Regular readers know I have mixed feelings about Wikipedia. On the one hand, I think its model — biased towards maximum participation, minimal quality control — leads to highly variable quality, especially on obscure topics. On the other hand, it is an extremely useful resource — particularly for settling a party bet, even if I forbid my students from using it as a primary source (because it’s not).
Some of the strongest criticisms of Wikipedia have come from the online tech magazine The Register. Two weeks ago, they ran a long saga about how Wikipedia blocked the IP addresses of an entire community to prevent one man from making edits to four articles. This week, SF-based Cade Metz summarized the inherent Catch-22 of Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policies:
In Wikiland, you aren't allowed to edit articles where you have a conflict of interest. If you do so, you could be grounded. But the inhabitants of Wikiland also have the right to anonymity. This means that no one may ever know if you have a conflict of interest.OK, that a few self-appointed leaders of a volunteer group can be petty and self-serving is no great surprise. That it continues in such a big and highly visible nonprofit is a little more surprising.
Taken separately, these two pillars of the Wikipedia law book are sure to ring a few bells. At least once a month, a news story appears in which some self-serving organization is slapped for violating Wikipedia's conflict of interest policy. This month, it's the BBC wearing the dunce cap.
And, naturally, we all realize that Wikipedia is a place where you needn't identity yourself. At the very least, this hit home in March when cyber sleuths revealed that a 24-year-old uber-Wikipedian was masquerading as a professor of theology with not one, but two PhDs.
But few seem to realize that these two Wikicommandments are completely incompatible. The trouble with Wikipedia goes deeper than a few edits from the BBC, deeper even than a 24-year-old pretending to be someone he's not.
But what sent me to The Register was a very odd report in the AP that acknowledged the earlier Register story. Both were about the recent Wikimedia Foundation COO who was a convicted felon — bad checks, shooting her boyfriend and a fatal hit-and-run. The articles questioned whether poor administrative controls would hurt the foundation’s current fundraising push (supported by banner ads on every article in more than a dozen languages).
At one level, this comes as no surprise. Founder Jimmy Wales has always made it clear that he’s a big idea man not interested in sweating the details.
But on the other hand, it's yet another depressing indictment of the lack of accountability common in the nonprofit sector. Big nonprofits are notorious for high overheads, lax controls and weak oversight. Exhibit A are the repeated scandals at the American Red Cross, which blogger Hildy Gottlieb attributes to a lack of vision and values. (Which is not a problem at the ARC's more effective rival).
Society needs nonprofits to address a wide range of cultural, educational and material needs. But the successful ones seem to be created by institutional entrepreneurs with a strong vision and leadership ability, and (often) taken over by bureaucrat-managers who need a paycheck. Ineptly run companies go out of business, or at least have their shareholders fire the lame executives and replace them with new ones. The measure of success for nonprofits are so ill-defined, and the oversight so weak, that it appears that even the mediocre nonprofits take on a life of their own.
Earlier this month, a Salvation Army blogger in Australia perfectly captured this with a Peter Drucker quote:
An organisation begins to die the day it begins to be run for the benefit of the insiders and not for the benefit of outsiders.Wikipedia was a huge success in user-generated, community-owned content long before its foundation began its fundraising drive. It can't let the fundraising overtake its original goal of publishing a free encyclopedia. It should limit its fundraising to keeping the servers running and avoiding mission creep (not bloody likely), but given its large amount of volunteer labor and original shoestring budget, the online encyclopedia will probably continue no matter how badly run the nonprofit is.