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Trouble at Jimmy Wales’ Talk Page

By Gregory Kohs and Andreas Kolbe

Only weeks after Wikipedia editors from around the globe gathered for a happy and uplifting Wikimania 2014 rally in London, many long-time active editors of Wikipedia began expressing their rage August 29, on the Talk page of Wikipedia’s co-founder, Jimmy Wales. At the Wikimania summit, unaware of the soon-to-be ironic angle of his comments, Wales gave a closing speech that dreamt of building the Wikipedia “community up into a more fabulous, fun-loving environment”, and cherished “love of each other, love of the project, love of life; love of the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish”. Today, that spirit of love seems entirely gone from the discussions swirling around Wales.

The source of anger

.

Jimmy

Hundreds of the most active Wikipedians are in a state of near-revolt over a MediaViewer software feature that the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) implemented on Wikipedia recently. It opens photos on a black background that hides much of the meta information that Wikipedians typically want to see about an image. The MediaViewer had so many bugs and caused so many problems for active editors, some Wikipedia administrators began to take steps to override the software extension. That prompted the Deputy Director of the Foundation, Erik Moeller (who has his own curious history of pontificating about child pornography), to install a sort of lock on Wikipedia’s software called “Superprotect”. This enraged so many Wikipedians that even the German Wikipedia community (Moeller is a native German) voted six to one against the Superprotect installation.

Jimmy Wales eventually tried to calm everyone down by expressing his unfailing support for MediaViewer, but that just rattled users even more. They called Wales to task, saying things like, “Sorry Jimbo, but the only religious dogma I see here is your conviction that the future involves [MediaViewer] enabled universally and by default”, and “Stop thinking like Ayn Rand or whoever on LSD and begin living in the real world”, and even this comment from a volunteer who has contributed over 150,000 edits to Wikipedia across years of service:

“You [Wales] seem to have lost track of what this project is nominally about, so let me give you a clue. It’s not about software or creating an ever-increasing bureaucracy at the WMF. …perhaps you’re the one who shouldn’t be here at all Jimbo. Has that ever crossed your mind?”

Dishing it out

For all his talk of fabulous, fun-loving environments, Jimbo Wales is able to dish out the insults just as easily as his former followers. While he tells one editor, “you are completely mistaken”, he tells another editor, “you are mistaken on every point”. He told a former WMF employee to “dial back the rhetoric”, in response to a petition against the Wikimedia Foundation that now has nearly 700 signatures.

And Wales’ response to that 150,000-edit volunteer?

“If you want to just piss all over everything with the view that people (me?) are lying, then I have a good idea for you: find another hobby and leave the community…”

It’s not exactly a shock that even the most dedicated Wikipedians would eventually begin to view their spiritual leader as someone who bends the truth. Indeed, there is an entire message board discussion about how often Jimmy Wales is caught “contradicting himself”. Here is a recent addition to that thread:

Another beauty, highlighted by Nemo (TCL) towards the end of this section of Jimmy Wales’ talk page:

I have also made a commitment that in case it ever came up that my vote would need to side with either the expertise-appointed seats or the community-elected seats to make a decision, I will vote with the community-elected seats.–Jimbo Wales (talk) 13:56, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

Sure, you did. Too bad it was a lie. –Nemo 14:36, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

If you follow the link, you’ll see the following two voting records:

Motion to vote by Phoebe, seconded by Stu
Approve: Jan-Bart, Phoebe, Bishakha, Ana, Jimmy, Stu, and Alice
Oppose: Sam, Patricio, and Maria

Motion to vote by Phoebe, seconded by Stu
Approve: Jan-Bart, Phoebe, Bishakha, Ana, Jimmy, and Stu
Oppose: Sam, Patricio, Maria, and Alice

Now, for reference, the ten-member board is composed of:

1. Jimmy Wales
2. Four board-appointed experts
3. Three community-elected members
4. Two chapter-elected members

WikiBoard

To be as good as his word, it would seem Wales ought to have voted in support of the majority opinion among Sam, Phoebe, María, Patricio and Alice. He didn’t.

