Julian Assange is a peculiar chap, isn’t he? Visually, there’s something of the Bond villain about him. His style is a little arrogant, too – laced with more than a hint of nerdy superiority. On the day the Afghanistan leaks broke, while speaking at the Frontline Club, he batted away a query from Channel 4’s Alex Thomson by saying “I don’t find that an interesting question. Next.” Before that, after spending a day with the WikiLeaks founder, the Guardian’s Stephen Moss noted that Assange “exudes self-confidence, immodesty even.” In short, he’s not immediately likeable.
Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about WikiLeaks – and Assange – a lot. And there’s something I can’t quite work out: Should WikiLeaks have given itself a face? Or should it have remained anonymous, like the information it so brilliantly protects?
First, the argument for having a face. The question the vast majority of the public would have immediately asked, upon the leaking of this material, is: Who the hell are WikiLeaks? Assange provides a satisfying answer. In fact, with Assange standing (awkwardly) in the middle of the revelations, the tale is even bigger: more televisual, and more consumable. It has almost certainly added extra mileage to an already extraordinary story. He is The Whistlefather.
But then there’s the downside. By having a human as the face of the operation, WikiLeaks become fallible. In some ways, it taints the purity of the material they protect: raw, impartial information. As soon as you wrap the material with even a modicum of agenda – by humanising it, and by using phrases such as “war crimes” – you are providing the first hook on which the backlash will be hung. And this is somewhat tragic, as the existence and importance of WikiLeaks is an almost unquestionably good thing – morally imperative, even. It would be awful if Assange’s personality degraded the reputation of his brilliant creation.
If you look across the Internet, it seems to be the companies with a human face who attract the slings and arrows the most. At times, the attacks on Facebook’s privacy policies seem to be almost exclusively directed at Mark Zuckerberg (Gawker even took itupon themselves to pap him recently). When Apple comes under fire, the barbs are directed at Steve Jobs. But look at eBay. People have auctioned their virginity on the site, and widespread touting happens daily on its listings, but who is the face of eBay? Nope, me neither*. And has it ever come under sustained attack? Nope.
That said, Facebook and Apple don’t seem to be doing too badly.
I’m very keen to know your thoughts on this, as I still can’t work out the answer. Was Assange right to put himself at the centre of the story in order to fuel its growth? Or should he have stayed in the shadows? And, in general, is it better for a company to have a face than remain faceless?
* The founder and chairman of eBay is Pierre Omidyar, it turns out.