Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Jimmy Wales' Quest to Profit from Wikipedia While Running Away from It

Let me say right at the beginning that it is our editorial mandate to not give a flying fuck about Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales, outside of making him the butt of jokes, because he really isn't important to the day-to-day affairs at Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation. More and more, they only ask for his input when something truly major comes along......certainly Wales has his talkpage (which has spawned a number of  its own fiascoes), but other than that he is a free man. And that's the problem.

Wales' Political Philiosophy

The ultimate irony of "free culture" Wikipedia is that the guy who claims to be the founder is an ardent supporter of capitalism and a college fan of Ayn Rand. According to his ex wife: “To him, altruism was evil," remembers Pam, who says that Wales therefore discouraged her from pursuing a nursing degree when they were married. “His whole ‘Mr. Save the World’ is so contrary to what he said every day for seven years.” Jimmy Donal Wales is a Libertarian* or crypto-Objectivist, though he has spent his Wikipedia years not talking about things like the "Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy" he ran in the early 1990s. Larry Sanger had this to say about Wales' Objectivist leanings: "I wanted to say quickly here--I have long since lost patience to talk much about Rand's philosophy, since it is so sloppy and self-indulgent--that, in my experience, Wales was extremely well versed in Rand arcana. It's not correct to suppose that he was just a dabbler. He seriously studied the stuff back in the 90s. When I wrote a long "Objections to Objectivism" essay in about 1995 (putting flabby-minded Objectivist doctrines under an analytical philosophy microscope), Wales wrote one of the longest, meatiest replies. If you looked hard enough for them, you might be able to find both my original post and his reply. Possibly on the h.p.o. newsgroup."  All that explains why he worked as a trader at Chicago Options Associates in the early 1990s, but following the grand tradition of Libertarians/Objectivists being bad managers, he was not as good a trader as he claims he was, and he was continually out to lunch while running Bomis**, things we will have to recount at another time. The major point is that Wales has always loved profit-oriented businesses, even though his rise to fame came from Wikipedia, a collaborative non-profit.

Escape Number One: Wikia

Wikia, Inc. (originally "Wikicities") was begun in late 2004 as another project of Bomis, like Search Bastard and 3Apes, and it used programmers from the failed 3Apes site. The founders were Jimmy Wales and Angela Beesley, with assistance from Tim Davis, Brad Patrick, and Michael Shell. All of them together were the board of directors of Wikia, which was set up as a Florida corporation. Despite using the "Copyleft" free content license to deal with copyright issues, Wikia succumbed to advertising in 2007. Wales had stepped down from being CEO a year earlier, which was the year Bessemer Venture Partners began cash infusions. Wikia had been set up with private money, probably from the board members, we don't know. And that's a problem we will run across all throughout this article - Wales hides his finances and financial relations. For a guy who wants "free culture", his corporate life is not up for even the most cursory examination. Allegedly "Wookiepedia" (the Star Wars Wikia) and "Memory Alpha" (the Star Trek Wikia) are the larger keystone websites within Wikia; it has been said if the advertising revenue were to dry up, Wikia would be defunct within less than a year. The other big problem is that Wales et. al. might be breaking the law, because of the non-profit (Wikipedia)/profit-driven (Wikia) overlap. In 2011-2012 there were over 11,000 external links to Wikipedia from Wikia sites, Wales has promoted Wikia at Wikimania conferences, Angela Beesley regularly edited the Wikipedia article about Wikia as Wikipedia user Angela, Wikia agreed in 2009 to sublease two of their conference rooms to the Wikimedia Foundation,  Wikia was hosting a secret mailing list comprised exclusively of hand-picked Wikipedia administrators and certain representatives of the Foundation (including Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales), and on and on. The legal issues with Wikia and Wikipedia's nerdy racketeering are richly deserving a future article at this blog, and we will talk about them, rest assured. I have been told that Greg Kohs formally reported the Wikia-Wikipedia double-dealing to the IRS in 2007 or 2008, because the Wikimedia Foundation was allegedly sixty percent composed of Wikia employees. The IRS did nothing.