Of course, in the same discussion he used another bit of misdirection, and was caught on it by Odder (TCL):

[…] There exists no other website where the community’s control is greater. The users of Facebook do not elect the majority of the board. The users of Google don’t get to collaboratively work with developers with all software open source and publicly distributed to improve Google. “…you must now accept a new political economy: you have permanent lower-caste status” – that’s just sheer unmitigated bullshit. And the idea that I express “medieval views on copyright” is just intellectually dishonest of that author. I express no such views and my views on copyright are quite dully mainstream.–Jimbo Wales (talk) 12:29, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

@Jimbo Wales: Sheer unmitigated bullshit is your claim that the Wikimedia community elects the majority of the Board. You might not have noticed, but we only elect three out of ten (3/10, 30%) members of the Board of Trustees — the rest are either appointed by the chapters or by the Board themselves. Your lack of knowledge of the composition of the Board is worrying. odder (talk) 13:27, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

So why don’t you step back and ask yourself a question about what you’ve said? Do you think it is really possible that I don’t know how the board is composed? I’m focussed right now on the last sentence: “Your lack of knowledge of the composition of the Board is worrying.” I’m pretty sure that even when you wrote that, you knew full well that I know completely and exactly how the board is composed. So rather than say “Jimbo, I don’t think the chapter representatives count as representing the community” – a mistaken but respectable position to take – you instead made an insinuation that is insulting and ridiculous. Don’t do that, is my advice, because it is not a productive way to have a serious conversation.

It is my view that the chapters represent the community as well as the directly elected editors. Certainly all of the chapter representatives to the board have been active Wikimedians. If you want to have a serious discussion about whether they do it well, and what the problems there are with our current setup, then let’s have that conversation.

I have also made a commitment that in case it ever came up that my vote would need to side with either the expertise-appointed seats or the community-elected seats to make a decision, I will vote with the community-elected seats.–Jimbo Wales (talk) 13:56, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

Sure, you did. Too bad it was a lie. –Nemo 14:36, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

@Jimbo Wales: My advice is, in order to have a serious conversation, just don’t write stuff that’s blatantly false. Even if you count chapter-appointed Board members as representing the community, that’s five out of ten — not a majority. You wrote: “The users of Facebook do not elect the majority of the board.” — the Wikimedia community doesn’t elect the majority of the Board of Trustees, either. And if you know that, why did you mention it at all? odder (talk) 14:45, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

However, there was a good deal of truth in Wales’ response to another volunteer who said,

Another journalist who is dead wrong (according to Jimbo/WMF) [1] I’m sure. And another: “The Foundation has a miserable cost/benefit ratio and for years now has spent millions on software development without producing anything that actually works. The feeling is that the whole operation is held together with the goodwill of its volunteers and the more stupid Foundation managers are seriously hacking them off.” JMP EAX (talk) 09:26, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

Other than the extreme nature of the comment (“without producing ANYTHING” is too strong) why do you think I would disagree with that? This is precisely the point of the new CEO and new direction – to radically improve the software development process. That statement, while too strong, is indeed an accurate depiction of what has gone wrong. I’ve been frustrated as well about the endless controversies about the rollout of inadequate software not developed with sufficient community consultation and without proper incremental rollout to catch showstopping bugs.–Jimbo Wales (talk) 09:43, 29 August 2014 (UTC)

So there you have it, from the horse’s mouth. The Wikimedia Foundation has for years now spent millions on software development without producing anything much that actually works.

Image credits: Flickr/Crossroads Foundation Photos, Wikimedia, Flickr/blueoxen ~ Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Portions of this article have previously appeared in the Examiner.

12 comments to Trouble at Jimmy Wales’ Talk Page

  • metasonix

    …..And then?…..

    It’s about time, but fear not, in a few weeks His Glorious Jeemboness will be back to denying everything.

    PS, a couple of weeks prior to this talkpage crap, Odder was apparently “placed on moderation” on Wikimedia-l (meaning, silenced), for daring to bring up criticism of Moeller. “Personal attacks” is the excuse.

    https://lists.wikimedia.org/pipermail/wikimedia-l/2014-August/073775.html

    https://lists.wikimedia.org/pipermail/wikimedia-l/2014-August/073838.html

  • eagle

    Currently, the Wikimedia Foundation lacks any democratic way to determine whether or not Mr. Wales should be guaranteed a “Founder” seat on its Board. The only current way to change his status would require a vote of the Board. Because his continued participation on the Board is up to a majority of the Board, he must vote with the majority (rather than the community representatives) to keep in their good graces.

    The Board has become an echo chamber, and is not really accountable to anyone. Mr. Wales does not speak for the Board — the Chairman does that. Mr. Wales does not lead the paid staff — Lila does that. Mr. Wales is merely a person who makes a large part of his income from traveling around and giving speeches about Web 2.0. He also gives paid endorsements, and is the leader of for-profit Wikia.

  • HRIP7

    I had to read that quote about the WMF wasting millions thrice, but Wales is, depite the qualification, essentially endorsing the view that “The Foundation has a miserable cost/benefit ratio and for years now has spent millions on software development without producing anything that actually works.” I would think some WMF people were not best pleased to see him stick the knife in like that.

