The site was outpaced by the very democratising technology that fanned its sails
Julian Assange has always been a curious figure — an extreme narcissist with a penchant for winding up political elites — but he was extremely good at what he did. He was the engine behind Wikileaks, which turned 15 yesterday, and since his arrest, nothing of note has really appeared on the site.
In some respect Wikileaks was a victim of its own success. It has been outpaced by the institutions whose failures once left a void for it to fill — but were inspired by its methods. This week, the Pandora Papers were leaked to the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The ICIJ then shared access the same groups that Wikileaks once did: The Guardian, BBC Panorama, Le Monde and the Washington Post. They did not require a maverick, or intrigue, to become news. Nor did they have to consent to Assange’s anarchist world view. The Pandora Papers’ antecedents, the Panama Papers, also came via the ICIJ.
Perhaps what happened to Wikileaks is a mirror of what happened all over the net around 2007: spiky one-man bands, kickstarted by charismatic nut jobs, replaced by more consumer-friendly versions. MySpace was muscled out by Facebook. Napster gave way to the Spotify era. Invariably, when consumers had a choice, the values of commerce and bland solidity re-asserted themselves.
And nowadays, you don’t have to be Julian Assange to be an online sleuth. Just as in 2021 you don’t build a shop website with your own developer team, you buy it pre-built from a Squarespace, making your need for Wikileaks to host your tranche of government data quite unnecessary.
You might say that real value creation by WikiLeaks was always in branding the stories. In filleting gigabytes of data into headline nuggets that normal people could consume; then creating a big enough media cyclone to launch often dry data into the news cycle.
In this, Wikileaks were initially way out ahead. But as the years have rolled the eccentric personality of Assange and his interesting line in martyrdom have gone from being the subject of Andrew O’Hagan biographies to a tragi-comic sideshow.
And as to the filleting: well, one of the few recent entries, from 2019, is a great example of the way the open-source leaks era never quite lived up to its own techno-utopian billing:
Not everything that leaks is interesting. And if the leakers can’t convey what is, any remaining value will be blown away in the info-blizzard within hours.
Assange may crave a place in history of information democracy. He was a skillful storyteller and an even better marketer. But the truth is that whatever position he occupies is already settled by now. It is only the grisly mop-up of courts and arraignments that are yet to come.