Sunday, March 02, 2008


Visons and reality

Maybe you don't read ValleyWag or Danny Wool's new blog, so you haven't heard about Jimmy Wales and Rachel Marsden. Truth be told, I didn't even know that he had separated from his wife -- but then as far as I know, he's unaware that I have a new woman in my life. And so far, only a small number of serious Wikipedians appear to consider it worth their notice: the folks on WikiEN-l haven't spoken a word about this news, for example.

And as Danny Wool admits, Wales' sexual practices really aren't that important: since he is something of a celebrity, of course he's going have a number of women (or men, if he's interested) want him. Even my nieces in their teens and college years admit I'm sorta cool, despite being fifty and balding, because I've contributed to Wikipedia. And if the drama around this news item proceeds in the usual fashion, people will read as far as the fact that he had an affair with Marsden and either accuse him of being a scumbag -- or defend him as blameless -- on other other grounds. Which would mean that the most important item will be overlooked. (Which is not Marsden's problematic relationship with men.)

As Danny posted, details are emerging which affect "the Foundation's cash reserves, which are derived from donations." Danny continues:

You see, Jimbeau was certainly not frugal in his spending on his endless trips abroad, but when it came to handing in receipts, he could be somewhat careless. At one point he owed the Foundation some $30,000 in receipts, and this while we were preparing for the audit. Not a bad sum, considering that many of those trips had fat honoraria, which Jimbeau kept for himself. (Florence will surely remember his explanation for one of these: "I don’t make any money, and my wife needs a washing machine." Her response was wonderful: "A gold-plated washing machine?")

So Jimbeau cancelled an upcoming trip to Italy, Serbia, and Croatia, and got to work finding receipts. I helped process them. Subway ticket in Moscow: $0.50. Massage parlor in Moscow: priceless. Some were accepted; others were not, like the $650 spent on two bottles of wine during a dinner for four at Bern's — I remember that one because he submitted it twice, once with the tip scratched out.

Pointedly, Danny asks "I wonder if the students who gave up their lunch money to donate to Wikipedia would have approved of that expense." Wales is a smart guy; why didn't he ask the same question before spending the money -- or at least before expecting the Foundation to reimburse him?

I'm not stirring the Wikipedia drama pot here. A lot of what keeps Wikipedia going -- not only the altruistic donation of money, but labor -- depends on how the project is perceived. A lot of people, both within and out, believe this is done as a selfless labor of love. So when Wales suggested that Wikipedia consider advertising as a possible source of income, almost the entire Spanish language Wikipedia bolted, and only in the last year was the damage from that fork fully repaired. The story for years has been that Wales travels the world to speak to people on the cheap, flying coach and sleeping on couches; now to find that generous checks for speaking engagements have gone to a decadent life style instead of helping the vision flourish can only create doubt.

Even those of us with the most faith in the vision of Wikimedia -- unhindered access to useful information for everyone -- should not be taken for granted. As a personal example, I fully intended in the last donation drive to contribute some money, but when the primary solicitation for money emphasized how the funds could be used to help people in Africa, I lost my interest: if I wanted to help people in Africa, there are at least a hundred non-profits already doing just that, to whom I could send my money to them and know it had more of a positive effect. However, there is only one Wikimedia, which is currently doing the best job of putting useful information into free access on the Internet. I'm writing content for Wikipedia so that my daughter, her future friends, and their children can use without having to pay money to some corporation that treats facts as part of its manorial customs. And I suspect that there is a core of people who do what I do for the same reasons.

So what should followers do when they question their faith in their leader? One response is to continue to work harder in their trust of the leader, which some of us have been doing. I have no problem with paying the Foundation staff the salaries they have been receiving -- for the most part. As Ward Cunningham once observed many months ago, talking about a recent mention of the Wikimedia Foundation in the news, the chronic friction between the people in the Foundation is because they are overworked, underpaid, understaffed -- and very concerned about the success of their vision. I want to believe that they deserve at least as much as they are paid; and if they don't, they shouldn't be working there.

Another response is to embrace the vision: continue to create content for the Internet that does not have a surcharge to access. So can we continue to use the Wikimedia projects to achieve this? Or will using Wikipedia continue to enable someone to live la dolca vita?


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Thank you for an insightful post, and for explaining what I have been trying to say in my own blog. Jimmy's sex life, while no doubt salacious, is really no one's business but his partners'. My concern stems from having been the person to open up the checks in the office. They often came with little handwritten notes from students, saying how important wikipedia was to them, and that they are giving up their lunch to donate to it. I remember one envelope, from the Philippines, contained four dimes and a handful of pennies; Barbara, the secretary, was so moved that she rounded it out to a dollar. Now, I realize that running a foundation costs money--I signed the checks, so I know what things cost--I was and am indignant that the money from students was abused as it was.

As an example, I spent 20 minutes of my time figuring out the Moscow subway ticket, which was just over 50 cents. Imagine that I made 10 bucks an hour, so that it cost $3.30 just to reimburse Jimmy's subway fare. I can't help wonder if that kid in the Philippines really intended for his coins to be spent that way.

Sorry if the story isn't quite salacious, but it should get the idea across of what I am talking about.
I also personally do not care about what Jimbo does in his private affairs. Sure, sex sells papers, but it will not bring any new donations. As Danny pointed out in his blog, the amount of funds we raised during our last Drive is way under the funds that are needed for operations this year alone. If people realize that Jimbo doesn't spend the money wisely of the Foundation, people won't donate to us. Who wants to donate if they know it might be used to pay for bandwith cost or to pay for some woman's champaign or little nightie. (I have opinions about Ms. Marsden, but they are not safe for work). Overall, while I wish Jimbo didn't make this move, we will have to consider how much consequence will this be. I personally believe the donations will be fewer, but would trips be fewer due to this or other legal obligations Jimbo might have to perform soon? Only time can tell.
the folks on WikiEN-l haven't spoken a word about this news, for example

I suspect it might be being moderated. I was a little surprised to see total silence on the issue.
Danny: I hope you were making more than $10.-- an hour -- even if that meant the time you spent figuring out a subway ticket was worth more than $3.30.

Zachary: Well, my thoughts about Marsden are quite simple -- she's a more attractive but less intelligent version of Ann Coulter; & I consider Coulter to be a hate monger. Using vulgarity to refer to either of them degrades the speaker more than the subject, IMHO.

Ben: I'd prefer to think that no one's said anything on WikiEN-l because everyone's at a loss for words -- rather than due to moderation. If the silence is due to moderation, then it would be just as disappointing as the repeated insistence from the White House that without having legal recourse to torture, they have no other way to get intelligence on those terrorists.

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