Jimmy Wales has claimed that he couldn't have founded Wikipedia in the UK because the nation's libel law adds unpredictability and "friction" to hosting the world's largest unreliable collection of factoids.
It's an echo of the notorious claim made by Prime Minister David Cameron that Google could not have started out in the UK due to its protection of copyrighted works - a suggestion even Number 10 can't now corroborate. But Wales' proclamation is something else, too: a tacit admission that some of the material published by Wikipedia is legally contentious.
There certainly are good, thoughtful contributors at Wikipedia, yet huge swathes of material – encompassing biographies of living people – are governed by anonymous fanatics with an axe to grind.
Wales, Wikipedia's Maximum Leader, was speaking at the London House debates at City Hall. Wales said Wikipedia doesn't operate web servers in the UK due to the nation's strict laws on publishing defamatory material and the severe financial penalties involved. Placing the hardware in Blighty could put the website's administrators firmly under UK jurisdiction.
Someone agrees with Jimbo!
Wales also spoke of his previous projects, a list that includes his ad-flogging "adult" biz Bomis that sank without a trace. (It takes a particular kind of entrepreneurial genius to fail to make money from web filth.)
Now he's a UK resident, Jimmy Wales is a ubiquitous keynote technology speaker at London gabfests. Organisers must surely have his name pre-printed on the e-vites – alongside the advice "Don't mention Bomis!"
Fortunately, there were two excellent responders among the eight people invited to debate with Wales.
Dean Bubley, of Disruptive Analysis, reminded Wales where Britons' strengths lie and argued that it makes sense to encourage what we're good at: music, TV, media and software, for example – and called for a "corridor" of investment linking the real technology hub of Cambridge with London's media
Bubley also pointed out that there isn't much silicon in Silicon Roundabout, the capital's collection of tech-related startups.
Alan Patrick, of Broadstuff, also had some observations, and a question or two. "I am still sitting here wondering why someone - anyone - in the UK didn't do something like this [Wikipedia], even if it became an heroic failure," he asked. Patrick added that a typical successful British "startup" is a world-class rock band, not a social media engagement boutique.
In fact, Britain has had several online encyclopaedia projects that anyone can contribute to. One is the Knowhere Guide, which has been online since 1994. It is archived at the British Library, but doesn't have a Wikipedia entry. Another general-purpose effort is the H2G2 encyclopaedia. Both have trundled happily along for years.
Colbert on Wikipedia from 2006
Which is fascinating and raises a different set of questions. We can see that Britain does have wiki-style distributed user-contributed projects. However, what it doesn't have is a "Wikipedia Cult": our collaborative projects don't have utopian aspirations, and don't claim to save the world. Ours aren't given utopian status by slack-jawed journalists, pundits, management consultants and gabfest organisers. Ours don't have a Messianic leader; Wales styles himself as Wikipedia's "spiritual leader". You could make the case that the British projects are Wikipedia done properly – without The Bullshit.
The British projects are typically British: careful, empirical and modest; the notion that you can establish truth through consensus is regarded as a remarkably silly one, here.
So Wikipedia's problems may be specifically Wikipedian. The bombast, the claim to authority, and the hungry desire for adulation may be the same reason it attracts such peculiar and problematic characters, and the reason it appears to do a poor job of dealing with them. Wikipedia has grave institutional difficulties cleaning up its mess.
Last week, the chairman of Wikimedia UK (a charity that dishes out Wikipedia donations) resigned after an elected committee of senior Wiki editors banned him from contributing to the English encyclopaedia. The group alleged that he had made a "highly inappropriate" edit to a biography page that added a link to pornography. The administrator had previously been banned from Wikipedia for editing biographies of living people - but had later been allowed to return.
While Wales lectures London, perhaps it should be the other way around. He has a lot to learn. At the very least, Wales ought want to put his own house in order, first, before lecturing his hosts. ®