8 Things I Learned from My Failure to Make an Appeal for Wikipedia

I wanted to write an appeal for the Wikimedia foundation. I’m going to be completely honest with you: the only reason I wanted to write it was for completely self-promotional and ego purposes. On almost every Google search, Wikipedia is the #1 or #2 result. It’s almost like Google is just a middleman to Wikipedia. I failed horribly in my attempt but I learned quite a few things in the process.

In my ideal world, for instance, you might search on “head transplants” and then click on the Wikipedia page and see my face on the top left hand side (above the fascinating article which I highly recommend as I learned quite a bit that will turn useful at my next cocktail party or small talk at a wedding) with something like, “Click here to donate $5 to my favorite cause”.

Who is that? One would wonder. Why is he now talking to the entire world?  You might forget all about “head transplants” and realize that far more valuable information was a click away if you would just listen to my appeal to humanity for the benefit of the Wikimedia foundation.

How amazing would that promotion be? All for me.  When you are promoting yourself you can’t think of just, “how many search engine impressions can I get?” When the aliens invade 700 years after our apocalypse they won’t care about SEO. They will care about my very personal appeal at the top of 700 million Wikipedia pages. What was this civilization like at it’s peak? Don’t worry, aliens, “James Altucher” will tell you. He has an appeal.

Why did I want to promote myself? No reason. Just ego. Ask my therapist. I lacked loved as a child, blah blah blah.

And I figured: they had Jimmy Wales up there. They had some programmer for Wikimedia. They had some random editor. They had the inventor of wikis. So why not me? My daughters use Wikipedia to cheat on their homework every day. And if I ever get sick and they figure out how to hook up the spinal cords to the head I might very well end up with one of these head transplants thanks to what I learned on Wikipedia. Although, seriously, I use Wikipedia all day long. Just did a vanity search on my name there, for instance.

So I started with the idea: get massive self-promotion. And then I took the next step: go straight to the top: I wrote Jimmy Wales with the subject: I can help.

I needed to stand out. I came up with the most outlandish way in which $1 contributed to the Wikimedia foundation could help the planet. I imagined a future with Insta-Fi and no separation between our superficial consciousness (“the brain”) and the Internet. And what would Wikipedia look like then? Then I pitched it straight to Jimmy Wales.

(Branson, Wales, Tony Blair, and maybe….me? In the future?)

To my surprise, he wrote back right away. He was either being nice or just wanted to get rid of me. Probably both. But I like that he wrote back. I probably would not have done that if I were him. At the moment I have 146,355 unread emails in my inbox. On April 22, I wrote how I had 105,633 unread emails in my inbox. I’m such a bad responder. Once Wales wrote back, I had a fantasy about hanging out with him and Larry Page on Richard Branson’s yacht. That’s what we all do when we’re not writing emails to each other. (See, “Why are Larry Page and I So Different (or…why didn’t he buy my company”).

Wales wrote back that I should contact Zack Exley who is in charge of the foundation. I kept pushing. I wrote Zack:

“Zack, I’d very much like to make an appeal for the Wikimedia foundation.

[description of who I was – its not important to include here]

I’m aiming eventually for “the wiki-chip” in our brains. We can
already use EEGs to identify letters we are thinking of, to diagnose
depressions, and to give basic commands. I envision a day when we can
“ask” the wiki-chip for information, it will use wimax to look it up
on wikipedia and return the info through the optic nerves connected to
our brain.

All of this will be possible because of every dollar put into the
foundation right now. I spend half my day on Wikipedia and would love
to participate in these appeals. Jimmy Wales suggested I write you.”

Again, to my suprise: Exley wrote back right away and was very kind about it:

We wrote back and forth a few times after that. He asked what I had in mind.  I suggested that since he had all these editors, inventors, etc make an appeal, why not have an appeal from his biggest user. ME!

Finally, he called me out right on the spot (very politely) and narrowed down to the two issues that were really at stake here: who the hell am I, and, perhaps more crucially from his perspective, was I a seriously mentally ill patient or future patient.

