William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Conflict of Interest’

Bats in the Belfer: A Beginner’s Guide to the Biggest Wikipedia Controversy You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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on April 2, 2014 at 7:47 pm

If you follow Wikipedia a bit more than casually, you might have heard something lately about nefarious goings on about the Wikimedia Foundation, a charitable trust called the Stanton Foundation, and something called the Belfer Center at Harvard University. If you follow Wikipedia in the news generally, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

The short version—if I can manage to pull this off—is that from 2012 to 2013 the Wikimedia Foundation (or WMF, which oversees Wikipedia) followed the request of a major donor (the Stanton Foundation) to coordinate the placement a paid editor (named Timothy Sandole) with the Belfer Center (at Harvard University) to directly edit articles (which WMF has always said it does not and would not do). The position was supposed to go to an experienced Wikipedia editor, but Sandole had no Wikipedia experience before he applied for the position.

The work he contributed over the course of the following year hardly seemed to justify his compensation, and some non-trivial edits were of direct benefit to the Belfer Center and Stanton Foundation. It’s probably worth noting at some point here that the principals at Belfer and Stanton are a married couple. It is also worth mentioning that several Wikipedia veterans privately criticized the initiative to Foundation employees and warned this would not go well. As you may have gathered, it did not go well.

I’m going to repeat myself and underline the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation has always said that it wants to stays out of content creation or editorial decisions on Wikipedia, and it’s frankly kind of boggling to find that’s exactly what happened here.

So, this all looks really bad. It is also complicated by a handful of other problems:

  • News broke at the same time as the Wikimedia Foundation considered an amendment to its Terms of Use intended to require greater disclosure by paid editors—a highly relevant situation, you might say.
  • Also concurrently, people associated with the Wikipedia watchdog Wikipediocracy had been hammering the Wikimedia Foundation for looking the other way when prominent Wikipedia donors had edited their own article—an even more relevant situation, clearly.
  • And of course, all of this coming at a time when WMF has been struggling to name a successor to long-serving executive director Sue Gardner, whom this blog has praised, but whose track record of success seems to be unraveling as the end of her term draws (presumably) nearer.

So there’s context and commentary, but if you’re intrigued, I promise there is a lot more to read. Here’s what you need to know, and then some:

  • April 26, 2012—Not quite two years ago, and long before this became a controversial matter, a post on the official Wikimedia blog—“Can you help Wikipedians collaborate with Harvard University?”—announced the initial call for Wikipedians to apply for a position to work with Harvard’s Belfer Center.

    You can actually still read the original job description on Jobvite, seeking a “Campus Wikipedian”. The position began August 2012, and concluded August 2013.

  • March 2, 2014—The first public report that something might have been amiss was published one month ago today, by a Polish editor best known as Odder, in a blog post titled “The pot and the kettle, the Wikimedia way”. This lays out a good deal of the key info, and its implications, but the connection between Belfer and Stanton had not yet been made. Still, Odder’s editorialization remains valid:

    The WMF’s unprecedented role in endorsing a project so negligent in adhering to broadly accepted ethical principles not only undermines the integrity and quality of Wikipedia, but also raises questions about the role of the Stanton Foundation and the Belfer Center in it.

  • March 19, 2014—After percolating in private discussions and email lists for a couple weeks, the matter was finally raised on the publicly accessible Wikimedia-l mailing list under the heading “Timothy Sandole and (apparently) $53,690 of WMF funding”, with a link to Odder’s post and some pointed questions about WMF’s handling of the matter. Want to read more from this thread? OK, you asked for it.
  • That same day, Wikipedia’s volunteer-written newsletter, the Signpost, put a spotlight on the issue, detailing the case as it was then understood. Following Wikipedia’s cautious, Timesian house style, it was titled “Foundation-supported Wikipedian in residence faces scrutiny”.
  • March 20, 2014—The next day, Liam Wyatt and Pete Forsyth, two editors who had warned against the Stanton-Belfer arrangement went public with their previously stated misgivings. Wyatt’s concluded:

    The WMF dug themselves into this hole despite the frantic attempts, which were largely rebuffed, of several of the GLAM-WIKI community help them fix it – or at least reduce the number of problems. Now, it’s up to the WMF to dig themselves out again. Ironic given the current attention being given by the WMF to paid editing…