Escape Number One-Point-Five: Wikia Search

An extremely short-lived Wikia spinoff that began in December 2006, after Jimbo speculated out loud about a Wikia-based Internet search engine and the press heard. Even though Wikia already was working on such a project, which meant it had to be re-named "Wikia Search." On December 29th Wales makes the press statement that funding received from Amazon.com is not specific to the search project and also reiterates that Wikia and Wikipedia had separate management, even though they shared three key stakeholders. And this is six days after he stumbled his way into "starting" Wikia Search! The year 2007 saw Wales claiming that Wikia Search would trump Google and Yahoo ("The idea that Google has some edge because they've got super-duper rocket scientists may be a little antiquated now." - Jimmy Wales) and that idiotic Fast Company article about Wales and Wikia Search. The next year saw the launch of Wikia Search on January 7th (the day prior was the infamous incident where Wales told journalist Seth Finklestein "Seth, you're an idiot", when Finklestein questioned the viability of Wikia Search.) January 8th, 2008 saw the press take on the new website: Critics Wallop Wikia. Wales counters with this: "I don't know how long it will take to reach industry-standard quality search results, but I'd say at least two years." In May 2008, Seth Finklestein writes about the real reason for Wikia: monetizing (quoth Wales: "The monetizing is pretty straightforward....[w]e don't have any clever, innovative ideas around that.") October, 2008: Wikia has large layoffs. March 2009 has Wales saying this to journalist Susan Kuchinskas: "I have my team focused on the front end, working on the user experience, and making sure we have all the wiki-like tools people need to work on the site. We're just cranking away." Five days later on March 31st, 2009, Wikia Search is put out of its misery. Three years from initial "idea" to a defunct business; not a record, but certainly amazing.

                                              They will NEVER live this cover down.

Escape Number Two: Self-promotion

This is the one everybody knows if they know about Wales; he does public speaking around the world and wristwatch ads. The only problem is, if you do an internet search for "Jimmy Wales celebrity speaking" this site turns up, as does this one. And this one for the UK, which must be cheaper because Wales lives in London now. To beat that there are two with German web country codes ("a" and "b"), though "b" is no longer offering him. That's five different speakers bureaus in three separate countries, and the first organization (the Harry Walker Agency) claims Wales is an "exclusive speaker" - exclusive for the United States, or the town the Agency is in?

The other thing outsiders know him for is that Maurice Lacroix print ad in 2010, which was part of a campaign featuring famous performer/dreamer types including Sir Bob Geldof (lead singer of the Boomtown Rats,Live Aid concert host, star of Roger Waters' depressing 1982 adaption of Pink Floyd's The Wall, father to dead heroin enthusiast Peaches), and Justin Rose (English professional golfer.) If you look up Maurice Lacroix on Wikipedia, you will see a nice looking, though slightly lumpy-reading article (possibly because it's been edited by nameless IP users from Hong Kong and that PR machine Vegaswikian) which seemed to expand after Jimbo's appearance in magazines standing next to a watch floating in empty white space.

                                                               Some puffery found on YouTube.

