Wed, Mar 19, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Wikipedia goes under the microscope

Founder Jimmy Wales has faced accusations of favoritism and excessive spending and questions about the nonprofit project's relationship with a venture capital firm


Since he helped create Wikipedia in 2001, Jimmy Wales has been called many things: benevolent dictator, constitutional monarch, digital evangelist and spiritual leader of the tens of thousands of volunteers who have made the online encyclopedia one of the top 10 most visited Web sites.

Sue Gardner, the new executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the various Wikipedia projects, said that when she first met Wales, "he made a joke that he saw himself as the queen of England, waving to the crowd."

Unfortunately for him, the news media love a good royalty scandal and, in the last few weeks, he has been getting the royal treatment.

Last month, Wales was accused of intervening to protect the Wikipedia page of a TV news commentator with whom he had a romantic relationship. The accusations were fueled by text messages, said to be between Wales and the commentator, Rachel Marsden, that were published on a gossip Web site.

He added to the online fuss on March 1 by addressing the issue on his own page and announcing that the relationship was over. (Marsden put up a T-shirt and sweater he had left in her apartment on eBay. A bid of US$500 for the T-shirt came up short.)

And there have been persistent questions, chiefly raised by a former employee, that Wales has abused his expense account, including filing for a US$1,300 dinner for four at a Florida steakhouse that was ultimately denied and lacking receipts for US$30,000 in expenses.

In some ways, these allegations -- trivial and personal as they might seem -- illustrate the growing pains that Wikipedia is experiencing. The populist impetus for Wikipedia -- building an open-source encyclopedia -- has been spectacularly fulfilled with more than 2.2 million separate articles in English, 52 million unique visitors in December in the US, according to comScore Media Metrix, and brand recognition that puts it in the upper echelon with Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Until recently, however, Wikipedia was run more like a storefront community center than a digital-age powerhouse. What was a nine-person operation, has just recently grown to a 15-person operation. Last year's US$2.2 million budget grew to US$4.6 million this year.

"A surprising number of people don't even know it is a nonprofit," Gardner said. "They say, `How do they make their money, anyway?' They assumed there were ads or some other way."

In fact, the project relies on fundraisers, and its latest one, Gardner said, received donations from 45,000 individuals, with a US$30 average contribution.

Wales and the board of the Wikimedia Foundation have tried to professionalize the project, moving its offices from St. Petersburg, Florida, to San Francisco, to be near the talent, entrepreneurial spirit and wealth of Silicon Valley. The board of seven trustees, made up of appointed and elected members, including Wales, has brought in new administrators, beginning with Gardner, a former journalist who had run the Canadian Broadcasting Co's Web site.

But members of the Wikipedia community -- scattered around the globe, writing in more than 200 languages -- remain consistent in their belief in a decentralized power structure and noncommercial principles. And they aren't sure what to make of the move to the big city, with its reputation as the home of irresistible temptations.

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