By Nathalie Collida and friends
The recent firing of Wikimedia Foundation employee Sarah Stierch, over her creation of Wikipedia articles for pay, highlights the Wikimedia movement’s inconsistent and often hypocritical attitude towards so-called “conflict-of-interest” editing and the way Wikipedia insiders and outsiders are held to different standards. L’affaire Stierch led our editorial team to uncover how some of the Wikipedia community’s more prominent members engaged in promotional activities that are nominally considered unethical among the encyclopaedia’s volunteer contributors. It also raises the question just how much the Wikimedia Foundation’s actions are governed by PR considerations, rather than a genuine desire to promote responsible curation of its sites.
A very Wikipedia career
Sarah Stierch has been a popular Wikipedia participant and administrator. As one of the site’s few high-visibility women, she managed to forge a career out of her Wikipedia-related activities. A contributor since 2004, Stierch became the foremost and most successful advocate for improving Wikipedia’s coverage of prominent women in the sciences, arts, and politics. Her efforts to reverse the “gender gap” on the male-dominated site have been widely recognized. Stierch has also held various remunerated positions as the “Wikipedian in Residence” with respected institutions such as the Smithsonian and the World Digital Library.
Stierch’s unpaid work for Wikipedia was not without perks either. Her CV states that she received $6,400 in travel grants and scholarships from Wikipedia-related organizations in 2011 alone. For 2012, the Wikimedia Foundation awarded Stierch a one-year community fellowship “to support her commitment to encouraging women’s participation in Wikimedia projects”. She gained a spot as a one-off blogger for the Huffington Post. Her January 2012 piece, entitled “SOPA Blackout: Why Wikipedia Needs Women”, elaborated on the premise that women would never be fully represented on the Internet unless they became contributors to that most influential of social networking sites, Wikipedia (and SOPA legislation, for some reason, would prevent that). In 2013, Stierch was hired by Wikipedia’s parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), as the Program Evaluation Community Coordinator, a “community liaison for people who have questions about program evaluation”. But Stierch’s efforts to address the gender gap – which included setting up The Teahouse, a “welcome area” where new Wikipedia contributors can request assistance from experienced participants – do not seem to have been crowned by success. In August 2013, Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner conceded, “I wish we had solved the problem, but we didn’t.”
On the gendergap mailing list, where she served as a moderator until spring 2013, Stierch expressed her frustration with the blatant and subtle misogyny that pervades the various Wikimedia projects. In April 2013, she complained bitterly about male contributors to Wikimedia Commons, and their willingness to retain the numerous pictures of nude and partially undressed women uploaded mostly anonymously to the project, even in cases where it was far from clear if the woman in the photograph had consented to having such images preserved on one of the most-visited sites on the Internet, where they could potentially be seen by family, friends and co-workers. She said she found the experience of “arguing about nudity and women’s images on Commons” to be “so demoralizing and depressing”.
Writing on a list that is widely read by both female and male Wikimedians may well have led to Sarah Stierch’s WikiDownfall. The fact that she was writing Wikipedia articles for profit was first revealed by Tomasz W. Kozlowski, a blogger and top Wikimedia Commons administrator who uses the pseudonym Odder. Kozlowski is a keen anti-censorship advocate. When Stierch applied to become an administrator on Commons in May 2013, a month after giving voice to her feelings, Kozlowski subjected her to a barrage of questions that implied that she was too much of a prude to qualify for the role, quoting her gendergap post. In the end, Kozlowski was one of only three Wikimedians to vote against her (46 supported her application). Clearly, there was no love lost between Stierch and Kozlowski.
While Stierch’s frustration with the testosterone-rich atmosphere of Wikimedia projects in general and Commons in particular is justified and understandable, it also helped her carve out a niche for herself as one of Wikipedia’s poster women. Photographs of her friendly face appeared in numerous online publications praising Wikipedia, and her commitment to the project helped her land her Community Coordinator job with the Wikimedia Foundation after her paid fellowship ended.
The Ada Initiative and other conflicts of interest
As a long-term Wikipedia participant, Sarah Stierch was undoubtedly familiar with the project’s conflict-of-interest guideline, which states that Wikipedians should not write about themselves or their work – nor their friends, for that matter. Co-founder Jimmy Wales claims to have a very low-tolerance attitude towards people editing the on-line encyclopaedia for pay. In the wake of the Wiki-PR scandal, Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner proudly announced that the site had blocked hundreds of sockpuppet accounts run by Wiki-PR. Writing articles for pay, Gardner said, “violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people.”