  • March 21, 2014—Just one more day after that, a longtime Wikipedia antagonist published the findings of his own research on the same list, with the subject line “Belfer report – analysis from Russavia”. This posting finally connected the dots between Stanton’s Liz Allison and Belfer’s Graham Allison.
  • Finally the WMF was moved to respond, and deputy director Erik Moeller sent a fairly detailed, bulleted reply to the same list just a few hours later. It acknowledged some edits by Sandole seemed to favor Belfer and also Stanton in a way that raised exactly the kind of “conflict of interest” issues Wikipedia is often worried about.
  • April 1, 2014—Yesterday more details arrived with a blog post on Wikipediocracy titled “Business as Usual”, identifying even more problematic Belfer-Stanton edits (if less implicating of WMF) by individuals assoicated with it, and added substantially more detail to the record. As mentioned before, this is a website disliked by many in the Wikipedia community, and this post in particular written by Gregory Kohs, who has more than earned his reputation as Wikipedia’s #1 gadfly. Indeed, there is often too much innuendo floating around these parts, but they still do investigations that no one else does.
  • Finally, we come to the official report from the Foundation, written by a team and presented by none other than Sue Gardner herself. With an even more prosaic title than Signpost, Gardner laid out the “Wikipedian in Residence/Harvard University assessment”.
    • It acknowledged the “mistake” of combining “fundraising and programmatic work”, not listening to people like Wyatt and Forsyth, and that no course correction was done. The “decisions” made were mostly bureaucratic promises to apply more “scrutiny” and “process” and a tentative date for May 1 has been set for more information. We’ll see. But one decision is quite clear, so far as it goes:

      In the future, the Wikimedia Foundation will not support or endorse the creation of paid roles that have article writing as a core focus, regardless of who is initiating or managing the process.

      In other words, the Wikimedia Foundation has decided that it will not do the one thing it previously said it would not do, but that it just did anyway.

So there you have it. What happens next? Probably nothing regarding the above; an official report and an acknowledgment like the one which arrived yesterday is about as much as you can get. The person at the top is already leaving her position (eventually) and it seems very unlikely that anyone else who made “mistakes” is in line for that job anyway.

That said, it’s certainly not how Sue Gardner wanted the last chapter of her leadership at WMF to read. And whatever this means for the Terms of Use proposal, or the larger question of paid editors or “conflict of interest” on Wikipedia, will be written in the next.

Wikipedia on the Brink?

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on November 18, 2013 at 9:36 am

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a writer for a big magazine, asking for my take on the much-discussed MIT Technology Review article “The Decline of Wikipeda” by Tom Simonite. As far as I’ve seen, no article has yet appeared, so: I figured I would repurpose my comments for a blog post here, rewriting enough that my remarks remain exclusive, but my views are known. (If that article ever comes out, I’ll update this post.) Some of these topics I’ve previously discussed on Wikipedia Weekly, but a more comprehensive take is long overdue. So here it is.

mit_tech_review_logoFor those who haven’t read it, the Technology Review piece outlines a few reasons for concern about the long-term health of the Wikipedia community. The central points are not at all new: fewer new contributors are joining the site, many veterans are drifting away, the site’s culture and bureaucracy can be stifling, and a startlingly low percentage of contributors are women. All worthy topics, of course. Meanwhile, the piece does a good job of synthesizing these concerns, and explores some recent research that tries to make sense of them.

It also comes at a particularly apt time. In August, when I posted a summary of Wikimania Hong Kong, including Jimmy Wales’ keynote, the event projected something like satisfied aimlessness. Wikipedia was bigger and better than ever, such that the big question was: what would it do next? Wales had some vague ideas about saving journalism, but that’s been about all we’ve heard of it since.

