sadly, my hard-won and enthusiastically-used meta/kmeta permissions have fallen victim to the prejudices of the volunteer Administrators.
As a result, many people are re-visiting this post, so to update it I'll quote from a post I made not long before the axe fell, to highlight the extent of their foolhardiness in driving me away (along with other formerly active meta-editors) for reasons which amount to little more than vanity.
"I take pride in having added almost 30,000 sites to the directory. As a meta editor, I've accepted over 340 new editors and restored the accounts of more than 1200 others who wished to return to editing after some time away."
Not a bad effort for a volunteer, and in most cases a far greater contribution than that of those who summarily reduced my permissions!


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