Wikipedia gerrymanders its board

Sue Gardner, the power-hungry executive director of Wikipedia's nonprofit parent, the Wikimedia Foundation, has carried out the first phase of her master plan. She's orchestrated a reorganization of Wikipedia's board. The chief changes to the rulers of the world's most complete list of people affected by bipolar disorder: Only 30 percent of the board is now elected. Two board members will be appointed by Wikipedia's "chapters," country-specific nonprofits which wield power far greater than their actual numbers would seem to warrant. Jimmy Wales has been granted an unelected "community founder" seat. The other five board seats, three of them currently empty, can be filled by board appointees with no connection to Wikipedia. Which would make it easy for Gardner to stack the board with wealthy venture capitalists interested in profiting from Wikipedia's highly-trafficked website.

Not that she needs the help. The foundation's bylaws only require that a majority of its board members be "elected or appointed from the community." The spirit of the term "community" suggests those who actively edit Wikipedia; Wikipedia was originally conceived as a membership organization. But that plan was abandoned, the bylaws rewritten. The Wikimedia Foundation's board can define "community" as it sees fit.

By right, the board could declare that, say, Roger McNamee, the Elevation Partners cofounder who helped broker $1 million in donations recently, was a member of the community, by virtue of his financial support.

The current board, of which three out of seven members are elected, would likely oppose such a move. But three more Gardner-approved appointees could likely swing the vote the other way. And then the board could redefine "community," or just rewrite the bylaws altogether.

Only one seat is up for election in the short term. Conveniently, it is that of board chair Florence Nibart-Devouard, who has consistently led the opposition to Gardner's moves. She is unlikely to stand for reelection in July, we hear. Wikipedians may elect a new board member in protest, but at the cost of losing the most effective resistance they have to Sue Gardner's quiet takeover. (Users have started a toothless online petition.)

The most curious seat is Wales's. It is reserved for a "community founder," and according to Wikimedia vice chair Jan-Bart de Vreede, if Wales does not occupy it, it will go empty. Here's an amusing thought: Why not have Larry Sanger, whom some say has a better claim to founding Wikipedia than Wales, bid for the spot in December, when Wales's term expires?

If the board rejects Sanger for the "community founder" spot, it will have to admit the truth: Jimmy Wales gets a board seat not because he was elected to it. Not because he has any distinct competence. Not because he is popular with the chapters. No, Wales gets a board seat because he's special. This isn't gerrymandering. It's Jimmymandering.