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AOL Meddling in ODP Causes Shift in Balance of Editorial Power

AOL meddling in The Open Directory project may cause ODP to lose touch with its very raison-d'Ítre.
 
Until mid-1999, there were 5 paid staff members overseeing the work of Open Directory Meta Editors, Editalls, and rank and file editors. They were:
  • Rich Skrenta - Founder and guidance
  • Bob Truel - technical
  • Bryn Dole - technical
  • Celeste Hutchins - technical
  • Chris Tolles - Marketing

In July of 1999, Skrenta brought in a paid staff member, Bruns, but assured editors that that staff member's role would be limited. From his post on that date: "Her role will be to help with all issues ontological, as well as serve as a central resource and guide for the growth and direction of the ODP."

As of today, paid staff totals 25, with only 6 being technical. The remaining paid staff pushes their own agenda.

Clearly 19 paid staff members who dictate policy cannot legitimately be considered to be "a self-regulating community" of "volunteers."

When he announced the ODP Social Contract, Robert Keating (paid staff) said: "There has always been a cloud of suspicion voiced in the forums about the ODP being hosted and administered by a commercial organization. While staff has offered numerous reassurances that both Netscape and its parent company (AOL Time Warner) support, and will continue to support, the ODP as a free, non-commercial and open source-like initiative, there are still ongoing concerns."

From that contract:

"3. We Don't Hide Our Official Editorial Policies. We will keep all official ODP editorial guidelines and policies open for public view at all times."

This is only marginally true. While it is true that the official guidelines are accessible by the public, the majority of the real "editorial policies" are made in the private Meta forum, and for the most part NOT, as you would assume, by metas. Paid staff (generally speaking Robert Keating) states what their preference is, and it is then shaped and molded by the metas into something that is palatable to them. If, however, they mold too much, paid staff steps back into the thread and restates staff's position.

There have been serious rifts between metas and staff, the most notable recent one being the reorganization of the Regional tree. Although paid staff insists that it be reorganized in their new manner, virtually every meta has expressed disagreement. Finally, Keating won out by virtue of the fact that most of the metas backed off entirely.

A similar discussion then took place in the regular Regional forum where Keating repeatedly stated that there was a consensus where there clearly was none, and several editors pointed out that there was none, to no avail.

The second way that staff "pushes through" their agenda is by private email. Staff will pick out highly placed editors to email with "suggestions" for forum posts. Once the editor posts the idea as his own, staff will enter the discussion and agree.

If, however, the discussion becomes heated, staff will often back out of the situation and leave said editor swinging from a virtual tree.

Another bone of contention is the fact that paid staff constantly changes the Official Guidelines (the very ones which are available to the public) while not mentioning the changes, even to the metas, and in fact not noted on those guidelines. If you look right now at http://dmoz.org/guidelines.html , you will see that it claims the last "update" was 05/01/01, which is not true at all.

"4. We Provide an Open Invitation to Join."

This is true on its face: The invitation is there. The twist is that there are large numbers of people who are rejected on the basis of:

  • The category they are applying for. If a category has been a playground for abusers in the past, God herself could apply and not get the category. In many cases, if a category is a "pet category" of the meta looking at the application, no one will be accepted to it unless another meta gets to it first. Metas have the ability to "cherry pick," which many do. While this is not always the case, all too often, it is, since there are no "checks and balances" in the system, and rejected applications are deleted immediately, so there is no record of what happened. This was the case for more than a year and a half in the Private Investigator categories.
  • The IP they use to apply. Meta editors and staff constantly check IP addresses of applicants with XODP editors as well as existing editors, and in fact, have often removed non-abusive editors for no other reason than they had an IP address which matched someone else's.
  • The applicant's profession. With very few exceptions, SEOs are eliminated on sight if they admit to their profession on their application. If they do not admit it on their application, however, and it is later found that they are an SEO, that omission is in itself grounds for removal, regardless of the editor's editing history.

"5. We Encourage a Self-Regulating Community. We foster a self-regulating community governed by community-driven standards. We encourage the community to regulate itself, and to provide the checks and balances needed to ensure that its members follow mutually accepted codes of conduct and editorial standards. We depend on the honesty and integrity of the volunteer editors to ensure the directory is high quality, user-friendly, and free of abuse."

This is absolutely untrue. Most of their "mutually accepted . . . editorial standards" have never been brought up for acceptance. XMeta Editor mitch was removed from his meta position because he publicly stated in the Adult forum a position which was counter to paid staff Keating's stated position.

This would be a good time to mention that these so-called standards are not standard at all.

While mitch was being removed, an editall who had quit in a huff at the same time was reinstated by staff and without anything nearing a consensus of the metas. This editall, in fact, has twice been accused of taking bribes, twice been investigated for it (said investigations both times finding that it was indeed likely), and twice had paid staff look the other way about it.

While it is true that a meta consensus is needed in order to remove an editor, that is only for editors who are proposed by metas. Staff removes and reinstates editors when they wish and without consultation.

These recent developments are evidence that a clear shift in the balance of power at ODP has taken place, to the extent that its status as a true volunteer project is threatened.


Related Links

Why the ODP Isn't Open
By Andrew Goodman, Editor, Traffick.com

Life After ODP
By David F. Prenatt, Jr., Guest Columnist, Traffick.com

Speak Out about the Open Directory Project on the Traffick Community


Julian McCreary is a pseudonym for a high-ranking ODP editor.

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See Andrew Goodman speak at eMetrics Chicago 2014

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