Last week, my colleagues on the Signpost produced a news report covering a minor controversy about a report commissioned by the Wikimedia Foundation. Written by the staff of The Lafayette Practice, a French research firm, it proclaimed the WMF as a leader in the practice of participatory grantmaking. In response to an apparently self-promotional WMF blog post heralding the report, an Examiner.comarticle by Gregory Kohs, longtime Wikipedia critic and founder of MyWikiBiz, alleged that the report, the blog post, and the Wikipedia article on participatory grantmaking—created by WMF staffer Asaf Bartov and since deleted—were a WMF promotional effort that constituted a violation of the conflict of interest guideline.
My goal was not to promote WMF's practice, or even the general practice, but to document it, in a fair and NPOV way. I still think I achieved that. Indeed, I would welcome concrete criticism of the article text I composed.
— Asaf Bartov on the now-deleted Wikipedia article on participatory grantmaking
After a week of reading about article timestamps and speculation about whether Bartov had time to write the text on his lunch break or during work hours, I realized that everyone was making the mistake of taking this matter far too seriously, at least in the aspects they put under the microscope. This is a conspiracy theory, where minor facts are connected to point to a preordained conclusion, where coincidence is evidence of collusion, and where human motives are not fully understood and are only interpreted in the most nefarious way possible. And, as with all conspiracy theories, the time and effort of reasonable people are wasted having to investigate or disprove speculative and fanciful notions. It is not surprising that such a theory emerged from Wikipediocracy, where users spend years nursing and reinforcing each other's contradictory grudges against Wikipedia.
Is it really so unbelievable that Asaf Bartov, a Wikipedia editor since 2003, created a Wikipedia article on this topic of his own volition after hearing about the topic at a conference? That's what Wikipedians do: they create articles on new topics they hear about that aren't yet in the encyclopedia. If this was a conspiracy born out of some half-baked WMF promotional scheme, Bartov and his alleged conspirators could have easily covered their tracks using dummy Wikipedia accounts.
Kohs certainly knows about generating new Wikipedia accounts, as he uses them frequently to comment on Jimmy Wales' talk page and elsewhere – not to mention his use of them to vandalize the encyclopedia. Last year, Kohs bragged on Wikipediocracy about vandalizing Wikipedia articles during a talk at an unspecified college, as if, over a decade after the founding of the encyclopedia, we still needed to remind audiences that people can edit Wikipedia maliciously. After a quick Google search of his speaking engagements, within minutes I was able to find the offending edit; Kohs had made up a fake radio station for Rollins College. This was particularly irritating for me, as Rollins already has a radio station, WPRK, and I have fond memories of listening to it back when I was dating a woman who lived near Rollins. Later in that Wikipediocracy thread, he bragged again about more instances of this kind of vandalism, at other talks at Rollins and elsewhere. This is certainly more damaging to the encyclopedia than anything Bartov is alleged to have done.
Looking at the real issue
Too much time has been wasted on empty speculation about the article on participatory grantmaking, or indeed the concept itself. I doubt any of those people speculating about the legitimacy of the phrase, including myself, are in any way qualified to make a judgment on the matter. The real issue is the report itself. How much was paid for the slim 37-page report? What value does this report provide? Couldn't this report have been assembled by paid WMF staffers or even interns?
There does not seem to be much heft to this report beyond being a colorful brochure for the Foundation. The report claims to be "new research" (p. 2) and "the first full survey of grantmaking at the Foundation" (p. 27), with lots of text and graphs about their fundraising, mostly without a clear rationale for inclusion. There are grand statements such as that participatory grantmaking is "a powerful movement building strategy", that the WMF is "innovative and groundbreaking" in its application of participatory grantmaking, and that this is on by far "the largest scale we have seen" among similar organizations (p. 2). Nowhere in the report is the term clearly defined; the closest it comes is by making frequent references to a previous Lafayette report which was not about the WMF. This is a crucial omission given the comparative claims made in relation to other agencies, some of which do offer direct assistance to grant applicants on a large scale.
According to the report, the volunteer grantmaking committees are designed to be gender-diverse (p. 3), yet at the time of the report's preparation, the Individual Engagement Grants Committee and Grant Advisory Committee had only two and one female members, respectively, out of a total of over 40 members. The report was silent on how active those committees are in their review processes and the extent to which the grant recipients demonstrate how their grants affect WMF projects and how much value they provide in proportion to the size of each grant. No reference was made to the work of the WMF's evaluation team, which last year made a preliminary finding that there is generally an inverse relationship between the size of grants and their impact. It also offered no proper analysis of how effective the IdeaLab forum is in helping applicants to develop their proposals.
There is no doubt that there are many examples of consultants like the ones commissioned to complete this report who provide important services and insights, but there are also many who are grifters in fancy suits who produce little to nothing of value. In many organizations, needed materials are purchased from the lowest bidder, staff salaries are cut, and positions go unfilled while consultants enrich themselves. Instead of answering questions about timestamps and conspiracy theories, the Foundation should tell the community what value this particular report provides for the money spent upon it. We should be less concerned about who wrote a borderline Wikipedia article which a little over a thousand people have read and be more concerned about how the WMF is using its funds, so the community can ensure that the encyclopedia has not been improperly monetized by grifters. Perhaps it is not surprising that Kohs has chosen not to complain about this potential monetization of Wikipedia, as Kohs has engaged in eight years of criticism of Wikipedia because he was unable to monetize the encyclopedia in the fashion of his choosing.
Gamaliel has been an administrator on the English Wikipedia since 2004 and is currently an editor-in-chief of the Signpost. The views expressed in this editorial are his alone and do not reflect any official opinions of this publication. Responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section.