Yet even at that time, and especially in the few months since, the community has experienced several controversies producing animosity and discord not seen since… OK, there is animosity and discord at Wikipedia every single day, especially if you follow the “drama boards”—but these incidents have been very high-profile, in some cases making news (like this Technology Review article), calling into question the community’s ability to reconcile its philosophical differences, spotlighting a rift between the Wikimedia Foundation and the community it serves, and raising doubts about the ability of Wikipedia’s highest judicial authority (the Arbitration Committee, or ArbCom) to make sound decisions. And while most participants would agree that these incidents represent legitimate issues, it’s also fair to say that there is disagreement about much else: how to prioritize issues, how to respond to each, and even what should be a desired outcome in each case. I owe you some details:

  • Visual Editor Debacle—in a post for this blog earlier in the summer, I offered early praise for the Visual Editor, a big initiative from the Foundation, a WYSIWYG version of the Wikipedia editing interface. The big idea was to make editing easier—the standard Wikipedia “markup” is more like computer programming than not—and that doing so might create a path for new people to get involved.

    Wikipedia_Visual_EditorBut this was an untested proposition, and anyway who was to say whether it would attract more helpful or unhelpful edits? Alas, my praise arrived too soon. Scratching a little deeper, the new software had bugs—lots of them. Besides which, existing contributors were unhappy to find that this new system was also the default, a huge change that hadn’t been clearly explained to them ahead of time. Following an extensive debate among the site’s core editors, and after a few strategic retreats by the Foundation’s developers, a single community member changed the code and disabled the Visual Editor for everyone. The Visual Editor is back in beta once again, and its near-term future is uncertain.

    While there were undeniable errors in the launch of this initiative, the Visual Editor’s misfire is less the disease and more the symptom of it. Of late, I’ve been telling anyone who cares to listen that major tensions between the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community pose serious doubts about Wikipedia’s ability to grow into the future. The former group comprises mostly paid professionals who may or may not have originated from the community, while the latter is composed of a vast, disparate, passionate, sometimes disagreeable group of not-quite-like-minded individuals. The formalized former has a greater ability to act in a concerted effort, yet its charter states that it must follow the lead of the leaderless community.

    While Wikipedia was still growing and expanding, rapid growth seemed to solve all problems. Now that the community is contracting and entrenching, it looks like a serious roadblock. How can Wikipedia and its community of editors take on big initiatives—such as revolutionizing journalism—when they can’t agree on something like this? Is consensus still working for Wikipedia at this point?

  • Chelsea / Bradley Manning—Following a high-profile conviction under the Espionage Act in a U.S. military court, the infamous Army Private Manning announced her transgender status (confirmed, really, for those paying close attention) and with it sought public acknowledgment for a name change from Bradley to Chelsea. Although transgender acceptance is rocky still in 2013, it wasn’t too long before most media outlets had adopted the feminine pronoun. Likewise, the Wikipedia entry for Pvt. Manning was updated to /Chelsea—and then it was rolled back to /Bradley—and then the fighting began.

    Manning_US_ArmyI’m not even going to get into the details, except to say that I’m still fairly stunned that the Wikipedia community had to argue about it at all, let alone that it got so ugly. After some debate, ArbCom stepped in. Eventually the entry was moved back to /Chelsea_Manning, and sanctions were imposed on some debate participants. Surprisingly, the heavier penalties were levied on pro-Chelsea editors over technical matters, while some more hostile pro-Bradley editors were let off more easily. A veteran editor named Phil Sandifer complained about this on his personal blog. Soon after, ArbCom returned to say Sandifer had revealed personal information about another participant in violation of Wikipedia’s policies, and he was subsequently banned from Wikipedia. This was a shocking outcome (and I hope I’m not risking my own standing on Wikipedia merely by linking to his post). Assuming ArbCom is correct in their reasoning, I see why they took the position they did—but the punishment seems much harsher than it should be.

    Given the above, it can be very easy to forget that one of Wikipedia’s “five pillars”—the most important organizing principles of the entire project—states: “Editors should treat each other with respect and civility”. Technology Review points out that acrimony among editors and complaints about the increasingly unpleasant and bureaucratic nature of Wikipedia is a reason editors are leaving. Given the above, it’s not difficult to see why.

