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Sarah Stierch leaves Wikimedia Foundation over paid editing (wikimedia.org)
119 points by dbbolton 1259 days ago | hide | past | web | 81 comments | favorite

It is quite clear that nobody that's paid staff for Wikimedia Foundation should be doing paid editing.

But I'm not liking the sound of:

> She did that even though it is widely known that paid editing is frowned upon by many in the editing communit

Yeah, it's "frowned upon" for _anyone_ to do paid editing, clearly. But "frowned upon" is not usually a good reason to fire someone.

If it's not already clearly against clearly stated policies for WMF employees to do paid editing, WMF is hopefully making it so pretty quickly. Next time (which is definitely a 'when' rather than an 'if', I'm afriad), it should say "They did that even though paid editing is a clear violation of WMF conflict of interest policies," not "it is frowned upon." Time to get real.

> Yeah, it's "frowned upon" for _anyone_ to do paid editing, clearly. But "frowned upon" is not usually a good reason to fire someone.

At least in at will or semi at will employment situations, it is not necessary for the employee handbook to be as exhaustive as a penal code.

There's nothing written anywhere that says that I am forbidden from telling one of our customers to die in a fire, but doing so is certainly frowned upon and would get me fired. I don't see any need for all such implicit rules to be codified.

California is an at will employment state so they really didn't need a reason. next when your side work directly deals with your day job that is a warning flag.

What I don't understand is why they have to be quasi-transparent about it. They should have just released her sans-reason and made an announcement sans-details or went fully transparent and named all the parties above. This middling disclosure in the email is confusingly non-specific.

They had to release Sarah and be public about it. What happened here goes straight against journalistic standards and the mission of Wikipedia, and the story would have broken sooner or later anyway. It would have been bad for donations.

There's two things I just don't understand. First, how can anyone be so stupid and as a high-ranking member of Wikipedia accept money to pass of advertisement as copy? Second, what's with the culture of the Wikimedia Foundation? How come that they can hire someone with questionable ethical standards? They have continuous problems with the staff they hire, but then, from the outside, the place doesn't look like something that someone with a choice would like to be employed at.

I think the wording he used in the announcement was bad. I think it's fairly universally agreed upon that neutrality and avoidance of conflict of interest are key tenants of Wikipedia, and are certainly things that an administrator of Wikipedia and employee of Wikimedia would be expected to uphold.

Fairly universally agreed upon of course, but the question is whether they have a specific written policy that takes it from being "pretty much agreed upon" to "a clear violation of his/her employment agreement" or something equally robust.

I think that sort of legalism is unhelpful, especially at Wikipedia. In my view, the most important policy at Wikipedia is the one which says, "If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WP:IAR

The point of it is that people should always be thinking about Wikipedia's mission and vision. Rule-systems are always leaky, and on Wikipedia people should never use the excuse, "Well, what I did wasn't against the rules."

Those are good points for most rules. Perhaps not when it comes to rules that you will let employees go for breaking, though.

It seems to me that this lady was merely following the rule that you cited. In some countries, if she now files for unfair dismissal, I think Wikimedia might lose.

In California, where the Wikimedia Foundation is based, I don't believe that to be the case: http://www.ca-employment-lawyers.com/Wrongful-Termination.ht...

> Next time (which is definitely a 'when' rather than an 'if', I'm afriad) [sic]

Do you really mean to imply vast swathes of the WMF's tiny staff (most of which don't edit, let alone write good articles) are engaged in a paid-editing cabal? Or have I misunderstood?

Nope, I do not mean to imply that. Just that with wikipedia as influential as it is, it will surely happen again at some point, eventually.

Apparently as a Wikimedia foundation member, you have a lower bar when it comes to getting your own page?


