Wikipedia wants your money

Would you give this man $6 million?

jimbo wales

Earlier this week Wikipedia's dad, Jimmy Wales, posted a personal appeal for donations to keep the encyclopedia and its staff of 23 employees going. How could anyone look into those baby blue eyes and resist?

Apparently they can't. As I write this, the donations meter on the site clocks in at $5.8 million - just shy of the Wikimedia Foundation's goal of $6 million. Most of the donations appear to range from $10 to $50, and some folks have added comments along with the cash.

(My favorite: "I love Wikipedia because it makes me appear smarter." Not be smarter, just look smarter. Because ultimately isn't that what people really want?)

The shameless appeal for money has opened up the Wiki-peeps to yet more criticism, the primary complaints being a) why don't they just run ads like the rest of us poor blogging schlubs? and b) why should these 23 folks take home paychecks and not the 150,000 or so obsessive-compulsive types who actually create and maintain the encyclopedia?

Hey, at least they're not asking for a government bailout.

Personally, I like Wikipedia. I rely on it to get up to speed quickly on topics on which I am wholly ignorant, which includes nearly everything. I might even toss a few quarters their way.

But I also have some problems with it. For one thing, the people who lovingly (and/or viciously) tend the entries often don't have a clue how to do primary research. They'd rather engage in long arguments over the merits of a particular statement or insert "[citation needed]" than contact the subject of the entry and verify the information, the way any journalist would (or should).

That's one reason why former Wikipedians like Danny Wool (Veropedia) and Larry Sanger (Citizendium) started their own encyclopedias, to give more authority to subject matter experts and, in some cases, let subjects of biographical entries vet the material. Seems reasonable to me.

And though the Wikipedia is self correcting, that process is neither foolproof nor fast. As an experiment, I once inserted a harmless but completely fictional factoid into the biography of a famous technology executive. I figured it would take about two weeks for some wiki editor with time on his or her hands to find it and delete it. Wrong. Three months and more than 180 edits later, somebody finally fixed the entry. You can still find this bit of silliness on sites that mirrored or copied text from that Wiki post. (Google "Egg King of Austin" and you'll see what I mean.)

In the spirit of amending errors on and about Wikipedia, I want to correct a snark-filled piece I wrote for PC World called "Top 10 Tech Embarrassments, which also ran on Computerworld. Number 6 on my list concerned Wikipedia's Wales and his (non) relationship with former Fox Newsbabe Rachel Marsden. It concluded with "1. Don't date Jimmy Wales. 2. Don't date Rachel Marsden. 3. And if you must date either of these people, don't leave dirty laundry behind."

I based that entry on items published primarily on Valleywag and The Register, and as a result got some things slightly askew. (Talk about not doing primary research.) Though I cannot reveal my sources, I have it on good authority that i) Wales did not edit Marsden's Wikipedia in any way, let alone make it more favorable to her (it certainly isn't now); ii) he did not break up with her via Wikipedia; and iii) he did not ever visit Marsden's apartment, let alone leave any clothing there. So whoever bought the clothes she auctioned on eBay got threads with someone else's bodily fluids on them. Maybe Bill Clinton's.

So I'd like to alter my advice: It's now safe to date Jimmy Wales. I'd still recommend steering a wide path around Marsden, though.

Is Jimmy Wales the new $6 million man? Post your thoughts below or email me direct: dan (at) dantynan (dot) com.

When not ragging on Wikipedia, Dan Tynan lovingly/viciously tends his own blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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