Sue Gardner, the Canadian ex-journalist hired to run Wikipedia last year, has treated Jimmy Wales, the site's cofounder, with kid gloves. Until now. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Gardner vehemently defends the nonprofit status of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia's owner:
It's a charity. Nobody is making any money from the organization. Nobody has made any money, and nobody will ever get rich from it because we're never going to sell it. We're not open for business; we're not looking for investment.
Gardner goes on to note the many ways in which the foundation has cleaned up its act under her rule — though some of her claims seem exaggerated. As with so many ex-journalists, Gardner makes an excellent spin doctor. Behind the little fibs and fudges, here's the big truth she's hiding: Wales has attempted, several times, to profit from Wikipedia. And in one way, he's succeeded.In a 2006 meeting in Mexico City, Wales openly discussed the prospect of commercializing Wikipedia with Bono, the rock star, and Marc Bodnick, a Silicon Valley investor and Bono's colleague at private-equity firm Elevation Partners. Roger McNamee, another Elevation Partners money manager, orchestrated the Wikimedia Foundation's relocation to San Francisco and the hiring of Gardner as its executive director. Those moneymaking efforts have, to date, gone nowhere. But that doesn't mean Wales didn't try. Wikia, his for-profit wiki startup, was another effort to make money off the Wikipedia brand, though that has mostly floundered; the market share of Wikia Search, the effort Wales has worked most closely on, is infinitesimal. Where Wales has been successful in making money: His speaking gigs. He's said to be traveling 250 days out of the year, and often gives paid speeches while on tour, garnering $30,000 to $90,000 per event. People aware of Wales's dealings with the Wikimedia Foundation say he pockets those fees rather than give them to the nonprofit — even though his status as cofounder of the online encyclopedia is the only reason anyone's interested in hearing Wales talk. That's where Gardner is, at long last, hitting Wales where it hurts — his pocketbook. How so? By competing with him. Buried in a lengthy update for the foundation's board, Gardner included this note:
Sue is now represented by The Lavin Agency for speaking engagements. Her fees will be paid to the Wikimedia Foundation.
That Gardner's fees would be paid to her employer only makes sense, since she's speaking in her capacity as the foundation's executive director. It would hardly be worth nothing — except to draw a contrast to Wales's venal abuse of his role as the site's cofounder. It's a big shift from March, when Gardner was defending Wales as "modest" and "frugal." Wales has long tried to portray himself as Wikipedia's "hereditary monarch," a role the foundation's board nodded to when they created a permanent board seat for him. That Gardner is gunning for Wales's speaking gigs suggests that she's realized he's more of a liability than an asset for Wikipedia. She's ready and willing to displace him as the community's leader. When Wales and Gardner met up in Amsterdam for a friendly chat about her taking the top job at Wikipedia, who was taking advantage of whom?