    Basically, Wales seemed to me to be trying to curry favour with “teh communitah” all over that extraordinary talk page discussion. (“I’m your champion!!!! Worship me!”) It didn’t quite work the way he had intended – the Germans and a good few others saw to that – yet it is a remarkable admission of WMF incompetence. (But it’s alright! We now have a new ED and everything will be fine from now on!)

    And in my view also a demonstration of his own: if he had just kept out of it, rather than trying to play Robin Hood, he would not have further inflamed the Germans. He ended up reducing the percentage of editors who felt somewhat mollified after Lila’s and Erik’s removal of superprotect.

    Lila Tretikov has her work cut out. Flow, as currently conceived (designed for mobiles first and foremost, even though nobody edits talk pages using a mobile), looks like World War III about to happen, and they need to change course rapidly.

    To my mind, the future of the Wikimedia Foundation all depends on how much carte blanche the board will give Tretikov to hire and fire. As for Jimbo, the best thing he could do would be to stay out of it and let her get on with her job.

    • Kiefer.Wolfowitz

      Indeed, WMF Executive Director Lila Tretikov needs to fire Erik Möller / Moeller and his incompetent software-developers immediately. Then she should outsource software development to competent firms.

      A forthcoming Blog post shall discuss Erik Möeller’s history of incompetence and dishonesty.

  • Radiant Orchid

    Wales talks about spending more money on development, but he says very little about the money wasted on ill-conceived projects like “article feedback” and “moodbar”. He says even less about getting rid of some of the people who were responsible for such projects.

    As has been pointed out elsewhere, the “MediaViewer” is nothing more or less than a common Web2.0 gadget to display images. There are many examples to draw upon and probably a few open-source libraries that could have been used as a starting point. Yet even this simple project was so completely fouled up in design, coding, and roll-out that it caused a revolt.

    It would be counter-productive to invest in more development without also looking seriously at the incompetence this episode has highlighted.

  • Minnie

    From the start, Jimbo just hired people who were 100% loyal to his Jimboship. That has continued: WMF never hires critical people, they only hire people who “embrace” the project.

    And now Jimbo is disappointed that the WMF engineers do not perform? Well, in the future, what about trying to hire people on their qualifications, and not on their loyalty to Jimbo/WMF?

  • Ross McPherson

    It is all a bit like Adolf Hitler versus the Brown Shirts. Hitler wasn’t all bad. He was kind to dogs. He was an idealist who found the truth a bit awkward. His victims were the victims of his subordinates. The Brown Shirts were a community of thugs. Their victims were their own. They had no dreams. They just liked to go on dominating their own streets. So I am torn which side to boo most.

  • Anthonyhcole

    Regarding Andreas’s above comment, “To my mind, the future of the Wikimedia Foundation all depends on how much carte blanche the board will give Tretikov to hire and fire. As for Jimbo, the best thing he could do would be to stay out of it and let her get on with her job.”:

    A nonprofit board like this one always leaves staffing up to the ED. The buck stops with Sue for any appointments made or contracts renewed after her arrival.

    Regarding this in the blog post, “To be as good as his word, it would seem Wales ought to have voted in support of the majority opinion among Sam, Phoebe, María, Patricio and Alice. He didn’t.”:

    That’s not my reading of his undertaking. If there were unanimity among the community-elected trustees in opposition to the expert trustees, then I’d expect him to support the community-elected trustees – though I’d prefer he didn’t tie his hands like that.

    Ross McPherson: Hitler. Really?

    • Ross McPherson

      Actually I said “It is all a bit like Adolf Hitler versus the Brownshirts” and yes there are definitely some parallels between the two situations. Would I stand Jimmy Wales in front of a war crimes tribunal? Of course not. I would subject him to a show trial by Wikipedians and a virtual lynching, such as I and many others have endured. But he would probably bump them off first. As an ‘encyclopaedia’, Wikipedia is an exaggeration and that tends to lead to hyperbolical criticism. Its major flaws are not epistemological but ethical. There is no social justice there and volunteers are just grist to the mill. How can anyone preside over a disorganisation like that unless there is something of a Schicklgruber in him?

      • Anthonyhcole

        Internal governance and ethics is very poor, but that’s a problem for Wikipedia. The epistemological model is a problem for humankind.

        • Ross McPherson

          Wikipedia is to encyclopaedias what a mud map is to cartography. A mud map is rough sketch from memory without regard for scale or exact relationships but it helps people get around when nothing better is to hand. There is nothing wrong with this epistemological model. What is wrong is how it is presented as the sum of human knowledge, the speciousness of its scholarship. I think the great majority of people use it sensibly, in search of very basic facts. So for me, the ethical issues are more important.