  • Pets_com_sockPR Sock puppet scandal—This fall a long-running, low-profile, on-wiki investigation into a network of sock puppet Wikipedia accounts broke wide when several news outlets connected the anonymous accounts to a rogue PR company I’ll decline to give further publicity here (no, it’s not Pets.com, but wouldn’t that be great?). This company was not unknown to editors, but the specifics of their activity had been. All accounts known to be associated with the company were blocked, and while this one was not a tough call, much else in this topic area is. Wikipedia’s official guidelines say one thing, although Jimmy Wales has promoted stricter guidance.

    The terminology is a challenge, too: “conflict of interest editing”; “paid editing”; “paid advocacy” and “paid advocacy editing” are all similar terms often used to discuss this issue, although they are not identical and the widely different conclusions one may draw can be strongly influenced by unspoken assumptions related to each.

    A number of policy proposals were offered up, but at this time none has attained substantial support, and some are clearly dead in the water. The Wikipedia community has tried more than once in the past five years to draw up some rules to regulate this kind of activity, but nothing much has come of it. Meanwhile, individual editors have set up the occasional effort to assist PR representatives (and offer an alternative to direct edits), but these have always been understaffed. While not a new debate, it doesn’t seem like any new epiphanies will come of it this time.

    (Note: I have already written about this for the blog, and I have a greater involvement in this subject compared to the others.)

The above are all specific incidents with their own unique circumstances and complicated outcomes, but it’s not difficult to see how they point toward larger issues with the direction of Wikipedia. As it happens, the direction of Wikipedia is very much at issue right now. Sue Gardner, the first (and so far only*) executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, is leaving at the end of the year. She prepares to depart with significant respect and goodwill among a wide range of community members—and yet there’s also significant concern that Sue_Gardnerher successor is in for a really difficult time. Meanwhile, the Foundation is narrowing down its search, and a decision is expected soon. The name of this leader-to-be and his or her vision for Wikipedia is still a mystery.

One evening last week, I ran my views past another longtime member and leader (such as they are) of the Wikipedia community. While this person acknowledged the issues I raised, there was another aspect I had been overlooking. Is Wikipedia at a crisis moment? Not exactly—it’s been in crisis for awhile now. The problem is not that the disagreements are any worse than they were previously, but the difference is that these disagreements are now much higher profile than they were before.

Wikipedia was once able to grow its way out of its problems, but that hasn’t been an option for awhile: these issues have loomed larger ever since the growth of new editors slowed and turned into decline, and since Wikipedia found that it couldn’t avoid the public spotlight. Remember, the Technology Review article is literally called “The Decline of Wikipedia”. As I said at the beginning: there’s not much that’s new in the article. But it might just summarize the problem better than it realizes.

*It’s been pointed out to me that WMF had an interim executive director at one point, however this individual was basically a caretaker in the position. But the point stands: Sue Gardner is still—please forgive the forthcoming play on words—sue generis.

Images courtesy, respectively: MIT Technology Review, Wikimedia Foundation, U.S. Army, Jacob Bøtter, and Paula Wilson via Wikimedia Foundation.

Wiki-PR’s Case Study in Worst Practices and What Comes Next

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on October 23, 2013 at 4:13 pm

This entry is cross-posted from a similar blog post on the (new) blog of Beutler Ink, a content marketing firm owned and operated by yours truly. As dedicated readers are aware, I’ve long been an advocate and practitioner of “white hat” Wikipedia engagement for PR professionals, and this post represents my views on the matter.

This week so far has been a very interesting time for Wikipedia: mainstream press outlets, including the BBC, TimeThe Guardian, SlateCNET and more, have picked up on the story of “Wiki-PR”, first reported by The Daily Dot two weeks ago. For those readers not up to speed, Wiki-PR is a little-known company identified as the culprit behind several hundred deceptive Wikipedia accounts, whose purpose was surreptitiously creating and maintaining articles about the company’s clients. The Wikimedia Foundation, in a statement yesterday, described Wiki-PR’s alleged activities as a “Terms of Service” violation, and said it was “currently assessing all the options”.

This is an issue that matters a lot to me—both personally and professionally. If you’ve worked with Beutler Ink, you may know that I personally am a volunteer contributor to Wikipedia, someone who has been called to comment on the site in the media, and a provider of consulting services related to the website. At Beutler Ink, it is one of our more unusual service offerings—and it’s a fun one at that. Since I first learned of Wiki-PR, I’ve been certain that the company’s M.O. was to intentionally and systematically evade Wikipedia’s accepted rules. And how did I know this? Easy: I had always found it very curious that I’d never once crossed paths with the company’s representatives on Wikipedia.

