Wales, Wikipedia and Ethics

Posted on March 4, 2008
Filed Under Web 2.0 Kool Aid |

While I have no interest in playing up the scandal that erupted over the love-affair-gone-bad between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and political commentator Rachel Marsden, behind the salacious stories, there are several issues of real substance.

As reported by the Associated Press, questions have emerged about Jimmy Wales’ expenses at the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit, donor-supported organization that operates Wikipedia. , a former employee of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wales has a habit of using the Wikimedia Foundation’s coffers as his own personal bank account.

Wool claims that Wales spent lavishly on trips abroad and that questionable expenses were associated with his travels, including a bill from a massage parlor in Moscow and “$650 spent on two bottles of wine during a dinner for four at Bern’s.” While some of these expenses were reportedly rejected by the foundation, the fact that Wales would submit them in the first place doesn’t build a lot of confidence.

Clearly, if any of the claims made by Wool are true, it spells big problems for Wales and possible IRS issues for the Wikimedia Foundation. I think it’s safe to say that the full truth is unknown at this point but I also believe that beyond the trash gossip story that many are focusing on, there is potentially a significant story here: the alleged chat logs between Wales and Marsden, which Wales has not disavowed the authenticity of, demonstrate, at best, a serious lapse in judgment and, at worst, a serious lack of ethics on the part of a man who is the figurehead of one of Web 2.0’s most prominent entities.

While I have never been a huge fan of Wikipedia for a number of reasons, it is sad to see that Wales may have may have compromised the credibility of an organization whose mission many supported with their time and resources. “Conspiring” to have edits to a Wikipedia entry of a person he had an intimate relationship with is bad enough; the fact that the good standing of the Wikimedia Foundation could be threatened if the allegations of financial impropriety are true and nothing was done to stop them is even worse.

Additionally, the situation could conceivably have an impact on Wales’ startup Wikia. Questions about the possibility that Wales has used Wikimedia Foundation resources for his for-profit venture have been raised before and will probably be raised again given this scandal. I’m also sure that Wikia’s investors were not amused when they read Wales’ chat response to Marsden when asked if he had a job: “oh right, I am supposed to be designing a google killing search engine so I can buy a jet.” If I was an investor in Wikia, I certainly would have expected more and would probably question just how dedicated Wales is to the business (especially after Wikia Search launched to such a poor reception).

Personally, I think far too many people are taking pleasure in casting stones at Jimmy Wales. He’s human and while he deserves to be scrutinized and questioned, the real story here is about ethics, not sex.

The situation highlights why I’m a staunch critic of the celebrity cults that have been built up around many of Web 2.0’s superstars like Wales. For a group that loves (more often than not) to hate Hollywood, today’s technology community has done a great job at replicating many of the unhealthy aspects of Hollywood culture.

When individuals who built their reputations on the back of their perceived technology innovations are elevated to the status of celebrity and showered with adoring supporters, investor money, free reign and, yes, groupies, the result is not difficult to predict. After all, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Members of the technology community and technology investors might want to be a little more cognizant of that.

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One Response to “Wales, Wikipedia and Ethics”

  1. How Should Wikipedia Spend Its $3 Million? : The Drama 2.0 Show on March 26th, 2008 2:02 pm

    […] has just pulled in a $3 million donation from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Given claims which were leveled against Wikipedia’s playboy founder Jimmy Wales alleging questionable spending using his […]

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