From the Affiliations section:

Ada Initiative – Advisor

American Alliance of Museums – Member

Archives of American Art – Wikipedian in Residence

Museum Computer Network – Member

Open Knowledge Foundation – OpenGLAM Coordinator

Smithsonian Institution Archives – Wikipedian in Residence

Wikimedia Foundation – Community Fellow

World Digital Library at the Library of Congress –

Wikipedian in Residence

Her life and advocacy sound fulfilling and good hearted, but nothing seems to meet the (admittedly inconsistent) standard of inclusion of living persons in WP.


> given there were almost twice as many "keep" comments as "deletes" I am closing this discussion as a weak consensus to keep

Nothing like quantity over quality when assessing these things.

This stuck out to me as well. Her Wikipedia page reads like a vanity article.

It didn't seem any more such a thing than a LinkedIn page or a resume?

A LinkedIn page or resume posted to Wikipedia would be a vanity page.

I'm surprised there is yet no mention of her firing.

Ahhhh. The Ada Initiative. That should have been a huge warning sign to all involved.

Why? What's wrong with the Ada initiative?

They're basically a hostile lynch mob that further divides people on the issues in question and intentionally causes controversy. Many women do not consider them an ally because of the negative attention they bring to gender issues.


Amongst other things, their approach to increasing women's participation in tech seems to involve actively trying to exclude women like Violet Blue whom they don't feel are acting in an appropriately feminine manner.

Hmm, I traced this story to http://www.securitybsides.com/w/page/35868077/BSidesSanFranc... and you're right - this account makes them look very bad.

Hmm. Damn.

Jeez, the white-knighting on her user:talk page is atrocious...

I say good riddance. We don't need paid shills in the WMF and we certainly don't need them writing and reviewing articles. There are enough issues, as is, with idiotic editors/reviewers and "policy" that those users have pushed as de jure.

I don't have a horse in the race but would you still call it white-knighting if the editor was male?

No. It's a terrible term that needs to die.

What would you replace it with? It describes a particular, unique phenomenon where creepy guys on the Internet rush to the "chivalrous" defence of a damsel in distress. It's widely misused, but there's definitely something there that needs some term to describe it, and in lieu of anything else "white knighting" suffices.

It's not a term that needs replacing. Shorthand personality bins are not a void that needs to be filled. Classifying the speaker (whether with 'emo' or 'hipster' or 'feminazi' or 'homophobe' or 'fag' or 'geek' or 'jock' or ...) does nothing to elucidate the argument.

You do not need to classify the speaker. Your arguments are stronger if you do not classify the speaker. Classifying the speaker leads one to interpret an argument through one's preconception of that class of speaker, weakening one's listening and interpretation skills.

And, classifying a speaker aloud often leads your audience to classify you in an opposing class. Use "white knight" and many will classify you as a "bro". Use "homophobe" and get classified as gay or a militant feminist. Use "gay" and get classified as a homophobe. That leads to your audience interpreting your argument through their preconceptions of your classification.

In other words, classifying the speaker endangers your critical thinking, endangers your chances of being understood, and has no upsides.

People defend other people on the Internet for all sorts of dumb reasons. Only women get a special term for when guys stick up for them.

It's about the men, not the women. The term refers to a certain kind of guy with certain views of women who acts in a particularly bizarre fashion towards them. It doesn't refer to the generic act of standing up for someone, or even the generic act of standing up for a woman. It refers to men who defend and act nice towards women in the vague belief it will get them laid, if indirectly, through being the type of man they believe women will have sex with. They're the type of man who usually tries being too nice for a couple of years, gets frustrated, then gets into the PUA community.

It is a point that doesn't need to be made, and that diminishes all of us almost every time it is. Let it go.

I'm curious why you feel that way, but I don't want to pollute the thread with an OT discussion. Shoot me an email if you're interested.

I can't speak for tptacek, but I feel like the term "white knight" is incredibly misused, and 9 times out of 10 (including the way it was used in the current comment thread) it needs to die.