– the biography of Sally Hogshead, an author and professional speaker,
– the article on The Leadership Challenge, a book on leadership and professional development, and
– the biography of Barry Posner, one of the book’s authors.
In a pattern that is by now familiar, the article on The Leadership Challenge made an appearance in the “Did You Know?” section of Wikipedia’s main page – a page viewed by more than 10 million people a day – in October 2013. A similar main page nomination for the Sally Hogshead biography remains unprocessed.
Stierch was also listed as a “friend” on the website of Wiki Strategies, a consultancy firm run by Pete Forsyth, another former Wikimedia Foundation employee. Wiki Strategies “provides consulting services for organizations engaging with Wikipedia and other collaborative communities”. In what seems unlikely to be a coincidence, this “friends” list was recently pulled from the Wiki Strategies website. It is only available in the Internet archive, whose last capture shows that it was still up last month.
And Stierch also contributed unpaid work to Wikipedia while having a clear conflict of interest. Take the article on the Ada Initiative, a commercially-sponsored organization that was founded in 2011 to help advance the careers of women in so-called open technology and culture. Its work is not uncontroversial. In February 2013, members of the organization managed to prevent award-winning author, journalist and sex educator Violet Blue from holding a scheduled presentation at a technology conference in San Francisco that would have covered the sexual side effects of drugs and alcohol. The Ada Initiative members argued this might make female conference attendants feel uncomfortable. Blue, an outspoken feminist, was not impressed, and commented that far from furthering the case for women in technology, the Ada Initiative was in fact promoting a culture of repression.
As it happens, Sarah Stierch created the Wikipedia entry about the Ada Initiative on 9 November 2011. She is the main contributor to the page, alongside fellow Wikimedia Foundation employee Ryan Kaldari, who has been a staunch supporter of feminist issues throughout his time as a Wikipedia participant. Another contributor: Wikimedia Foundation staff member Steven Walling – the same Steven Walling who recently opined that Wikipediocracy members might have set up a fake account on the freelancer site to frame Stierch. (Wikipedia’s power players have never been good at dealing with their critics.) And Pete Forsyth of Wiki Strategies, of course. On the article’s talk page, a Wikipedian who had added a mention of the Violet Blue controversy to the article declared that he couldn’t “help but notice that demand for removal of this section seems to come, time and again, from ‘friends’ of Ada Initiative. Frankly, I see conflict of interest and astroturfing going on here.”
But let’s get back to Stierch. She has held a seat on the Ada Initiative’s advisory board since late 2011. The Ada Initiative’s website features various interviews with Stierch about her work for Wikipedia. According to Jimmy Wales’ much-ignored “bright-line rule” against conflict-of-interest editing, Sarah Stierch should not have been editing, let alone creating the article about the Ada Initiative.
But the Ada connection goes deeper. Sarah Stierch has had her own biography on Wikipedia for some time. It has been longer, more detailed and more flattering than that of many well-known women writers. It is among the very few Wikipedia entries protected from editing by unregistered users using the site’s Pending Changes feature. And it was authored in January 2013 by Ada Initiative co-founder Valerie Aurora, who contributes to Wikipedia under the name of Catavar. In another coincidence, the picture of Aurora on her private Wikipedia page was taken by WMF employee Steven Walling at the offices of the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco.
By now it should come as no surprise that Stierch is the main contributor to Aurora’s Wikipedia biography. In 2013, the Ada Initiative rewarded Stierch by making her the first Ada Lovelace Day Hero of the Year. Sarah Stierch may have richly deserved this honour, but there is the fact that her colleagues on the current Ada Initiative advisory board include Wikimedia Foundation manager Sumana Harihareswara, Wikimedia Foundation conference coordinator Ellie Young, and the WMF’s chief recruiter, Gayle Karen Young. Sue Gardner, the Wikimedia Foundation’s executive director, is both an advisor and a director of the Ada Initiative.
Wikipedia’s erratic ethics
The case of Sarah Stierch shows that what looks like favouritism and exceptionalism at the centre of a supposedly neutral project was perfectly acceptable until the Wiki-PR scandal was widely publicized in the international media. This forced Sue Gardner to take a clear, public stand against unethical editing practices. Ironically, Gardner herself recently admitted on Reddit that her earliest contributions to Wikipedia included editing the article on CBC, her then-employer. As a new participant, she said, she was unfamiliar with the project’s main policies. But after six years as its parent organization’s executive director she should probably have known better than condoning a member of the Ada Initiative’s Advisory Board writing the organisation’s Wikipedia article, aided by other members of her own staff.
