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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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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