As far as I can tell, Wiki-PR and Beutler Ink share exactly one thing in common: we both offer services focused on helping companies, organizations and individuals navigate Wikipedia. Literally everything else is different. Our approach to transparency, our methods of outreach, our attitudes toward the community, and the effects of our actions are night and day. At the present moment, Wiki-PR has shuttered its Twitter account, and is reduced to offering unpersuasive denials to major media outlets. Meanwhile, here I am writing in plain English about the tricky subject of public relations and Wikipedia. (Nor is it the first time I’ve written about it.)

The practice of helping outside organizations communicate with the Wikipedia community for the purpose of improving aspects of coverage is a legitimate enterprise, but it’s also a very complicated one. Few Wikipedians are really enthusiastic about companies and organizations having an influence over what Wikipedia articles say, but they also know that Wikipedia articles don’t always get things right, and the views of companies discussed in articles should be considered. Company representatives may have corrections to add, but these suggestions should be balanced with Wikipedia’s goals as an encyclopedia—and it’s always better to have these corrections made out in the open.

But Wikipedia is notoriously opaque—its rules are not easy for outsiders to find or follow—so it’s not at all surprising to learn that Wiki-PR (and other unethical firms like them) have been able to get away with telling their clients everything was on the up-and-up. By definition, these companies and individuals had hired Wiki-PR because they didn’t know anything about how Wikipedia worked. Unfortunately, Wiki-PR took advantage of the website’s obscure rules to deceive their clients.

As a matter of fact, a few times over the last few days, I’ve had friends and colleagues ask me: Hey, isn’t that what you do? I can’t respond fast enough with an emphatic No. There are several reasons we are different, but the two most important are ethics—especially with regard to transparency—and quality.

First and foremost, we are committed to following Wikipedia’s best practices for responsible Wikipedia engagement—such as the all-important “Conflict of interest” guideline, Jimmy Wales’ so-called “bright line” and the community information page “Plain and simple conflict of interest guide“—because it’s the best thing for the integrity of Wikipedia and the best way to protect our client partners from criticism. We take a hands-off approach to Wikipedia engagement: rather than making direct edits, we offer solutions that work for Wikipedia and our client partners both. Rather than hiding our affiliation, we make it crystal clear that we are paid consultants. We can’t promise that every Wikipedia editor will always be willing to work with us, but we aim to be “state of the art” and to respect the rules Wikipedia has adopted for itself. As these “best practices” will surely continue to evolve, so will we.

Second, a commitment to quality work serves everyone. Several of our articles have been listed as “Featured” or “Good” articles according to Wikipedia’s volunteer-based rating system—not an easy recognition to attain. We always make a point of saying that the reason we are so successful is because we place improvement of Wikipedia as a top goal. Where Wikipedia’s goals may differ from a client’s goals, we will not ask for that particular edit. And when this inevitably happens, we are confident that we can explain why. Since 2008, I’ve been doing some form of transparent Wikipedia public relations (I like to call it “wiki relations” although it hasn’t really caught on) so I know what works, and what doesn’t work. When I don’t know, I ask first. If you want to get away with something, you don’t come to us.

Ultimately, the big difference between Beutler Ink and companies like Wiki-PR is that we believe in Wikipedia’s mission and we want to help it become a better resource. That we can do this while also helping our client partners improve the information about them on the most important reference website in the world is something we’re very proud of.

It’s hard to predict what the Wiki-PR debacle will mean for the state of Wikipedia and public relations, although it seems we are closer to the beginning of this story than the end. But in my optimism, there are two things I would like to see happen next.

First, I’d love to see Wikipedia finally get serious about creating a unified request system for outside interests—a customer service desk, if you will—similar to the “Articles for Creation” process but for existing articles, and then stay serious about working through the inevitable backlog. Second, and just as importantly: when companies like Wiki-PR are caught trying to manipulate Wikipedia for their own benefits, they need to feel the pressure from not only the Wikipedia community, but also from PR professionals.

