To some extent, the arc of the WikiLeaks story reflects the nature of the publics attention-span in an era of instant and ever-changing information. Very few people are able or willing to sustain interest in a lengthy series of investigative stories about multiple countries, and humans have always preferred gossip anyway. But the rapid rise and fall of WikiLeaks also tells us something else: the rules of the information game have not really changed.
Despite its fresh methods and its promise of radical openness, WikiLeakss early releases were almost completely unnoticed before it linked up with newspapers in Europe and the US for its Afghan war leaks earlier this year. The groups first serious coup (in 2007) was its release and analysis of a sizeable set of documents detailing almost the complete US military procurement chains for the Iraq and Afghan wars, a sizeable scoop for a news organisation of any size. But almost no one noticed it. Without the muscle (and staff hours) of the mainstream media, the same might have been true of the Afghanistan, Iraq and embassy cables leaks.
The worlds major newspapers have taken a different, more traditional view of the balance between openness and responsibility than WikiLeaks does. They have chosen to present less than one percent of the embassy cables, redacting the documents they published and declining to make public information that they felt endangered national security or the lives of individuals. NYT went even further: it has shown redacted versions of the documents to the
US government before putting them on the Web.
Perhaps more seriously for WikiLeaks, the newspapers ability to explain and contextualise the embassy cables has left no room for the (often slightly paranoid) annotations and commentary that group was accustomed to attaching to its earlier releases. Even more ominously, the print media has already begun to close ranks against the organisation: Londons Guardian newspaper shared its copies of the cables with NYT even though WikiLeaks had dropped it as a partner (some say because of the newspapers unflattering profile of Julian Assange).
At the same time, WikiLeaks has been unable to fulfil its own stated core mission of targeting highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia. The US embassy leaks have signally failed to prompt soul-searching in Russia and Asia: Vladimir Putin has denigrated US reporting about his role in the Russian government as slanderous, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has claimed that the leaks are a plot against Iran, Thailand has blocked reporting of leaks about the royal family and the Chinese have refused to comment at all (although they have reportedly tried to hack into the flow of submissions to WikiLeaks in order to access documents belonging to other governments). The organisation may for now have to content itself with a slightly bizarre back-hand compliment: the publication in Pakistan of a series of faked revelations about the Indian army and its high command.
Meanwhile, American diplomacy has refused to fall apart in the aftermath of the leaks: like the proverbial duck, it has remained calm above the surface while no doubt paddling away vigorously below the surface. But the focus on America has already caused WikiLeaks to split apart; a group of former volunteers has decided to re-float one of the organisations earlier ideas by creating an on-line marketplace in which leakers themselves will offer documents to named media organisations for a limited time (after which they will become freely available). By doing so OpenLeaks hopes to become a non-ideological broker of informationand to ensure that documents about issues of local importance do not end up languishing in an ever-lengthening digital queue as they have at the more globally-minded WikiLeaks.
This model may just succeed in remedying one of WikiLeakss biggest emerging problems. As the embassy leaks have gained more media coverage, the spotlight has shone even brighter on Julian Assange: Bradley Manning, the American soldier alleged to have leaked the documents in the first place, has almost been forgotten. He will most certainly be very dismayed to learn that the world has not changed overnight and that Julian Assange has stolen his limelight; his fate may well give pause to the next Bradley Manning, who might decide that pressing the send button will not bring glory or recognition after all.
There will almost certainly be more leaks and more red faces in the days and weeks to come. But the authors of this weeks diplomatic cables might well have noted the irony that the world looks very much like it did three weeks ago.
The author is a researcher in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge