What is WikiLeaks? I don’t know. Neither do you.

[Note: At the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to what I believe to be great attempts to explain, as clear-headed as possible, WikiLeaks.]

Yesterday, I posted this brief quipish, but true, status update on Facebook: “Actual questions I’ve been asked by people in the past five days: 1. What is WikiLeaks, exactly? 2. What does “to the cloud” mean? 3. Why is Groupon worth $5 billion?”

While numbers 2 & 3, are fairly easy to answer (“the worst ad slogan ever” and “in a market-based economy, the buyer sets the price — unless they can get a ½ price coupon”), the first question is, frankly, about as difficult a question as I’ve run across during my 15 years of trying to understand the internet by living on and in it.

There are several reasons why I find it difficult to understand WikiLeaks — and even more, why I can’t explain what I believe to those who live both outside and inside the tech and new media bubble.

Here are just a few things I do know, but still, well, admit that I also don’t know.:

1. WikiLeaks is not a wiki: The word “wiki” is important to me for personal and profressional reasons. I spend time trying to explain what wikis are, and why I believe the wiki software platform and collaborative editorial and development approaches of wikis are important to understand and embrace. When the group behind WikiLeaks launched a website in late 2006, they briefly used a wki software platform and even claimed briefly to be “an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis.” But — and please note this and correct anyone who you see claiming differently — the group behind WikiLeaks has nothing whatsoever to do with the non-profit organization that operates Wikipedia. Soon after their first website was launched, the group behind WikiLeaks stopped using the wiki platform (I’ve discovered that wikis are great for creating order out of chaos — I doubt they work as well if creating chaos is your goal). They also soon dropped the “we’re a wiki” description of themselves and started describing themselves with the more first-amendement-friendly term “news organization.” More recently, the term “stateless news organization” has been used to describe Wikileaks. As “stateless” can be used in political, legal and existential arguments, it is probably a great word to hang on WikiLeaks.

2. WikiLeaks is no longer a website: Yesterday, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land used his masterful skills to explain why WikiLeaks is, well, stateless in another way. It’s not one place — it’s everywhere. It’s the reality that movie studios and record labels have long known: the internet is not just the web. And using the word “website” to describe WikiLeaks is as anachronistic and provincial as using the term wiki to describe what it is.

3. For those who want to use WikiLeaks as a litmus test for any point of view, right or left, east or west, good or bad, it’s a tar-baby: Last week, I tried to avoid the issue as, frankly, I was buried (and still am) in work. But over the weekend, I devoted a few hours to reading the opinions of some of the people I turn to on topics related to new media, press freedom, civil liberty, security, politics, the law and technology. I came to this conclusion: Those who attempt to embrace or reject WikiLeaks because they believe it easily fits within their political or philosophical framework are, in my opinion, letting their passions run ahead of their common sense. There is none among us so wise as to foresee the consequences of what WikiLeaks’ release of the State Department cables will mean. It may change the world for the better, lead to the world’s collapse or mean nothing at all. However, I can predict one thing based on my longterm observation of the internet: Whatever you find most appealing or repulsive about WikiLeaks today, when the same approach or tactic is used by “your side” or against “your side,” you will suddenly find the philosophical flexibility to argue the opposite of what you are arguing today. It’s unfortunate how great intentions nearly always have a trainwreck with unintended consequences.

4. I’m not typically an alarmist, but if you care for the internet, the last thing you should applaud or support is war: I’m as drunk on internet Kool-aid as they come, but I sometimes marvel at how people can place their faith in private corporations or well-meaning non-profits or mysterious “stateless” self-governing bodies to make sure all of this stuff works. In reality, the internet depends on a lot of faith in organizations and institutions that are not likely “in it for you.” But, despite that, they have to put up with you, and so we all have to hold hands and sing Kumbaya with each other if our iPads are going to work. But just think if you manage, say, a State Employees Union Pension Fund, and you take some of those funds and invest in financial institutions that depend on the internet or ecommerce sites that facilitate millions of dollars of transactions each day or VC funds that invest in web-based startups like, I don’t know, Twitter. Then, one day, you discover that all of those businesses you’ve invested in all depend on a system that can be subverted by a small group of individuals who have an ax to grind with, well, whomever they’re pissed off with today. I think you can see where I’m heading with this. The bottomline is this: Any time you attack the internet, you are not attacking just the other guy, or making your voice heard, or “making a statement.” You are using a shoulder-mounted grenade launcher to help start a war that could easily end with nukes.

So, what is WikiLeaks? I’m not sure what it is, but I’m fairly sure it’s not what you think it is…no matter what you, or I, think.

Helpful links to information about WikiLeaks and the Cable Controvery

  • Isn’t wikileaks just a group of people dedicated to publishing and generally disseminating non-public information about newsworthy matters? It’s like a Daniel Ellsberg empowerment society plus the Internet, where “Daniel Ellsberg” stands in for every angry, frustrated, principled or even disloyal leaker who ever lived. Are we dazzled by the Internet’s ability to add instant everywhere functionality to many things — which is “new” — that we don’t see wikileaks as the latest in a long line of journalistic provocateurs? Or is this what Dave Winer has long predicted, that journalist will become extinct because the sources can now go direct? nnps great history and descriptions from Berkman Center http://futureoftheinternet.org/wikileaks-cable-faq

  • The deal with WikiLeaks is this: Everything you say it is, I can answer, “Not really,” “Yes” or “No” or”Whatever” or even, respond in some smart-assed way, like: “why do you use loaded labels like the french-sounding provocateurs?” If I thought there was a straight line from Ellsberg to Wikileaks (I wish it were that simple), then I wouldn’t be so confused. I think there is a difference in being “dazzled” by the internet and being “blinded” by the internet. I think some smart people are confusing the two — or at least, that’s what originated this post. I think Dave has used that term to describe the ability everyone has to be their own “source” — to speak for themselves, and not have to speak through journalists or other third-parties. I may not be (and it wouldn’t surprise me to not be) interpreting that correctly, however. I’m not sure how this is related specifically to that use of the word “source.”

  • Maybe Assange meant Wicky, not Wiki, like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REnyp6MtGn8 The language barrier can be tough sometimes.

  • Or Wacky. Jon, you’re on a roll.

  • Great post. I’ve had my doubts about Wikileaks. When it was, originally, a wiki, I thought it an interestingu2014if wildly dangerousu2014experiment. As it shifted away from being a wiki, I began to resent it: I feel that to some extent it has piggybacked on Wikipedia’s success for attention. Its logo, for example, is very similar in style to those used by Wikimedia’s websites. Today, it damages Wikipedia’s reputation through that similarityu2014without even being a wiki.nnI don’t want to attack the *concept*. If we cherish freedom of speech, we ought to cherish a tool for releasing reports of misdeeds, censorship, or violence. What I don’t respect is the implementation, which I feel has drifted from its core purpose and become a media fiasco that will likely burn itself out. Provocative reports of “Collateral Murder” are fine, but the huge document dumps that Wikileaks has facilitated seem to go beyond that.nnI haven’t made up my mind: I wait to see whether Wikileaks will burn itself out, or settle down to a slow and steady flame for the long run. If it can achieve the latter, perhaps it may achieve something worthwhile.