He wrote:

“James –

I’ll definitely consider it if you send us an appeal! But I think it might just be too random — in the sense that a lot of people would ask: Why him? Are they trying to promote him?

We did do a reader/donor appeal this year — a software developer from a small city in India who left us a nice note when she donated.

I’m afriad that most people would read it like wacky science fiction — and the Wikimedia fundraiser just isn’t the forum for changing people’s minds about what the future’s going to look like.

Have you written about this sort of thing in your columns? Point me there and I’ll be able to see what language you’re using and think about whether it might fit in an appeal.



Clearly, he is pushing me off further. But I can’t stop. Woody Allen says the key to success is “showing up”. I wanted to show up to a manned space  mission to Mars but I have glasses so they will never send me there. But here was something within my grasp. I pushed back again and actually wrote the appeal and sent to him. Here’s what I wrote:

“Two years ago there was the argument that Wikipedia was not as accurate as more traditional (text-based with editors) encyclopedias. That argument is over and Wikipedia won.

One year ago there was the argument that the Internet was making us more stupid. The other day my nine year old daughter was explaining the evolution of different sea-based species that eventually evolved into humans. I asked her where she learned this information since I had no idea. She said, “I read it on Wikipedia”. So my nine year old made me smarter. Wikipedia made her smarter. And will continue to do so for the rest of her life.

Let’s engage in a small fantasy that’s not so far-fetched. What will the argument be ten years from now? Perhaps twenty years from now? Science can already do non-invasive brain scans to determine what letter you are thinking. Science can already do non-invasive brain scans to allow quadriplegics to command exo-skeleton structures that allow them to perform basic functions they could not otherwise perform. That’s today. What’s tomorrow? A non-invasive way to make a thought query into Wikipedia via some wimax network. A response that gets communicated back to the brain. A way to receive through sight or sound or memory the answer to your request.

Will $5 get there? Will $1 million? Of course not. This is the future. This is the future of our intelligence. This is the future of our evolution as ideas continue to mate rapidly, as generation after generation of humans seek to improve themselves. I may not be alive to see the results of this fantasy. But I bet my nine year old will be. And her eventual descendants. Will $5 get there? No.

But it’s a start.

Who Am I?

I’m not an editor of 1000s of wikipedia articles. I’m not the inventor of the wiki. I’m not a programmer of it. But I’ve been a reader of 10,000+ Wikipedia articles. I’ve plagiarized hundreds of articles straight from Wikipedia. And I’m better for it. And so are the readers of my articles. And so are my children. “

Damn, I thought for sure that would get me in the door. And note: I’m not fooling anyone. I believe what I wrote.  But I had visions of 700 million people seeing my picture, clicking on my appeal, and ending up here on my blog where they, perhaps, could read all about transvestite prostitutes.

But then today I arrived at Wikipedia and there was a note at the top from Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia foundation, thanking everyone on the planet because Wikimedia made their financial goals. In that one moment, Sue Gardner crushed my dreams.

I missed out on getting my appeal in there. This year. I failed. But a failure is only a failure if you don’t learn anything from it.

Lessons learned:

  1. Failure is ok. I tried. I learned something new in the process.
  2. Go direct for the decision makers so you don’t waste any time.
  3. Use your brain. I had to come up with an idea to make me stand out. Maybe it didn’t work this time but if I try 30 times in a row, something will stand out.
  4. Use your brain, part II. The idea muscle is like any other muscle. It needs exercise or it atrophies. Take out a waiter pad and a pen, go to your closest cafe, and come up with ten ideas that will make the world better one year from now. Even better: ten ideas you can do. Even better: ten ideas you can do with the tools available to you today, at your business, on your computer, whatever.
  5. Use your brain, part III. Like any exercise, you don’t get the “burn” unless you sweat. Sweat a little. You just made the list above. Now what are the ten next steps. List them.
  6. Now do it. Make sure you can execute on your ideas. Else they are bad ideas. Then do them TODAY. Then tomorrow, repeat. I’m onto my next thing. No harm. No foul.
  7. It didn’t take that much time. It forced me to exercise my brain in unusual ways. It forced me to exercise my networking muscle. And if my devious, world-dominating plan had worked, it would have had great results. For me. if not for the Wikimedia Foundation. If not the entire planet! Why do I want to promote myself? For no reason at all. Just for fun. But who can argue with that?
  8. Repurpose your efforts. I made a blog article out of it. BAM!