Yet so long as unethical practices like the ones in the news right continue to dominate the discussion, this only make it less likely that the Wikipedia community will take us seriously. As long as Wiki-PR and its ilk dominate the news, it’s hard to blame them if they don’t.

How to Stop the Next Bell Pottinger

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on December 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm

I’m somewhat late by now to one of the bigger Wikipedia-related stories to come along in recent months: the revelation of secretive Wikipedia edits by a London-based PR firm called Bell Pottinger. As reported by the BBC and The Independent and others, Bell Pottinger was caught airbrushing client entries, adding promotional material and removing critical information. Of course, the company’s own Wikipedia profile is now disproportionately about this incident, at least for the time being.

In a swift and thorough investigation, Wikipedia’s volunteers determined that Bell Pottinger employed at least ten accounts, and probably more, to edit more than 100 separate pages. These changes included adding “promotional/excessive language”, including “puffery” and in some cases “unambiguous advertising” by accounts with such innocuous-sounding names as “Biggleswiki”. (Ask not for whom the Bell Pottinger tolls, it tolls for Biggleswiki.)

In spite of myself, I was amused: why is it that supposedly smart, sophisticated PR professionals seem to think the best approach to Wikipedia is duplicity?

Problem is, I think that narrative may be driving the response a bit too much. While the coverage has been mostly responsible, noting that Bell Pottinger committed “possible breaches of conflict of interest guidelines”, it is easy to come away with the impression that any interaction with Wikipedia articles by interested parties is inherently illegitimate. Not unlike the widely-reported incidence of U.S. congressional staff edits to Wikipedia in 2006, or similar incidents uncovered with a tool called WikiScanner in 2007, it ends up stigmatizing editors who would make legitimate edits.

The BBC writes: “While anyone is free to edit the encyclopaedia, the site’s guidelines urge users to steer clear of topics in which they have a personal or business interest.” This is not true for personal interests, and while true for business interests, anyone who knows the site well also knows that it is not the full picture. At least the BBC also quoted Wikipedian David Gerard, noting the investigation would focus on whether the edits were carried out in “bad faith”. More Gerard: “We’re having a close look. What the team is going to do is look at Bell Pottinger’s clients and see what edits have been made.” It so happens these details actually do matter. And even Jimmy Wales, amid more forceful denunciations of the bad actors, told The Independent: “There are ethical PR companies out there.” Not that you ever hear about them.

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As some readers will know, I’ve long been interested in the topic of COI (“Conflict of interest”) editing at Wikipedia. I don’t spend a great deal of time dwelling on the topic here, but indeed it has been a professional focus as well. Over the past few years I have developed best practices for clients, mostly large companies and organizations with existing articles, to facilitate the improvement of those Wikipedia articles in a constructive manner, following Wikipedia’s rules. As noted on the About page of this blog: “My goal has been and will always be to improve such articles while working within consensus.” I’ve carried many of these on my back—these projects are not difficult to find—and helped clients engage under their own name as well. I’m proud of all these, not least because so many find it so surprising.

It shouldn’t be this way. Earlier this year, I teamed up with creative agency JESS3 and marketing automation firm Eloqua to produce a “white hat” guide for marketers and business professionals titled “The Grande Guide to Wikipedia”—a how-to for constructive interaction with the Wikipedia community. The feedback was positive, but I heard more from Wikipedians than from marketing professionals. I have no doubt that furtive, undisclosed edits are common at most firms, not because they seek to do harm (like Bell Pottinger), but because editing transparently seems like too much trouble.

Another reason, and I want to be careful here, is because statements by Jimmy Wales have created the impression that anyone who works for a marketing firm is unwelcome. This goes back to the business involving Gregory Kohs and the MyWikiBiz controversy, where Wales’ “shoot on sight” comments remained effectively the only quote on the matter for a long time. Kohs, openly hostile to Wikipedia and vocal about his intent to subvert Wikipedia was, for a long time, the only model. No doubt this unfortunate turn of history kept well-meaning COI editors in the shadows.

