Valleywag and Erik Moeller

For the last week, gossip web site Valleywag has been dressing down Erik Moeller, deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, about his previous essays and thoughts about — and let’s use the most ‘neutral’ term we can for this — “child sexuality.” The “Wag” links to his postings of yesteryear on his own web site and the tech/Internet discussion site Kuro5hin. The inventory of their headlines is vintage Valleywag:

Among the sentences that has caused the most buzz is the one from Erik’s essay “Pleasure, Affection, Cause and Effect,” where he states:

“But if there was any doubt, yes, I am defending that children can have sex with each other. Not only adolescents, but also children of earlier ages — whenever they want to.”

One should read the whole thing in context to understand his larger argument through the prism of his libertarian stylings. Erik’s is an intellectual argument, in a style familiar to the user-created “diaries” of the nearly forgotten Kuro5hin tech community. (People today may know a site that was inspired by the same diary model and Scoop software — DailyKOS.)

Some Wikipedians have expressed deep concern about the nature of Erik’s writings and the lack of discussion about this in a normally open community. Others think that simply because the story broke in Valleywag, it should be discounted altogether.
My view? As they say in basketball, “Play the ball, not the man.” Nevermind your feelings about Valleywag’s style, if the links show it, deal with it.

To be fair, it is nearly impossible to publicly discuss the topic without quickly degenerating into a bitter emotional exchange. The mailing lists for Wikipedia have withered in terms of traffic and usefulness. And we’ve seen recently there has been a tendency to pull the “moderation” trigger on lists such as Foundation-L. Even with mandatory moderation lifted, the standing threat is still there, putting a lid on any dialogue that goes outside the mainstream. And we thought self-censorship was a only a problem in China.

Instead, the places it’s being discussed are personal blogs such as with Ben Yates, Danny Wool and Ben McIlwain (Cydeweys), and their comment threads. Yes, trollish banter from anonymous commenters are inevitable, but you will see there is also honest dialogue and true concern for the plight of Wikipedia.

These blogs are now being picked up upon by sites with more sway than Valleywag. Mashable, the influential tech blog covering Web 2.0, has now published about this and did not hold back:

So long as you’re desired profession is underwater basketweaving, fry cook at McDonald’s or tomato picker at country farm, I doubt your employers are going to do much of a reputation search to see what sort of objectionable positions you’ll go at great lengths to play devil’s advocate for on the web.

The only question that remains is how long Wikimedia will fail to go through and do these sorts of reputation background checks. For a company in the public eye, these things do matter (particularly when they have to do with your second in command). Given the predilictions for the directors at Wikimedia though, I get the impression that such background checks that look for shady behavior might be a case of pot, kettle and black.

This is going to be an ongoing PR problem for Wikipedia if it does not respond. It’s already under fire for hosting “pornographic” images, if you believe WorldNetDaily which you normally should take with great skepticism. This only makes the issue of public trust even more pressing.

So while Valleywag does bring up an issue worth reviewing, it also has its flaws.

Just today, it got a story all wrong about Erik’s past edits. In their juicy headline, “Wikipedia’s Erik Möller on the history of child sexual abuse: All Greek to him!” Valleywag claims that he was responsible for introducing text into the article [[Child sexual abuse]] that started with

Pederasty in ancient Greece took on mystical significance…

It went on to attribute this to Erik:

Since the practice was so widespread in ancient Greece, and there is no indication of any detractors at the time, many do not consider this an example of child sexual abuse (see moral relativism)

The problem is, it’s not Erik’s edit.

The link they provide [diff] shows nothing of the sort, and instead displays what changed between Erik’s edit in 2003 and today’s version. An analysis of the article’s edit history shows that the text in question was added by an anonymous IP user [1] on June 1 2002 and elaborated upon by User:Gretchen [2] two weeks later. This was one full year before Erik’s first edit to that article.

Valleywag needs to retract that post.

I’ve been watching the fallout of this story via Valleywag, blogs, personal mails, Twitter and IMs over the last week. Taste and preference notwithstanding, Erik’s comments butt up right against the line of generally accepted views in Western society regarding relations between minors and with adults. Does it cross the line? I can’t tell you, but I can help navigate the field of evidence and people’s views.

