Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Kicked out of the Wikicult

I suggested a while back that Wikipedia is turning into a cult. At least one other site has decided to run with this idea, although they seem mainly to be collecting links instead of actually putting up an argument for how Wikipedia is a cult. I got first-hand exposure to the cultic side of Wikipedia—or at least Wikimedia—yesterday. Apparently, my comments yesterday, specifically about the contents of Sue's email to the Wikimedia "internal" mailing list, triggered a very cultic response from Jimbo. Not only did Jimbo go around telling people that I'm a "liar" (without actually identifying what content in my post was a lie—behavior which induced at least one person I talked to be convinced that in fact what I was saying was completely true), but he also went to the members of that list and demanded that the person who leaked to me "voluntarily" come forward. (I asked Jimbo to explain why he called me a liar, but he did not reply to that email. He is, however, reading emails from me, as we will see below.)

Not long after Jimbo made his demand, I was notified of it—by at least three people. Jimbo's "plea" for the "leaker" to come forward is laced in moral condemnation for the malfeasor. He promised to keep the confessions confidential. Why he would make such a promise eludes me; clearly anyone who does come forward will be immediately struck from Jimbo's "trustworthy" list, which means that he or she will not be invited to join the "really internal" list that Sue has already proposed creating; this list would contain only "really trustworthy" people and formally require nondisclosure of its participants. Failure to come forward is painted as a grave moral offense: "Anything less is a moral offense against people who have trusted you." The whole approach and language used reminds me terribly much of the inner workings of some of the cults I studied back in the 90s, especially the use of the threat of withdrawal of the good will of the founder as an incentive to act against personal interest.

Upon hearing this, I decided to send Jimbo another email:
You're not going to get anywhere with your witchhunt. Multiple people leaked that email to me, including at least one person who, as far as I know, is not actually on the internal-l list. Even if you find one of the leaks, you'll have missed two or three more.

Internal-l leaks like a sieve. There's over 100 people on that list and lots of them feel free to share all sorts of information from it with others not on the list. This is nothing new.

All you will accomplish with this witchhunt is increase hostility, decrease trust, and hurt even more feelings than you have already. And people will still leak to me.
Jimbo's response was to forward my entire email, without comment, to the internal mailing list. In a normal environment, this would make no sense. In a cultic environment, however, it's perfectly reasonable: it serves to reinforce the need for immediate action and for the person who has sinned against the founder to come forth and confess his sin. Until the guilty party comes forward, all parties present are considered to share in that person's guilt, so the others would be strongly incented to identify the malfeasor and push him or her forward. Evidence that the leak is ongoing just amplifies the need for immediate compliance. Fortunately for Wikimedia (and for my plentitude of sources, as well as all the others in the community that rely on this unofficial channel to find out what is really going on in the Foundation), there are enough people on the internal list who haven't bought into Jimmy's cult, too many for Jimbo to credibly declare all of them untrustworthy. In a followup demand, Jimbo said, "I just want to understand who thinks that sending internal stuff to this person is a good idea... and why". The way he used "this person" just reeks of "disgusting slimeball that nobody in their right mind would talk to". It's quite obvious that Jimbo has declared me a "suppressive person" and is expecting others to act accordingly.

There's over 100 people on the Wikimedia "internal" mailing list. I've never been a subscriber, but I've been privy to a significant portion of its content, simply because people on it have felt that I had a need or right to know, for whatever purpose. I don't go asking for people to tell me what's going on there; people come to me unbidden and tell me. I'm not the only one, either; I often hear about internal goings on from people who, as far as I know, aren't on the internal list themselves. Wikimedia has a very powerful gossip engine, it would seem; small surprise, that. Ironically, the reason why there is so much unofficial communication like this going on is the gross lack of transparency in official communications from the Foundation. At this point, it should be glaringly obvious who is to blame for that, so I won't go to the trouble to actually say the name. The answer is left as an exercise to the reader.

Jimbo, just one parting request: can I please have a copy of my SP declare? I think it would go down in nice irony next to my Wikimania 2006 Speaker's badge. Too bad Wikimedia never issued membership cards.