The discussion on the Wikimedia mailing list indicated that information about Stierch’s paid editing had been communicated to the media. The matter had also been raised on Jimmy Wales’ talk page. In the almost comical discussion that ensued, Wales’ first response was to deny that Stierch was a Wikimedia Foundation employee: “[…] it’s worth pointing out as a correction that Sarah has never been a WMF employee to my knowledge. Still, I very very strongly condemn such editing, and this is no exception.”
Once Wikipedians pointed him to his own organization’s website, which clearly stated that Stierch was an employee, he said, “As this is obviously a staff matter and I’m a board member, I can’t comment at the present time except to repeat my usual principled objections to such things in the strongest possible terms.” A Wikipedian retorted: “It’s also a WP matter. If it’s OK for Sarah, a WMF employee, to hire herself out for $44.44 an hour, or $300 per WP article, then obviously it’s OK for any of the rest of us editors to do the same, and your ‘principled objections’ are nothing more than pissing in the wind.”
It must have been clear to Wales and Gardner that this issue was not going to go away. There is nothing like press attention to galvanize the Foundation into action. But knee-jerk reactions are no replacement for consistent ethical leadership.
Gardner has publicly lamented the perennially low percentage of female Wikipedia contributors. Yet her record in dealing with misogyny on the site is not without strange inconsistencies. Oliver Keyes, Community Liaison for the WMF, once told a woman on a Wikimedia IRC channel, “Sophiie, fuck off and die”. Another time, he wrote this about a woman someone was having problems with on Wikipedia: “You should however have instead taken your pen, punched a hole in her windpipe and looked on as her attempts to wave for help got increasingly feeble.” Unlike Stierch, Keyes is still on the Wikimedia payroll, even if it is now as a Product Analyst rather than Community Liaison (probably a wise move …).
Meanwhile, Erlend Bjørtvedt, the vice-chairman of Wikimedia Norway, also happens to be the vice-president of telecommunications company Telenor – and the main author of the Norwegian Wikipedia’s article on his company as well as a contributor to its English Wikipedia article. He has also edited the articles on Telenor’s competitors – for example, adding to the English Wikipedia’s article on the Alfa Group a lengthy section on the Group’s legal dispute with his employer, Telenor. Wikipedia’s figurehead Jimmy Wales is well aware of Bjørtvedt’s conflict-of-interest editing, as it was discussed at length on his Wikipedia user talk page. In stark contrast with Stierch’s treatment, nobody seems to have asked Bjørtvedt to resign from his position at Wikimedia Norway. Indeed, the Wikipedia editor who notified Wales about the concern with Bjørtvedt was recently indefinitely blocked from any further Wikipedia commentary.
This may not be entirely unrelated to the fact that Telenor is an important Wikipedia partner. In November 2013, an article on the Telenor website proudly stated: “Telenor-Wikipedia Partnership on a Roll in Asia”. The article was illustrated with a picture of a smiling Jimmy Wales, shaking hands with Telenor Group CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas. And when Jimmy Wales met with Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon in April 2012, at a “Wikipedia Academy event marking the agreement with Telenor giving free access to Wikipedia for 140 million users in Asia and Eastern Europe”, the contact person for the event was none other than – Erlend Bjørtvedt. The Wikimedia moral compass seems to have been borrowed from Captain Jack Sparrow.
So what appears to be the moral of this story? Through her work on the gender gap, Sue Gardner’s pet project, Sarah Stierch became a favoured insider not subject to ordinary rules in the Wikimedia universe. Yet in the wake of the Wiki-PR scandal – a scandal that had been known internally for many months, and that the Wikimedia Foundation never saw fit to comment on until it hit the international press, turning into a major news story – the Wikimedia Foundation thought nothing of sacrificing Stierch on the altar of political PR correctness. Unlike Bjørtvedt, Stierch was ultimately expendable. Stierch has not edited Wikipedia in the past seven days since her abrupt dismissal.
At any other time, Stierch’s conflict-of-interest edits, like Bjørtvedt’s, would probably have been forgiven and brushed under the carpet. At worst, Stierch, who judging by her Twitter feed seemed to suffer from acute money problems, would have been privately reprimanded by her manager.
The Wikimedia Foundation needs to come to a clear vision of paid editing and conflict-of-interest editing. It needs to define what is allowed and what is not, and apply these standards consistently, without favouritism.
Lastly, there is the matter of Stierch’s own vanity biography in Wikipedia: unless she bounces back, phoenix-like, to attract more coverage in “reliable sources”, she will fade back into obscurity. In that case her dismissal will be the last thing ever reported about her in Wikipedia. And it is what her Wikipedia biography will end on for the next forty years, with no chance for her to redeem herself.
Sucked in, and spat out.
Image credits: Wikimedia