The government-secret busting website WikiLeaks got a mix of bad news and some kinda good news Thursday.
On the down side, the British courts ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could be sent back to Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual assault. But in the look-on-the-bright-side half of the equation, supporters of the site launched a nifty online gift shop, complete with snazzy “Free Assange” T-shirts and iPad sleeves. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the reason why Sweden wants Assange returned to the country.]
But it will take a lot of $19.99 T-shirt sales to cover the ongoing legal bills of its founder. (Mr. Assange says he has paid out £200,000 so far).
Meanwhile, the fact that the major credit card companies as well as PayPal have withdrawn their financial services from the WikiLeaks site means the organization is at a critical tipping point in its evolution, many observers say. Can it transcend its founder and solidify itself as an ongoing entity, independent of its high-profile creator? Or, will it be another flash in the media pan that crumbles under the weight of a single person’s travails?
Just as with any organization so tied to its founder, the team assembled around WikiLeaks needs to make some important decisions about its future, says Villanova University Business School marketing professor Ronald Hill.
Although the companies are vastly different in scale, Professor Hill suggests that the likes of Microsoft and Apple have faced the same issue with very different approaches. Whereas the large software company has moved founder Bill Gates out of the boardroom, “Apple is still wrestling with how to define itself beyond Steve Jobs,” he points out.
WikiLeaks may be miniscule in comparison, Hill notes, but it has garnered a certain magic in a bottle that is rare in today’s media world. “Whether or not you agree with what they have done,” he says, “WikiLeaks has managed to convince a very substantial number of people around the world that they are providing genuine information about important institutions that govern all of our lives.”
The site therefore has the potential to evolve, he says, into that holy grail of Internet websites, a trusted brand. But to do that, the grassroots supporters that have come forward around the site need to take the next step.
“They need to detach the functions of the site from a personality,” he says, particularly in light of Assange’s looming legal troubles. Making clear that he has no opinion on the allegations pending in Sweden, Hill adds, “the institution needs to establish an independent course to fulfill the vision of its founder without him.”
But WikiLeaks is certainly not the first website dedicated to exposing both governmental and corporate lying, points out social media expert and tech entrepreneur Michael Hussey, CEO of www.peekyou.com – and it won’t be the last. “There is nothing special about WikiLeaks,” he says, “those files could be posted anywhere on the Internet by anyone with access to a computer.” If Assange is genuinely committed to the principles of his site, he says, “then he ought to step down and stop making the website so much about himself.”
Admitting that he is “probably more against what WikiLeaks is doing than not,” Mr. Hussey says the site creator needs to “stop painting himself as this great White Knight and let a larger group take over.” If Assange really believe in his values, adds Hussey, “they should be able to stand on their own.”
But when it comes to rising above the Internet din, having the rock star of uncomfortable truths as your figurehead cannot be underestimated, says Detroit-based social media entrepreneur Jerry Paffendorf.
You can’t separate the momentum the site has gained from all the various tabloid-style histrionics that have tagged alongside Assange’s higher calling, he points out. This sort of “founder syndrome” happens often inside the world of nonprofit groups, he says, adding, “for good or bad, this is the kind of energy it takes to put an important issue on the map.”
A self-described student of history, Mr. Levinson harkens back to the lessons learned from the granddaddy of classified document releases, the Pentagon Papers, and says, “that was a very important moment in our history because it showed how our government had manipulated the truth and lied to the American people.”
WikiLeaks, he adds, is important not for the soapbox it provides a single person, but for the role it plays in the larger civic culture. “WikiLeaks can serve the same function,” he says, adding “for democracy to flourish it needs a maximum amount of information.”