By: A Concerned Wikipedian
Something interesting has been happening lately on the Wikimedia Foundation’s main mailing list, as the rank and file of the Wikimedia movement have begun to see what Wikipediocracy regulars have long understood: there’s just something rotten about Jimmy Wales.
While we have often been characterized as “obsessed” with Mr. Wales (well, some of us anyway), the truth is that many of us have had unpleasant personal experiences with him, usually involving him saying one thing “in private” and another in public. We’ve learned the hard way that private correspondence with Mr. Wales is something reasonable people should avoid. What’s coming into public view now is something a number of us have experienced over the years, and there’s at least the glimmer of a hope that the Wikimedia Movement’s deepest and darkest influence might finally be getting the attention it needs.
Recent events have illuminated some dark corners
The road to revelation all started several weeks ago when the board of directors ousted a community elected trustee. James Heilman (better known to us as Doc James) is an emergency room doctor who has a passion for promoting “knowledge that wants to be free”, and has devoted enormous time and effort into improving Wikipedia’s articles related to medicine and the medical field. We’ve often made fun of him for this because Wikipedia’s current structure makes any articles inherently unreliable (and medical articles potentially dangerously so), but we’ve always respected his intentions and hard work. He’s a good guy, not a jerk, and if he’s maybe a bit idealistic about Wikipedia, we really can’t but expect idealism from member of the board.
For those not familiar with how discussions happen in the Wikimedia bubble, Jimmy Wales’s user talk page is often the forum for wider issues. When Doc James was shown the door, the community was naturally upset, and discussed it on that page at length. Doc had announced his dismissal on the mailing list, and made a page describing everything he knew that he felt he was able to share. The board of directors’ explanation was rather less forthcoming (and remains so as of this publication), but from what anyone can gather they apparently didn’t trust him to keep secrets of some sort or another (again, we really aren’t sure). While it’s not completely clear, the falling out had to do with the employees being deeply unsatisfied and a super-secret crowd-sourced internet search engine, but that’s perhaps a topic for another blog post.
James was elected by the community. He was fired by the board. Most people didn’t even know that the board could do that. Nobody’s quite sure why, because nobody on the inside wants to tell us.
That’s where Jimmy Wales comes in, and boy oh boy does he come in swinging.
At first, Jimmy implied that he shouldn’t comment because “a man’s reputation is at stake” (implying, perhaps, that Mr. Heilman had something to be embarrassed about). After seeing Doc James’s transparent and clear point of view on the subject, he described it as “utter fucking bullshit” (excuse my French). Then lots of protests about the very idea of a “Google-killing” search engine (Jimmy denies such a thing would have been even considered, but nobody ever said that the engine was supposed to kill Google). Probably a straw man, though from what little has managed to leak out it might be a tin man (anything’s possible behind the curtain, after all).
Then more documents came out, and it became pretty clear that Jimmy was perhaps having a recollection problem, while Doc’s account has held up quite well. Doc James has consistently tried to play by Jimmy’s honor system and has asked for Jimmy to allow him to publish the email Jimmy sent which explained why he was dismissed from the board. Jimmy has refused to do so, because he says he would need permission from the rest of the board to do so. It’s been about two months now, so it’s safe to assume at this point that the answer is “no”.
We have a long-running joke here on Wikipediocracy on how Jimmy habitually refrains from answering questions that would be “politically uncomfortable” or potentially harmful for his public image (he’s one of those guys who makes his living off of his public image). On his user talk page, he usually achieves this by letting the archive bot make the questions disappear. He also does this via email and other channels when corresponding with people he sees as “important” by simply not replying once he senses that he won’t win the argument. Usually that hasn’t gotten public attention… until now.
Pete Forsyth, our unlikely hero
As mentioned above, private correspondence with Jimmy Wales is something reasonable people should avoid. In public he’s all about thoughtfulness and love and sharing, but in private he’s clumsily Machiavellian (like a drunk teenage boy trying to talk you out of your virginity, or a used car salesman with a lemon to sell). You don’t see a lot of genuinely successful Silicon Valley people sharing a stage with him. This quirk doesn’t usually get much of a public airing, but the upheavals surrounding the dismissal of Doc James and subsequent departure of Executive Director Lila Tretikov has pushed everyone to be more open about all sorts of things, including inappropriate emails from Jimmy Wales.
So with all that going on, Jimmy decided to cc Pete Forsyth (a well-respected and long time activist for the movement) on a rather nasty email to Doc James Heilman. Pete was not amused by the unsolicited inclusion. Pete replied to Jimmy (and Doc James) saying he thought it was inappropriate. Jimmy, true to form, didn’t reply, perhaps hoping that it would be just be forgotten about and go away as usual. It wasn’t forgotten about, and Pete posted the mail to the Wikimedia mailing list. It’s really worth reading in its entirety, but if you don’t have a moment to spare, it’s an awkward passive-aggressive missive that implies that Doc James is either a liar, mentally deficient, or else suffering from some form of wiki-PTSD.
“One hypothesis is that you’re just a liar. … Another hypothesis is that you have a poor memory or low emotional intelligence … [or] … Another hypothesis is that the emotional trauma of all this has colored your perceptions …” -Jimmy Wales
Ponder that for a moment. Ponder it a moment more. If you’re not horrified already, you might as well just stop reading now.
Predictably, Mr. Forsyth received some criticism for such a sin as posting a private email in public, but the only way to fight a bully is to expose the bullying. Peter replied very graciously. Thank you, Peter.
He also pointed out that he’s had previous unsatisfactory correspondence with Jimmy, where Jimmy simply drops out of the conversation as soon as he recognizes a disagreement. Thanks for that, too.
And Pete, thanks for hitting the larger point that “Manipulative behavior thrives in an environment where a person can say different things to different audiences, and can speak freely with the expectation they will not be held accountable for their words.” Quite a few of us still believe in the power and potential of volunteers trying to share knowledge, but we’re not at all happy about the way the volunteers are treated by Jimmy Wales.
Thanks most of all Peter for saying this as an unassailable insider, because we’ve been called trolls and maggots and obsessed losers for trying to point this stuff out over the years. Jimmy has great skills when it comes to defamation, and up until recently had good instincts about who he could get away with picking on. Yup… thanks.
A Teachable Moment (hopefully)
Jimmy Wales was great for “the movement” in the beginning, because he arranged funding for Wikipedia long enough to get off the ground. He helped the world get to know about it using his public face when the world needed to know about it. He got the snowball rolling.
However: if you’ve been on the internet for more than a few weeks, you probably know that getting along in Wikipedia is all about making the right connections among the Wikipedians. Whether you’re trying to get the truth out for your cause, contracting for someone’s company, or just trying to get an article to reflect scientific truth, you’ll need friends on the inside if there’s someone on the other side of the issue with an opposing view, grudge, or hare-brained theory. Wikipedians know that, most of them hate it, and it’s not how it was intended to be when Larry Sanger set up the community and the original and idealistic ground rules. Wikipedia’s dark underbelly came about because it was permitted (if not encouraged) to become a Machiavellian game by a guy who apparently didn’t see a problem with being called a God-King, and these days calls himself a Constitutional Monarch. Ponder that too.
So here’s the lesson, Wikipedians and Wikimedians: your God-King has no clothes. Doc James Heilman has suggested that Jimmy Wales should stand for a confirmation vote, and we think that’s a really good idea. Doc says Jimmy would easily be confirmed, but we don’t think he’s right about that.
At least we hope he’s not.