The reason is simple: Like all ad hominems it's a way of opting out of engaging with a speaker and their arguments. Rather than saying "Well, you're wrong because of X, Y, and Z" you say "you're just white knighting", and suddenly there's no need to list out any arguments.

Even beyond that, the entire logic framework behind the term is itself toxic; it's rests on the unspoken assumption that arguments are only as valid as the intentions behind them. I know nothing about the WMF's HR policies, nor do I have an opinion on whether Stierch should or should not have been fired. But if I say "she should not have been fired because other employees in the same situation have not been in the past, and this creates a double standard" (which as far as I know is not actually true; this is a hypothetical), it doesn't matter if I'm saying it because I like Steich as a friend, or I want to sleep with her, or I behave like that towards all women, or I got into a fistfight with someone from the WMF in a bar once and have a grudge against the whole group; either my assertion is right or it's wrong. A facile accusation that I'm only saying that because I want to sleep with her (which is what the "white knighting" term means in this context) could be true, and it just wouldn't matter.

In short, the term "white knight" is employed, almost without fail, in an attempt to bully and shut debate down; as the crudest of ad hominems. And it needs to die.

(Edit: For the record, I truly have no opinion on Stierch or the WMF in this case, and I haven't even bothered to look at the comments being discussed. This is nothing to do with this specific case.)

I think a concise way to put it is that automatically assuming a man's only reason to defend a woman is to infantilize her infantilizes her. [edit: i know you didn't use the word "infantilize", but that seems to be the gist of the term "white knighting" to me -- the accusation that someone posing as the big strong man is rescuing the weak person]

If most people in a particular population are men and a random set of people come to a woman's defense, she's mostly being defended by men. Don't read too much into it.

edit: I can't reply to you, redthrowaway, so I'll just say that I wonder what the evidence is that these guys defending Ms. Stierch deserve the term "white knight" if it's not a knee-jerk reaction to any man defending a woman. I haven't seen any evidence of "expectation of a sleazy reward" so I question the application of the term. edit2: we probably agree on this particular point. I see that you take exception to the overall rejection of the term, on the grounds that it's possible to apply it correctly. I tend to agree with tptacek that it tends to be overused and incorrectly used, and really wouldn't be unhappy if it just disappeared along with the term "butthurt." :)

For the specific type of man the phrase "white knight" applies to, the motivation isn't infantilization but rather objectification. The men engaging in that behaviour don't do so because they think the woman is in need of protection, but rather because they think being protectors in that sense is what will make women have sex with them.

Again, it's not a criticism of, or term describing, men who defend women. It's a criticism of a particular kind of man who defends women in a particular way with an expectation of a sleazy reward.

That's not to say the term isn't abused; it is. I'm not arguing with tptacek's assertion that use of the term tends to lower quality of discourse, but rather with the implied assertion that the term itself is invalid or in some way offensive. As I said in my original comment, it fairly specifically describes a particular phenomenon, and if it didn't exist some other term would be invented to take its place.

I've been accused of being a white knight and been told that certain opinions I hold are held only because they will enable me to sleep with feminist women.

Strangely enough, the sort of person who says this will also happily engage in gutter-level homophobic abuse when they find out that I really have no interest in sleeping with women, feminist or otherwise.

God forbid that I could have opinions formed from reasoned evaluation of evidence.

The main problem with the term "White Knighting" is it's nearly always misused as a way to dismiss someone's valid argument. It's a discussion killer, and contributes nothing at all constructive. Even if the term really does apply in a given case (and that will almost never be true), it still doesn't help to use it.

White knighting is probably a big reason women don't get into tech. Being turned off by the desperate geeks they meet from the time they're 14 to 22 probably has an impact on their decisions on what to do in life.

Well, yeah.

