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Why you should care that Jimmy Wales ignores reality

'A great Wikipedian'

By Cade Metz, 6 Mar 2008

Comment Even if the colonel were disobeying a Twenty-seventh Air Force order by making you fly more missions, you'd still have to fly them, or you'd be guilty of disobeying an order of his. And then the Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters would really jump on you. - Catch-22

Late last year, in the wake of our story on Wikipedia, Overstock.com, and naked short selling, we argued that so many of Wikipedia's problems could be solved if Jimmy Wales would simply force editors to reveal their real names, doing away with the site's longstanding commitment to anonymous editing. But we were wrong.

Wikipedia's problems extend well beyond the anonymity issue.

Yes, Wales just dumped his lover with a post to the "free encyclopedia anyone can edit". And yes, a former Wikimedia Foundation employee has accused the man of misspending funds donated to the charitable organization. But those are merely the latest episodes in the Wikigate soap opera that point to a much larger issue: Wales and the Wikipedia inner circle have a knack for ignoring reality.

Despite countless claims to the contrary, Wikipedia's so-called "ruling clique" has no qualms with changing the facts to suit their needs - both on Wikipedia and off.

This is a problem.

Wikipedia is the eighth most popular site on the web. It has the power to tell the world what to believe. Type a few keywords into Google, and odds are, the free online encyclopedia will soon appear. Millions visit the site each day, including members of the mainstream media, and most are under the impression it offers unbiased information. According to a recent study from the PR wonks at Edelman, 55 per cent of all 25- to 34-year-old US "opinion elites" consider Wikipedia a "credible source."

But sometimes bias plays a big role. The truth of the matter is that the average surfer has no way of knowing whether the Wikipedia inner circle has skewed an article to suit their agenda. And, yes, there is an inner circle - though the inner circle denies it. Like we said, they have a knack for ignoring reality.

'That's some catch, that catch-22'

We aren't saying that anonymous Wikipedia editing is a good idea. It undoubtedly opens the door - and opens it wide - for anyone intent on gaming the system. This is clearly demonstrated by the epic spat between Wikipedia and Overstock.com.

Wikipedia is built on a catch-22. If someone has a conflict of interest, you can have them banned. But everyone has the right to anonymity. That means if you try and prove they have a conflict, you're breaking the rules, and they can edit all they want.

But then there's the curious case of Wikipedia admin Jossi Fresco, a long-time member of a worldwide spiritual movement that Time Magazine lists as one of the mega-cults of the heyday of mega-cults. Clearly, you can skew Wikipedia without hiding behind an anonymous account. All you need is support from the inner circle.

Jossi Fresco has an obvious conflict on interest. But in the wake of our story about this conflict, Wales dubbed him "a great Wikipedian".

You see, the Wikipedia inner circle is a very simple thing. It includes anyone who's made the right online friends. This isn't an official club. There's no roster. And you can't quite say how many members there are. But you can recognize a member when you see one. They're the people with the pull - the people who get the heavy support when they make an argument.

At Wikipedia, as at any organization, some people have more power than others.

In so many cases, these well-connected folk are free to use the site as a means of pushing their own point of view. And that includes Jimmy Wales. Forget Rachel Marsden tossing his dirty washing onto eBay. The point of the Willypedia Affair is that he ordered his minions to edit her online bio. They pull favors for him. And he pulls favors for them.

The Spiritual Leader

In short, Wikipedia is a cult. Or at least, the inner circle is a cult. We aren't the first to make this observation.

On the inside, they reinforce each other's beliefs. And if anyone on the outside questions those beliefs, they circle the wagons. They deny the facts. They attack the attacker. After our Jossi Fresco story, Fresco didn't refute our reporting. He simply accused us of "yellow journalism". After our Overstock.com article, Wales called us "trash".

Wales calls himself Wikipedia's Spiritual Leader. And this isn't too far from the truth. He sits atop the cult. And what he says goes. If he suggests that changes should be made to Rachel Marsden's Wikipedia bio, they're made.

According to an email leaked to The Associated Press, the chairman of the Wikimedia Board describes Jimbo Wales as someone who is "constantly trying to rewrite the past".

Is this the sort of person who should control what goes into Wikipedia?

Or should it be someone like Larry Sanger? He co-founded Wikipedia with Wales, but parted ways with the site in 2002, later forming his own free online encyclopedia. Citizendium doesn't allow anonymous editing, and Sanger has no problem cracking down on conflict of interest - no matter who bears the conflict. Following our story about Jossi Fresco - who has also edited articles on Citizendium - Sanger took away his editing rights on certain articles. And Fresco promptly left the project.

Sanger, for what's it's worth, is living proof that Wales is "constantly trying to reinvent the past". Famously, Wales refers to himself as the sole founder of Wikipedia, doing his best to edit Sanger from history.

But if you look back at an old email Sanger sent to those working on Nupedia, Wikipedia's predecessor, you can see that if anyone is the sole founder of Wikipedia, it's Larry Sanger.

"Let's make a wiki," Sanger wrote. "No, this is not an indecent proposal. It's an idea to add a little feature to Nupedia. Jimmy Wales thinks that many people might find the idea objectionable, but I think not."

Of course, this note hardly tells the whole story. Speaking to The Reg, Sanger admitted that he too was skeptical. "We were both skeptical and both hopeful at the same time," he told us. "I don't think Wales was particularly resistant to the idea in the beginning."

In other words, he's willing to acknowledge there are many sides to a story - something you don't always see in Wales. That is all. You're free to believe what you want. ®

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