But I’m not alone in thinking that this needs to change. Recently, a social media marketer named David King wrote a very good blog post titled “Why Wikipedia Needs Marketers”, which included this astute observation:

The volume of [Wikipedia] content is growing, but the active contributors to maintain, update and police those articles is shrinking. As this trend continues, vandalism, bias, outdated information and blatant factual errors will run even more rampant.

Marketers are the most motivated to maintain Wikis on subjects important to them and invest the time in providing quality, well-verified content. We can fill this gap if we can learn to support Wikipedia’ s encyclopedic goals and follow the rules.

The response to his post was, perhaps surprisingly, very positive—with encouraging replies in the comments from respected editors including Lori Phillips, FT2 and Wikimedia Foundation reader relations head Philippe Beaudette. King was subsequently invited to expand on the theme at The Wikipedia Signpost, where he continued:

COI contributors introduce bias, but I’m also concerned of the bias without them. Some of our most knowledgeable and motivated contributors are COIs. Does that mean we open the doors wide? Absolutely not. COIs are like political lobbyists. We’re needed but our participation needs to be a delicate and well regulated one. But through teamwork, education, awareness, process, a better ecosystem we could change the tides.

I half-agree with this. I think the analogy of lobbyists is incorrect; “COI editors” should self-regulate their own contributions, as Wikipedia’s Conflict of interest guideline itself says: “Where advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.” Conflict of interest is not fait accompli; a conscientious editor can and should acknowledge the potential for conflict of interest, and take steps to mitigate that. This should include seeking consensus for making edits outside of what the COI guideline describes as patently “non-controversial edits”.

But he’s right that such edits should also be well-regulated, although they are not now. In practice, following the advice of the Paid editing essay and seeking consensus at the Conflict of interest/Noticeboard (COI/N) or at various WikiProjects can present significant delays, another non-trivial obstacle for marketing and PR professionals who might then choose to just edit without providing adequate disclosure.

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David King is also right that there needs to be a better ecosystem, both to support and to regulate such editing activity. But such a system is unlikely to happen on its own. The answer may lie in an accommodation not unlike the one that accepts the role of ethical PR professionals on Wikipedia. To wit: although the spirit of Wikipedia is for it to be volunteer-edited, there are cases where COI editors, whether paid representatives or smart employees, can help address problem areas with certain articles. Likewise, the Wikimedia Foundation plays no role in setting editorial policy, but it can and should play a role in facilitating responsible COI activity.

There are good, active editors at COI/N who frequently catch bad actors (and infrequently help good ones) but unless their ranks are expanded significantly, they would have a difficult time handling the volume, were marketers to wise up and learn to follow Wikipedia’s rules. Why not help them out?

I suggest that a model already exists: through outreach efforts described in the Wikimedia Foundation’s Strategic Plan (PDF) and embodied in the Wikimedia Ambassador Program, resources could be put toward meeting PR professionals halfway. I don’t think the Foundation needs to seek more such editors, in part because they are already here. But it can provide a safe harbor for assistance requests and advice to ensure COI compliance, and make it safe to follow the rules. Yes, there are plenty of how-tos on pages scattered around the website, but if Danny Sullivan is right about one thing, it’s that Wikipedia is confounding to the uninitiated.

Five years ago, Wikipedia was definitely not ready for this. Today I think it is. And I wouldn’t necessarily call it traditional public relations, and certainly not marketing, because Wikipedia is a unique medium with its own rules. I suggest thinking of it as Wikipedia relations, or wiki relations for short. Hesitant Wikipedians should see it as a mark of how far the project has come: while volunteers remain the core of Wikipedia’s community, there is room for professional representatives of outside interests to work constructively in this space.

Returning to Jimmy Wales’ comments above, ethical PR firms and COI editors do exist. With some effort by the Wikipedia community and the Wikimedia Foundation, more can be encouraged, and Wikipedia would be better for it.