It's used to disarm and unmask someone's defense by asserting that they are

    a certain kind of guy with certain views of women 
    who acts in a particularly bizarre fashion towards 
    them [...] who defend[s] and act[s] nice towards
    women in the vague belief it will get them laid,
    if indirectly, through being the type of man they
    believe  women will have sex with [...] who 
    usually tries being too nice for a couple of 
    years, gets frustrated, then gets into the PUA
That's the point.

I agree it's certainly abused, and misused for precisely the purpose you state. I merely contend that it describes a real phenomenon, and as such is not an inherently bad term. The misuse of it might indeed be more prevalent than its use to accurately describe what it was coined for, but I don't see how the term itself is to blame.

It's kind of like the words "hipster" and "emo": their use as derogations are far more prevalent than their use to describe the particular subcultures they was originally intended for, yet if you didn't have those terms you'd still need something else to fill the void.

Right, so in a gender-neutral sense, in the PG "Female Founders" thread his supporters are all "white-knighting" you would say?

Actually, since PG is male, people defending him can't "white knight", since the term is quite specific (read redthrowaway's definition of it). OTOH it could in some way be applied to his proponents, seeing them as more general "white knights" in the defense of women in general only with the interest in what the term describes as the goal (per redthrowaway's definition).

I have never in my life heard this definition. Where are you seeing it?

The term "white-knighting" isn't specific to women.

Only women

Nope. A large majority of when I see the term "white-knighting" the gender of the person being defended is male or unknown.

The problem with it is it ends up being just as denigrating to the woman involved, who you are after all accusing of being a 'damsel in distress'.

I'm not sure there needs to be a term to describe quite that frame of reference. If the guys involved are creepily harassing the woman (even through 'kindness'), than the term for that is harassment.

Otherwise, I don't think a special term is needed to describe when you (especially male 'you's) believe a woman is only being defended because of sex appeal, so what. Why does there 'definitely' need to be a term to describe that?

Perhaps I should have put "damsel in distress" in quotes. It describes the attitudes of those behaving as "white knights", not that of those calling them out on it.

"Harassment" describes a very broad group of behaviours. It's fine as a descriptor for that class of behaviour, but that doesn't mean specific terms to describe specific behaviours shouldn't exist. That's like saying you shouldn't use the term "knock" to describe premature ignition when "engine trouble" also describes it.

That said, you're correct in saying that the use of the term tends to be sexist and dismissive towards women. I don't have a solution for that.

Maybe you have a nice subtle meaning for it, but 98% of the time it's used to describe any man who defends any woman for any reason, generally with the implication "I can't imagine any reason a dude would be nice to a lady except to get sex." It says more about the speaker than the subject.

White knight: someone who defends another person without understanding the issues, or defending them regardless of their bad behavior. It's gender neutral.

How about codependent?

No, it would be called "nut-hugging".

Not only this, they are throwing mud at Russavia and Odder who called her out, while their evidence against her is pretty much undeniable. Wikipedia community is extremely toxic. Russavia and Odder are admins, OTRS-members and prolific contributors in Wikimedia Commons, but are nobodies in English Wikipedia (Russavia is permablocked from WP, so he is even worse than nobody), so people just support Sarah Stierch, because she as WMF-member has much higher social status inside of English Wikipedia community.

The submission did not say anything about shilling. Do you have additional information on this case indications she was shilling? Or do you think that all paid editing must be shilling?

All paid editing on Wikipedia is certainly shilling. If it is fair, balanced and notable, why would anyone pay for it? And this case calls for a particularly tough response, since she was part of the foundation and probably had admin access.

It really isn't.

There are cultural institutions (museums, galleries etc.) who have a public interest in making the world aware of, say, science or art history or whatnot. Their mission lines up neatly with Wikipedia's mission. If the Louvre or the Computer History Museum were to pay someone to improve Wikipedia's coverage of the topics their museums cover, I'm not sure how that would be a problem.

Or indeed, imagine this hypothetical: Bill Gates chucks twenty million dollars into a fund to pay some select group of Wikipedians a not-much-above-cost-of-living salary to generally improve Wikipedia's coverage of, say, medicine, science and humanities topics.