Escape Number Three: Telenor

This one is more like classic double-dealing rather than a job; the Norwegian telecom company Telenor was doing paid editing and Jimmy went to Bangladesh to talk at conference run by a Telenor subsidiary, Grameenphone. A lot of this detective work was done by anti-fans of this site Greg Kohs and Andreas Kolbe. According to their work, a major paid editor was Erlend Bjørtvedt, a vice-president of Telenor, working under the Wikipedia handle Bjoertvedt who is also a vice-chairman of Wikimedia Norway (!), and nothing was done about that. The Wikipedia page on Telenor was edited by an account creatively titled Telenor Info, along with Bjoertvedt and a large number of IP-only accounts. Other paid editors were Esbentuman (Esben Tuman, former Telenor employee) and Sune00 (Sune Engsig.) Uninor (a Telenor joint-venture in India) was watched by Uninor (single purpose account) and created by Bjoertvedt. Telenor Pakistan was watched by Telenor Info, Syed Soulat Abbas Zaidi (Soulatzaidi, manager of Telenor Pakistan), and Danish crazy (SPA.) And all of that is the tip of the iceberg.....meanwhile this February, Wales showed up in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka: "....He is coming on a one-day visit to celebrate 10 years of Wikipedia Bangladesh. Jimmy will attend two seminars to be arranged by Wikipedia Bangladesh and leading mobile phone operator Grameenphone. The Grameenphone seminar is on ‘Internet for all: Access to knowledge for all’ which will be held in a city hotel." 

Escape Number Four: Quora

This is another lesser moneymaker. Wales' profile page claims he is "an advisor and (very small) investor in Quora." This Quora Answer points out how Wales met Quora executive Marc Bodnick: "Wales soon met with Bodnick at Wikimedia's St Petersburg, Florida, headquarters, and later chatted with Roger McNamee in San Francisco. Then, several weeks later, Wales and his wife Christine had dinner with Bodnick and his personal assistant at a steakhouse in nearby Tampa." That was written by Todd Rush Chambers, one of Wales' high school friends. A source claims that Wales has Indians (paid or unpaid is unknown) upvoting what he writes on Quora, but I have no confirmation.

Escape Number Five: the Lessig Presidential campaign, the Gateway to a Political Future?

Right now Jimbo is part of Lawrence "Larry" Lessig's probably-doomed Democratic presidential campaign as some sort of adviser - they even showed up at the Satanic pit they call Reddit to do an AMA trying to talk up the campaign. My theory is that this is where Jimmy Wales turns into the "Internet generation" Frank Luntz; my source doubts that Jimmy can pull it because Wikipedia isn't cool enough on the Hill anymore. I disagree; Jimmy seems to have impeccably awful timing. At the very worst he might wind up managing a Subway sandwich franchise as a sixty-year-old.


Unless things change radically, this is the last time we will write about Jimmy Wales outside of Wikipedia.....I have been told that Wales has ticked off Silicon Valley, the venture capital crowd, numerous others, so that the chances of Jimbo fleeing Nonprofitland and trying to become idiotically wealthy are probably behind him. So the wannabe Randian superhero capitalist is now a vague humanitarian. Truly fitting.

* For our Russian, Ukrainian, Scandinavian, or French readers, we are not talking about what is also called Anarchism, Anarcho-Syndicalism, etc. "Libertarian" and "Libertarianism" in this context denote a political/economic philosophy supporting market forces over government intervention, extreme individualism, and a barely-submerged anti-Communism/anti-Socialism. Objectivism is an even more extreme form of Libertarianism created by novelist Ayn Rand (Alisa Z. Rosenbaum, a Leningrader who immigrated to America to get away from Communism.) Rand despised all forms of collectivism (including corporations who sold things to governments), also believed that she was the great arbiter of artistic taste. The blog Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature nailed all of her logical fallacies for years, and is still ripping the shenanigans of ARI, the "institute" that promotes Objectivism.

** "Of the years I worked at Bomis, most employees he treated with an almost non-existent aloofness. He talked to anyone very rarely. No one really knew what their job responsibilities were. No one knew how things were going until they got laid off. Some, such as me, or Tim Shell, he treated with mocking disdain."

"Jimmy was such a non-existent manager of all the employees. No meetings, no discussions on how the company was doing, no nothing from him. Tim Shell was the second in charge, and he barely spoke to anyone ever as it was. Often times I talked with the programmers and other people just to simply let them know they were doing a good job and valued."  - Terry Foote


  1. How could you put in all this work, yet fail to even mention The People's Operator?

    1. That's why there are "addendum" posts, Mr. Kohs.