The community should have a say in what this means for projects that Erik has been involved with, such as WikiYouth or Wikimedia Youth Camp. It’s what’s demanded when volunteers make up the project. Ultimately, though, it’s the board and the executive director that have the final decision as to what implications this has. And it behooves them to be mindful of the sense of the community.

We will be discussing this issue in this week’s Wikipedia Weekly podcast in a fair, balanced, responsible manner that is fact-based and non-sensational.

It may be our toughest show to produce yet.

17 thoughts on “Valleywag and Erik Moeller

  1. This is a good commentary on the issues at hand, so thanks. In my own post I purposefully decided to play it middle of the road, letting his words speak for themselves. I don’t see the evidence to go all “OMG, pedophile!”, but it seems like other people are, and they’re sort of missing the point of all this. He’s not that bad, but it’s still bad enough to cause serious problems.

    WMF has had a perpetual problem with getting good employees.

  2. One item that has been overlooked: it is very unlikely that Erik will be asked to resign. The reason is simple: he brought in a three million dollar grant, which will provide about 25% of Wikimedia’s income for the next few years.

    If a salesman was responsible for 25% of a company’s sales, they’d probably overlook what he put on his expense account. If a professor brought in that much cash, he’d be one big step towards tenure — which would allow that professor to publish essays like this one.

    And as offensive as his essay may be, it is still only an essay. There is no evidence that he has done anything illegal. However, I certain I’m not the only one who would not want him near my children; & as others have pointed out, the Foundation cannot simply ignore this & simply hope it goes away.

    Geoff

  3. Ben, I must disagree with you. Erik and the Foundation have no choice but to ignore this and hope it goes away. It is virtually impossible to say anything that will not hurt in this situation, even for the best PR experts. And history has amply demonstrated that the Foundation’s competency at PR is less than stellar.

    Erik’s problem is not so much that he once stupidly publicly advocated a position that is prone to be interpreted as supporting pedophilia, but that he lacks the sense to understand that his actions have consequence and that he can and should be held responsible for those consequences. Since this same position appears to be held both by Jimmy and by the hordes of anonymous Wikipedians who make Wikipedia “one of the most prolific reputation and defamation engines on the internet“, he fits in quite well there.

  4. The “context” is that the number 2 man at a major nonprofit corporation is advocating pedophilia and actively pushing for it’s normalization on the corporations product, Wikipedia. He didn’t do it one time, he is consistent about it.

    This is a huge issue for Wikipedia, and when combined with the massive amounts of hard core pornographic images that seems to be flooding Wikipedia, and the outrage around the abusive edits of biographies of living persons, this is a PR nightmare for Wikipedia management who have shown no signs of having the maturity to deal with something like this.

    I can tell you this for sure, grantmakers do not like to be associated with people who promote pedophilia. They do not like it one little bit. They are examining the fine print of memorandums of understanding and grant contracts with Wikipedia this weekend.

  5. …and what about all the pro-pedophilia crap he wrote with his likely sockpuppet, AnotherSolipsist?

  6. “Buffet”, do you have proof that Erik Moeller has been “actively pushing” for pedophilia? Or is this claim a sloppy generalization akin to your claim that there are “massive amounts of hard core pornographic images … flooding Wikipedia”?

    As for the grantmakers concern, if it *is* an issue for them all they have to do is communicate to the Foundation that for the money to appear Moeller has to go. I don’t know what their thinking is at this moment. As I wrote above, money talks: the Foundation can’t tell him to go, but the grantors can.

    Geoff

  7. Yes, the proof that he has been “actively pushing” for pedophilia is the sockpuppet he probably uses, called “AnotherSolipsist” (which was even blocked for 72 hours for pushing pedophilia…)

  8. Anonymous: “proof” and “probably” don’t mix. Either you have proof or you suspect something.

    Until now I haven’t seen anything that indicates that Erik actually advocates paedophilia.

  9. Ask Wikipedia to do a checkuser on Eloquence (Moller’s main account) and AnotherSolipsist, and see what they say.

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