Some sources from Wikipedia used in this article:

See Also: “The ONE way to achieve your New Year’s Resolutions”)

And “How to Have a Big Idea”

  • Hey! I’m not just “some programmer”.  I have hopes and dreams and like unicorns, too.

    Also: I’m going to give Zack guff about this for *weeks*.

    • It was your appeal that inspired me to try! You made dreams seem like they could come true.

      • So, yesterday, I read this post on Techcrunch. And then I went to the office because I was hosting a meetup for the Product Design Guild.  And Zack was in the office, working (it’s post-mortem time for the Fundraiser) and I mentioned your article and he’d read it and the result was awesome. I’m totally not kidding: I’m going to get a lot of mileage from this.

        Also: I’m really glad that my appeal inspired you.  That’s the entire point of the exercise.

        Next year, man.  Next year.

        • That’s good. Thank you. i got worried i offended Zack. And now you! So all is good in my world again.

          • Awesome!  BTW: big fan. You’ve been in my RSS reader for a while now.

  • 444

    I have found that 99.99% of the time, when people close an email with “Best,” they are trying to get rid of you.

    • Adam K

      Personally. I use “Regards.” Or even worse, “Warmest regards.”

      • 444

        “Warmest” – like a warm pile of …..

        Also, “Take Care,” means, “Please don’t contact me again for a long time.”


        • Anonymous

          That’s always a dilemma, isn’t it? How DO you close a semi-formal e-mail without sounding phony?

          • Sooz

            I only compose one a year…

  • I think if you linked directly to the transvestite prostitutes article in your plea, it would have increased your chances :)

    Awesome effort and getting a reply is an accomplishment within itself.

  • davidson

    James – I like the lessons learned summary at the end of your post. I hope you keep this format more often and keep posting. Your articles are like a college education!

  • Whatso

    what is wikipedia?

    • I was wondering about the same…

      • D T

        I don’t know what it is either but I bet a wikipedia search would explain it to you.

  • Dfugelso

    I donated $50 two weeks ago. My son, a sophomore in college, told me four years ago that Wikipedia id God. I’ve got 30 years experience in programming. I use Wikipedia every friggin’ day. Wish I’d given more.

  • Dave

    Damn. Brilliant shit again. But what’s with the aliens invading 700 years after our apocalypse. Doesn’t apocalypse mean end of the world? What’s to invade after that. And what order do you do things? Read, write then brainstorm ideas? You use all your creativity writing then use what’s left of it brainstorming ideas?

  • A.Kumar

    You suffer with verbal diarrhoea! After the first few lines none of your posts hold my interest.My last visit to your Blog!

  • A.Kumar

    You are scared of Criticism? You soft peddle to sell Books!

  • Anonymous

    I like wikipedia too.

  • Jennifer

    You need a virtual assistant to handle your email. Love the appeal. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for next year.

  • Anonymous

    My life’s dream has been to be noteworthy enough to do a guest spot on Sesame Street. I want to talk to Grover.

    Having your own Wikipedia page is pretty snazzy as well. Congratulations on your entry. :)

    • Sooz


  • Sooz

    your idea muscle has had a bit of a workout lately.this post does not at all surprise me…
    What did we do before Wiki?

  • I remember thinking my idea to add myself to Wikipedia when I was in college was ambitious. It was deleted a day later, but fun while it lasted. This was a little bit more ambitious. It’s always interesting to hear about which successful people answer emails from anyone. I sometimes think I have a better chance hearing back from Mark Cuban than some close friends.

  • Accomplished two things I had been putting off because of this post.


  • Way to hustle James!

    And nice touch on mocking Steve Blank in “Lessons Learned”

  • André

    Writing this article with loads of references to Wikipedia will probably help to improve your Google ranking… This is almost evil ;).

  • This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last week

  • Since you quote Woody Allen, it’s apprpriate to go back a couple of generations and quote one of Woody’s intellectual mentors – Groucho Marx.

