Long past time for Wikimedia to grow up

Summary:It's obvious that, despite the color of the Wikimedia Foundation, policies are still created ad hoc and it is this which has to change.

Despite its enormous reach, Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation have generally been run out of Jimmy Wales' back pocket.

They're not really institutions, and they're not an entrepreneurial company. They're Jimmy's thing. When the fecal matter hits the rotating blades, it all comes back to one guy.

That's unhealthy.

Now, when the site would most like to talk about its exciting new features, it's embroiled in a controversy over porn. But as with all things Wikipedia this isn't some grand battle over principles. It's a personal spat.

Co-founder Larry Sanger, who has been feuding with Wales for years, deliberately provoked this by giving Fox News and the FBI the two words certain to bring the wrath of God on any site -- child porn.

Wales and company tried to deal with this the way they do, asking that images related to "prurient interest" be deleted. But as is often the case the issue wasn't the issue. Sanger's aim was to knock Wales off his perch. Fox' aim was an easy political hit.

In the short term, both succeeded. A predictable pushback from free speech advocates working the site caused Wales to give up temporary control, an advantage to Sanger's tiny rival Citizendium. Fox continues to flog the "Wikipedia pornographer" story at every opportunity.

Whatever you think of Fox' or Sanger's actions, the important lesson here is that Wikimedia is threatened from all sides by virtue of its size and reach. It's too big to be run out of Jimmy's back pocket any more.

It needs to become a real institution, one with the knowledge and heft to pick its battles carefully, knowing when to hold them and when to fold them, when to walk away and when to run. It's obvious that, despite the color of the Wikimedia Foundation, policies are still created ad hoc and it is this which has to change.

I know John Lilly has just left Mozilla, and is likely looking for a start-up that can make him rich alongside Greylock Partners, not another non-profit kerfluffle.

But this challenge looks right up his alley. Wikipedia needs a for-profit entity whose cash flow can buttress the decisions of the Foundation, and it needs a Foundation that is professional enough to stand the buffeting when, as they say in German, "Uns fliegt gleich eine Menge Scheiße um die Ohren." (The link is not Fox News safe.)

Topics: Collaboration

About

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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