Sex, Lies, And Wikipedia
Before we get into this (and this is a guiltily delicious journey you may or may not decide to take), please consider what level of perfection you expect your Web icons—even the ones who refer to themselves as "spiritual leader"—to be on. While you’re doing that, pretend he’s not a Web icon, and decide what is forgivable in a regular (mortal) man.
UPDATE: It occurs to me later, upon further thinking, that Rachel Marsden, based on her history isn’t the most credible source in this case. First red flag that popped up that didn’t make into the original narrative: who saves tawdry IM conversations like that? First rule of wicked affairs: don’t record anything. So take Marsden’s "proof" with a grain of salt, she’s been called crazy more than once.
Because I’m sure he’s probably sorry for it, given that his hand is still pretty stuck in the cookie jar. I couldn’t know if he’s sorry for sure, just a hunch. The man himself hasn’t spoken to me directly since he got mad at me for saying Wikipedia didn’t like Sam Vaknin (which was said as a sarcastic jab at Vaknin in defense of Wikipedia). I tried to smooth it over, even apologized for being a poor communicator, and asked for clarification that never came (neither did any subsequent requested interviews).
Can’t blame him. There are better-looking TV pundits to talk to about it anyway. I’m used to being told no. Rachel Marsden, it would seem, is not used to such a thing.
Okay, enough melodramatic introduction; let’s get you caught up in case you’ve missed it. (Surprisingly, the US media hasn’t picked up on this much, not when compared to UK, Canadian, and Australian outlets—not that it should distract from Presidential primaries or Britney Spears coverage, either.)
James Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales, founder of Wikipedia, leader of a small, cultish band of editors as well as an entire open Internet movement, self-avowed "Objectivist to the core," and chafe in the craw of elitist academes everywhere, flat-out goofed. The kindest way to put it is that there was a series of unfortunate judgments, none of which was made in isolation from inside his cranium. That is to say, if it’s all true, Little Jimbo ran this fiasco right off the cliff.
And whose Gary-Busey-dark-side-lower-companion hasn’t done that at least once?
For Jimbo, that time is now, and unfortunately for him (justly or not) the fall from the cliff is a fall from grace, even if at least one blogger characterizes him as one who got lucky with a spaghetti-against-the-wall approach. (It’ll all blow over, of course, even if lots of people are having a good time right now dining on the entrails of a certain self-righteousness.)
Over the weekend, Wales posted an interesting response on Wikipedia, now moved to his blog, to rumors of an inappropriate relationship with former Fox News pundit by the name of Rachel Marsden, also known as "the Canadian Ann Coulter." If you haven’t heard of her (I hadn’t), her sketchy past is detailed on her Wikipedia page, which is a large part of this controversy. Dave Winer characterized it as trading edits for sex, but I’m not sure we can exactly, well, prove that.
On Saturday, Wales wrote:
"Over the last few days, a few gossip websites have decided that my personal life is somehow of interest to people and, against my wishes, are publicizing details about a brief relationship I had with Rachel Marsden…. I considered myself single at the time of my one meeting with Rachel Marsden on February 9th, 2008. I am no longer involved with Rachel Marsden. Gossipy stories suggesting that I have been in a relationship with her ‘since last fall’ are completely false."
By "gossip websites," he means Valleywag and Gawker. At least part of that statement was news to Marsden, too, who not only put "ex-boyfriend" Jimmy Wales’s shirts up for auction at eBay (current bid on one t-shirt currently over $12,000) while claiming he broke up with her "via an announcement on Wikipedia," but also released some lewd (and somewhat incriminating) instant message conversations to Valleywag, where all things sex and Silicon Valley live. Gawker says "one meeting" was more like seven meetings, and they weren’t really "meetings," either.
Your first objection, rightly, is wondering what Jimbo Wales’s sex life has to do with anything. Well, it doesn’t, especially, until it looks like, according to those salacious IM conversations, that Wales gave her a hand cleaning up her Wikipedia page. He even appears to acknowledge the huge conflict of interest there.
And there sure was a lot to clean up: No less than four other high-profile rabbit-boiling episodes, three of which involve harassment charges from old boyfriends*. The fourth, as far as the story from Fox goes, was that Marsden was fired for "erratic behavior."
If you ever saw the movie "Amazon Women on the Moon," there’s a classic sketch in it where Rosanna Arquette runs a dating background check on Steve Guttenburg to learn what kind of date he is. That would be a pretty convenient device to have in real life, and Wales sort of had one that warned: Marsden has a real history of sex scandals, despite whatever details she was disputing.
Did he not trust his own creation, or did Little Jimbo effectively slap on the blinders? Were the blinders that effective at blocking out the giant red flags? (Or Scarlet Letter, whichever you prefer.)
None of that matters, I guess, even if it gives some insight into the man’s judgment and weaknesses. We’re not supposed to hold those things against Bill Clinton, either, right? Sometimes otherwise brilliant men have questionable taste in exploits. Fine, we can deal with that, and any honest man would say that (as sexist a double standard as it is) that sometimes men do dumb things.
But here are the bigger matters: 1. Wales, who has been our champion of integrity when it comes to his community-edited online encyclopedia, lobbied his editors to clean up Marsden’s profile while having a steamy affair with Marsden, and seems to have lied about that relationship just before the proverbial caca hit the fan.
I thought there might be more "bigger matters," but that’s pretty much it. When you set yourself up on a pedestal, you have to be very careful of missteps at the edge of it. Wales built his community around trust and transparency. He may have to be transparent (and therefore vulnerable) to his community and trust that they’ll forgive him. I think they will, and in a few months or weeks or days will forget all about it. Until then, I imagine it’s pretty hot under Jimbo’s collar.
As of right now, Wales’s Wikipedia profile reads, "Wales had a brief relationship with Canadian journalist Rachel Marsden." It sources an article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Perhaps that’s enough.
*The word "boyfriends" is used loosely here. One involved two-way sexual harassment charges and a college swimming coach; a second relationship earned her probation on criminal harassment charges; a third charge of harassment came from a Canadian policeman with whom she had a two-year affair.