A non-hypothetical example: a friend of mine ran a contest on Wikipedia to improve articles about video games. Whoever improved the most articles in a particular period of time would get a few new games sent to their Steam account. That's paid editing, albeit for PC games rather than money. The motivation of the guy who ran it? He likes video games.

We have paid open source software development models: bug bounties, crowdfunding etc. That's not anathema to producing software.

With clear conflict of interest statements and an editorial checking process for paid editors, there's a way to do it without it being sleazy or shilling.

Yes, in general I think some paid editing is better than much of the free editing. People who edit for free are not all altruistic people who want to help advance human knowledge. Many of them choose an article to edit because they're interested in advancing some specific agenda, such as their political, social, national, or other views, or engaging in general boosterism of their local city, community, university, software project, church, favorite band, etc. Many are not motivated to do proper research in libraries to support the additions they make to articles, or spend time educating themselves about multiple aspects of a topic before writing about it. People who are paid in "Wikipedian in residence" programs at a museum, to take an example of the "gold standard" paid editing programs that have worked well, typically make much better edits.

One can surely be a paid shill, but that's just a good reason to look at whether the edits are any good. If someone is willing to fund non-shill editing that is actually good, then I'd say please do so, just like I encourage Red Hat funding paid open-source contributions. There are many situations where it is a win-win, when the interests of Wikipedia and the funder align (much like the interests of Red Hat and Linux often aligning).

For example, to take even a commercial example, I recently noticed that the Greek wine industry is currently very poorly covered on the English Wikipedia (even many of the basic grape varieties don't have good articles about them, let alone any decent history of the industry itself). This is bad for the English Wikipedia (which has a geographical gap) and conceivably it's even bad for the Greek wine industry (which has less information on its produce available to the internet-reading public). If some winemakers' organization was willing to fund a Wikipedian to go sit in a library for a few weeks and improve the articles on Greek grapes, wine legislation, producers, etc., I think that would be excellent for Wikipedia. It's work that needs to get done eventually anyway, whether someone funds it or not, so a funder appearing would just provide resources to make it happen sooner rather than later.

Of course, if instead of funding a researcher who sits in a library and writes articles, they wanted to hire a promotional agent who writes fluffy PR copy, then that kind of paid editing should be frowned on and removed. But then it should be frowned on and removed even if it weren't paid: if it were just a patriotic Greek puffing up his local wine for no pay because he loves it, that's bad editing too. So to me it's the nature of the editing that matters: is it encyclopedic, scholarly, referenced, or is it fluffy promotional stuff? Whether it's paid or not doesn't matter to me, because both paid and non-paid work can fall in either category.

Interestingly, this is much less controversial on some non-English Wikipedias. On the Swedish Wikipedia, paid editors are welcomed and encouraged, as long as they disclose their sources of funding and are careful about conflicts of interest. The focus is mostly just on "onboarding" them, to ensure they understand what is appropriate for a Wikipedia article and what isn't. One heuristic is that paid editors generally shouldn't remove information from an article, and shouldn't engage in attempts to "own" a page (such as watching it over months and trying to control its direction). But just showing up and writing new material that was previously missing seems generally appreciated, as long as it's suitably referenced and not PR copy.

You know there are a lot of people earning living by writing texts? Doesn't make them liars.

Your argument could also be used to claim open source software features should never be sponsored, and as such I believe it fails on grounds of proving too much.

Why would anyone pay someone to write code?

FYI, this blog post seems to have sparked the issue: http://twkozlowski.net/paid-editing-thrives-in-the-heart-of-...

Apparently Stierch was exposed because she was advertising the pay-for-article service on her oDesk profile.


Even casual Wikipedia fans are aware of how good the community is at sniffing out subterfuge...in what bizarre reality can a foundation member exist in as to not think this would be exposed, nevermind being seen as unethical?

