Monday, March 17, 2008


A not-so-ethical Code

Lately, there's been a lot of talk about "A Blogger's Code of Ethics" -- incidentally about the time when a few of us bloggers associated with Wikimedia have openly wondered about the ethics of some people associated with the Wikimedia Foundation. I didn't comment about it when it was first proposed -- considering how it was introduced as part of a character assassination of Danny -- but I will now. Lao Tzu perhaps said what I think about this proposal best:

When the Great Tao is rejected,
then there is talk of morality and righteousness;
When knowledge and wisdom appear,
then there is great hypocrisy;
When the six filial relations are not in harmony,
there is talk of dutiful sons;
And when the country is in disorder,
there is talk of loyal ministers.

Put less elegantly, or less profoundly, when someone talks about the need for a code of ethics, it's fair to wonder about what his real intent is. His ethics immediately come into question.

The point of writing a blog is to speak one's mind. It's the equivalent of one part of a casual conversation over a cup of coffee, where we can cut through the formalities and explanations and talk one-to-one. When you do this with another person, you get to know that person better: you can judge that person's thought processes; sincerity or hypocrisy become evident. You can tell whether the other actually is able to use language well, or if that person is so inarticulate that every thing or action is "fucking this" and "fucking that".

To repeat one objection raised when Tim O'Reilly first proposed this exact Code of Ethics for bloggers about a year ago, as well-meaning as it was, there is no gain to anyone in adopting it. Unethical people will agree to it without hesitation, while ethical people will refuse, feeling that either this is a veiled accusation about their moral character or that they are setting themselves up for an attack based on the letter, not the spirit, of the document. (Anyone who has thought seriously about the Tao of ignore all rules will understand that last part.)

That's why I think this idea is a bad one. Further, the way it was introduced into the discussion -- as part of a blanket accusation that anyone who questions the actions of Jimmy Wales is an enemy to Wikipedia -- makes it hard for me not to suspect the writer's good faith.

Having contributed to Wikipedia for over five years now, I think I have the right to say what I think is wrong about it without my loyalty being questioned. Because of that long history, believe it or not, I actually think of some of the people involved in this my friends. What I write here is what I believe -- the good, the bad, and the tortured rhetoric. My motives here are simple: I think I know something about what happens there, and I want to show off that knowledge. I also want to understand the reasons for continuing with something I want to succeed, when some of the people involved are not acting with the project's best interest as their first priority.

In that last sentence, I am talking about faith; however the response of many of the members of the Foundation have not given answers that address my questions of faith. Danny Wool, whether right or wrong, has made some very detailed allegations. The Foundation has seen fit to do no better than to make routine -- if not cliched -- denials of his allegations. Faced with a choice between two versions, with no other basis of judgment, the intelligent person is forced to accept the more detailed one, because it is the one that can be more accurately verified. No one invents that wealth of detail if it is not the truth -- unless that person either cannot distinguish reality from fantasy, or is a compulsive liar.

If the Foundation actually respects the volunteers of the Wikimedia projects, then there are three appropriate steps, one of which they should take:
  1. If what he says never actually happen -- that Jimmy Wales did not irresponsibly handle money that he should have given to the Foundation -- make the evidence public and prove him wrong.
  2. If these things did happen but they weren't irresponsible, then prove an explanation.
  3. If these things did happen, then admit it and promise that they will not happen again.

Because what will otherwise happen is not hard to foresee. While there will always be malcontents and gadflies around a successful effort to altruistically help people, there may not always be valuable people who will volunteer their time. The kind of people who can write valuable content, intelligently ignore rules, and can teach others how to do that are also the kind of people who do not accept routine denials, but question everything and ask for proof. While some of these people may lose their faith and quit in a visible protest that explains their reasons, others will simply quietly leave, and many more will simply decide not even join.

And making an edit to one of the Wikimedia project websites is much more inviting than sending money. If they don't care about the morale and quality of their volunteers, perhaps they will care when the donations stop coming yet the bills continue to.


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What a wonderful post from the Tao Te Ching. Thank you for reminding me of. I would like to continue, if I may, with the first two lines of teh next chapter:

Abandon sageliness (jen) and discard wisdom (i).
And the people will benefit a hundredfold.

Your option #3 ("admit it and promise that it won't happen again") was actually suggested on the Wikien-l mailing list by "Anthony" some weeks ago. That mere suggestion got him put on "moderation" by the control-freak named David Gerard. What does that tell you about the ethics of the systemic Wikipedia culture?
"however the response of many of the members of the Foundation have not given answers that address my questions of faith. Danny Wool, whether right or wrong, has made some very detailed allegations. The Foundation has seen fit to do no better than to make routine -- if not cliched -- denials of his allegations."

The third episode of Not The Wikipedia Weekly is out. Sue Gardner was on. I asked her about the Valleywag accusations, and about Danny's claims of financial impropriety. She gave some fairly specific replies. -Raul654
Great post. Nice to read.

A general observational question:

Has Danny Wool produced any evidence yet?!
@Raul654 (not to ignore anyone else) -- That episode of NTWW you link to is worth the time of anyone who is interested in this matter to listen to. I'm doing that at the moment. I'll share my impressions later, but I would like to compliment Sue Gardner for taking the time to speak about this on PrivateMusing's Skype cast.

As to your challenge to the foundation, I think it is a bit unfair. First, it is almost impossible to prove a negative. Second, happened/didn't happen are not binary. What happened can by complex, need huge context, and be open to varying interpretations.

As someone said "All lies and jest? Still the man hears what he what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

It is quite possible that Danny is factually correct, but that interpretations are of the facts are possible.

I am not as bothered by this episode as you, probably because I don't know the people in question.

But here's my take, putting myself in the shoes of a WMF board member or public relations person:

Danny had a relationship with the people involved, and had the opportunity to seek resolution in a less public way, and a way less likely to damage the Foundation. He chose not to, and the reasons for that are not clear.

My first instinct would be, downplay. It takes two parties to create a controversy that attracts the public's attention; by not entering into detailed public discussion, the Foundation minimized the risks involved in dealing with someone who has acted in a reckless way.

Your earlier and more general words resonate more for me, though: the ethics of those demanding codes of ethics are often suspect.

By the way, I just started my own blog, Our New Mind -- I put you on my blogroll. Check it out!
How bout a real link instead: Our New Mind
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