    “I’d never join a club that would have me as a member”

    I use Wikipedia incessantly, as well, but continue to question its veracity when I consider how easy it had been for me to inject pieces of informtion, of dubious quality, into articles.

    I look at it as dangerous to humanity as wanton injection of DNA material by a made scientist or an apethetic virus, into our own genome. The only difference is that it’s the mind which gets infected.

    And then it dies.

    It’s so difficult to get bad information out of your head once it sets up shop. That doesn’t mean that I’ll stop using WIkipedia, but just think about the power of people transmitting snippets of potentially faulty information throughout their personal social media networks.

    If you wanted to create the reality that George Washington was a repressed transvestite who created a fiscal crisis in 1787 by speculating in collaterized debt obligations, you can get the tidal wave going if your network is large enough

    • Fubar

      poor/incomplete/inaccurate information has been a big problem for a long time. evolution wired the human brain to deal with it to some extent. most adaptive human learning is social learning, in the evolutionary sense. a few weirdos and nonconformists are always needed for survival, and to challenge the tendency for the collective to become coercive towards those that do not follow conventions, even when those conventions become dysfunctional.

      The internet is a very weird thing – it is more “free” than most of what happens in human societies. Various groups are trying to limit what is “free” in the name of a “better common good”. They are probably liars.

      The price of such “freedom”  is unpredictability, and perhaps overexposure to the unexpected.

      • I absolutely agree that the “weirdos and noncomformists” are necessary, as are the dreamers and artists.

        But it’s not that they are feeding us mis-truths. They are transmitting the truth of the future, or a deeper druth.

        The human brain adapts,as you say, to some extent. But the human brai,as much as it seeks freedom to believe, also responds to authority and authoritative figures.

        The belief that someone has greater insights or greater access to the truth explains why pastors and clergy has so much sway over the flock. Theree’s a reason they are referred to as “flock”.

        We are programmed to accept as the truth that which comes from those of higher authority, whether moral, political, business, etc.

        Look at how people buy, hook, line and sinker what politicians feed tehm in the heat of a campaign.

        No one listens to the fact checkers.

        Who reads the corrections in the New York TImes?

        When the Papal encyclical absolved the Jewish people for the death of Jesus, how much did that do to eliminate 20 centuries of blind hatred?

        So when Wikipedia is established as an authority, and that is what encyclopedias have always sought, the very idea that there is a lag between any “weirdo” entering information and it then getting delivered toi the masses who may or may not be able to filter out or forget the erroneous information, there’s a problem.

        Purity of information, as defined by its faithfulness to truth, is perhaps best to be defended by restricting the ability to add to the “free” body of information by anyone.

        Do I really believe any of this? No, but, I still don’t want to be part of the club that would have me as a member.

  • Can you do a post in relation to motivation when you can similar to: http://bit.ly/x9eS5c

  • Jay

    Sponsor an X Prize for the Wikichip

  • ” the only reason I wanted to write it was for completely self-promotional and ego purposes ”

    Nothing wrong with that. Hell, that’s why I’m making this comment. :)

  • Anonymous

    James, I hope to donate some money to wikipedia someday clicking on your appeal. I’m quite happy that you failed because a) I didn’t have any money to donate this year b) I got to read this terrific article from you! c) I got to realize that I too repurpose my efforts!!

  • Gregory Kohs

    Apparently, Wikipedia made you so smart, you can confuse “it’s” for “its”, and then confuse “its” for “it’s”, all in the same blog post!

  • razz atrox

    James, I really really like your writing. It’s just egomaniacal enough to draw attention, and yet self abasing enough to feel it in the gut. On the other hand, this post was total crap.

  • Fubar

    I have seen well organized and talented religious extremists attack and silence their critics successfully on Wikipedia. If a group of extremists is large enough (in relative terms), dedicated and persevere, they can easily overwhelm the Wikipedia system and defeat social justice, mostly under the radar. This may be more of a problem for small groups of nonconformists (especially those that are mainly cyber-communities) than large ones that would attract at least some mainstream media coverage.