When her entire raison d'etre at Wikimedia was to inject POV into Wikipedia (subtly/for a greater good/justifiably or not), it can hardly come as a surprise that something like this would happen eventually.

Yeah, perhaps even more than the announcement would suggest. I know that at one point Wikimedia's policy on including women called sex-positive feminism fake feminism and said fighting it was an important part of attracting more female editors. Wonder if that was her doing?

"...women and _other_ minorities..."

Wait what?

I actually don't find paid Wikipedia editing inherently troublesome. The process of discussing and editing a Wikipedia page is entirely open. So why should a company not be able to contribute to their page if the community approves of the changes - especially if that company is open about their involvement? Perhaps higher standards of review should be applied, but I see no reason to consider it inherently suspect. And we should all be realistic - you would be hard pressed to find a company, organization, or individual who doesn't try to influence their Wikipedia page if they have the resources to.

Neither does the Wikipedia community on the whole [0]; the problem is when it's undisclosed. If the editor makes clear their conflict-of-interest, the edits should receive extra scrutiny for neutrality and due weight and the end result should be the same: a "warts and all", unbiased article about a notable topic.

[0] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:PAY#Paid_editing

Thank you for posting that. I was under the impression that Wikipedia took a firm stance against all paid editing.

They also make a distinction (important!) between paid editing and paid advocacy. Read further in the thread.

Paid editing by a random person, going to happen, could be a job for people, this is just called writing.

Paid editing by someone with authority over Wikipedia, that is where I think people are going to draw the line.

Wikipedia's entire ruleset ("neutrality", no paid editing, no original research) winds up excluding anybody from the editing process who actually has knowledge about the subject of the article.

Later in the thread someone points out that there is a important distinction between paid editing and paid advocacy.

I don't know how it bears on this event precisely but it seems that SS was doing the former.

They publicized this just after the conclusion of the year-end fund-raising push.

The timing could be coincidental. Or not.

I thought spending money to get your message across is free speech? Isn't the Wikimedia Foundation an American company?

Free speech is only protected from the government. To a certain extent companies and individuals are barred from some types of actions that would prevent your voice from being heard (in the literal or figurative sense). But no company is required to permit all speech via their forums or by any individual person. HN is hosted in the US, but actively attempts to block spam content. Is that hurting the "free speech" of the spammers? Sure, if you're into that sort of thing. But HN has no obligation to give them the opportunity.

I'm continually amazed at how people can't understand this. You have a right to not have your free speech stifled by the government, but that has nothing to do with what a private corporation decides to let you do with their product.

The Wikimedia Foundation isn't a government agency, if that's what you're asking.

Free speech is also a value held by many people, including much of the Wikimedia community, separate from the formal enumerations and guarantees that limit government oppression.

You can't really call yourself a reliable friend of 'free speech' if your only concern is government censorship. Other forms of power and retaliation also suppress valuable speech.

> Other forms of power and retaliation also suppress valuable speech.

Right, like covert, paid shilling, which is what is at issue here. If Coca-Cola got to write its own page, Wikipedia would be a lot less useful.

Covert and thus unchecked by other viewpoints is a problem.

But is muzzling the entity and its spokespeople the truth-and-utility-maximizing response? It's suppressing information from the discussion, of which free speech advocates can be rightly suspicious.

Lots of paid work, even by people with an interest in the outcome, is useful. Until Wikipedia, all encyclopedias had mostly-paid authors. Almost all of the reliable sources Wikipedia uses have paid authors, often with a stronger-than-"NPOV" perspective.

Encyclopedia authors were paid by the encyclopedia company, which had an interest in its own reputation. The accusation here seems to be that this person was hiring herself out by the hour to write whatever she was paid to, all the while being employed by the encyclopedia company.

If Coke wants to donate to Wikimedia foundation, or submit content to impartial editors, more power to them.

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