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Why you should care that Jimmy Wales ignores reality

'A great Wikipedian'

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Comment Even if the colonel were disobeying a Twenty-seventh Air Force order by making you fly more missions, you'd still have to fly them, or you'd be guilty of disobeying an order of his. And then the Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters would really jump on you. - Catch-22

Late last year, in the wake of our story on Wikipedia, Overstock.com, and naked short selling, we argued that so many of Wikipedia's problems could be solved if Jimmy Wales would simply force editors to reveal their real names, doing away with the site's longstanding commitment to anonymous editing. But we were wrong.

Wikipedia's problems extend well beyond the anonymity issue.

Yes, Wales just dumped his lover with a post to the "free encyclopedia anyone can edit". And yes, a former Wikimedia Foundation employee has accused the man of misspending funds donated to the charitable organization. But those are merely the latest episodes in the Wikigate soap opera that point to a much larger issue: Wales and the Wikipedia inner circle have a knack for ignoring reality.

Despite countless claims to the contrary, Wikipedia's so-called "ruling clique" has no qualms with changing the facts to suit their needs - both on Wikipedia and off.

This is a problem.

Wikipedia is the eighth most popular site on the web. It has the power to tell the world what to believe. Type a few keywords into Google, and odds are, the free online encyclopedia will soon appear. Millions visit the site each day, including members of the mainstream media, and most are under the impression it offers unbiased information. According to a recent study from the PR wonks at Edelman, 55 per cent of all 25- to 34-year-old US "opinion elites" consider Wikipedia a "credible source."

But sometimes bias plays a big role. The truth of the matter is that the average surfer has no way of knowing whether the Wikipedia inner circle has skewed an article to suit their agenda. And, yes, there is an inner circle - though the inner circle denies it. Like we said, they have a knack for ignoring reality.

'That's some catch, that catch-22'

We aren't saying that anonymous Wikipedia editing is a good idea. It undoubtedly opens the door - and opens it wide - for anyone intent on gaming the system. This is clearly demonstrated by the epic spat between Wikipedia and Overstock.com.

Wikipedia is built on a catch-22. If someone has a conflict of interest, you can have them banned. But everyone has the right to anonymity. That means if you try and prove they have a conflict, you're breaking the rules, and they can edit all they want.

But then there's the curious case of Wikipedia admin Jossi Fresco, a long-time member of a worldwide spiritual movement that Time Magazine lists as one of the mega-cults of the heyday of mega-cults. Clearly, you can skew Wikipedia without hiding behind an anonymous account. All you need is support from the inner circle.

Jossi Fresco has an obvious conflict on interest. But in the wake of our story about this conflict, Wales dubbed him "a great Wikipedian".

You see, the Wikipedia inner circle is a very simple thing. It includes anyone who's made the right online friends. This isn't an official club. There's no roster. And you can't quite say how many members there are. But you can recognize a member when you see one. They're the people with the pull - the people who get the heavy support when they make an argument.

At Wikipedia, as at any organization, some people have more power than others.

In so many cases, these well-connected folk are free to use the site as a means of pushing their own point of view. And that includes Jimmy Wales. Forget Rachel Marsden tossing his dirty washing onto eBay. The point of the Willypedia Affair is that he ordered his minions to edit her online bio. They pull favors for him. And he pulls favors for them.

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