The Grande Guide to Wikipedia

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on May 3, 2011 at 8:14 am

In line with my cryptic tweet of yesterday afternoon (owing to an early scoop by The Next Web) here’s the big reveal: in the past few months I’ve been working with the marketing automation company Eloqua and design firm JESS3 (with whom I worked on “The State of Wikipedia” video) to write a new entry in their “Grande Guide” series of how-to manuals. Of course, I wrote about Wikipedia: “The Grande Guide to Wikipedia”:

Because Eloqua’s audience is marketers, they are also the focus of this guide. One of the first (rhetorical) questions raised in this guide is this: “Is Wikipedia a marketing opportunity?” The answer, more or less, is: “No, but…” While trying to use Wikipedia as a marketing tool is one of the surest ways to find yourself in trouble with Wikipedia editors, there are times where it is appropriate for someone who works with or for a company to make positive suggestions and even some non-controversial edits.

This subject makes Wikipedians understandably nervous. As evidence, consider the many tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of words expended on debating the propriety and rules surrounding paid editing—without coming to a resolution. The result is a confusing place where contributors with a financial interest are not exactly welcome, but also not disqualified. It can be very confusing. As Eloqua’s Joe Chernov writes:

It’s also important to note that we worked hard to preserve the integrity of the Wikipedia community throughout our Guide. We aimed to share how Wikipedia truly works, so that marketers can understand and appreciate it – not so they can game the system. We hope and trust that respect comes through in the content.

I hope you’ll read “The Grande Guide to Wikipedia” and, whether you’re a marketer curious about Wikipedia (more than a few of you, I know) or a Wikipedia editor skeptical of marketers (and not without reason!), I hope you’ll learn something new.

A Potential Supreme Court Nominee Probably Edited Her Own Wikipedia Article. Is It a Big Deal?

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on April 13, 2010 at 9:30 am

leah_ward_sears_wikiNew York-based media blog Gawker is reporting that Leah Ward Sears, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and potential nominee to the United States Supreme Court by President Obama, edited her own Wikipedia article in late 2008 and early 2009.

While the possibility exists that someone else used her initials, last name and year she became a state Supreme Court Justice as a username, it usually turns out that this type of account is exactly that person. Gawker is focusing primarily on an edit she made that was favorable toward herself:

On May 6th, a user named LWsears1992 edited Leah Ward Sears’ Wikipedia page, adding the clause “Based in large part on her highly regarded record” to a passage about how she defeated an opponent in the 2004 race for Georgia Supreme Court. (Georgia is one of eight states that have the sort of weird policy of electing Supreme Court justices.)

This is technically correct, but not exactly right. While Gawker does have a screen shot of an edit by Lwsears1992 “adding” this, all she did was restore a phrase that had existed on the page since June 2005, added in the first place by a technology consultant in Atlanta. The phrase was removed again a few days later for lacking a source, and Lwsears1992 did not press the case further. Not that Sears should necessarily be making direct edits on matters of disagreement, but these are considerations that few Wikipedia outsiders understand.

In total, Lwsears1992 made 36 edits to Wikipedia, all of them relating to this particular article. So how did she do? Did she make the page better or worse, overall? To find out, I went through each and every edit, starting with the article as it appeared before she started working on it, November 3, 2008 and concluding with the article after she completed her work, on November 13, 2008. Here is what I found:

Better:

  • The fact is that Sears is being called out because she attempted to be transparent about it. However, it’s probable that she made a single edit an hour before her first editing session from the IP address 167.192.61.254 in Atlanta, Georgia. Unfortunately, she screwed up a template, rendering the “Infobox” sidebar a mess of code. But I count this as a positive, because of what happened next. Once she had caused this error, she created an account and undertook the task of fixing it. Not only did she do so, but approximately a third of her edits were devoted to getting this one thing right.
  • She uploaded her own photo, taking the time to release it under two free licenses, the old GNU license Wikipedia used to use for everything, and the Creative Commons license it uses now. She experimented with the sizing of the photo she added, including trying it at full size before settling upon 155 pixels wide, which is the width still.
  • She added useful context, such as noting that her resignation from the Court would coincide with the end of her term; this is unambiguously more useful than simply ending the sentence on “she will resign from the State Supreme Court at the end of June 2009.”
  • Chances are good she made the article sturdier in the long run, changing the article to read that she was the “first” African-American female Chief Justice in a U.S. state instead of the “only” one. Assuming this is correct, the former will always be true though the latter assuredly will not be.
  • She tried to protect her own page from vandalism by experimenting with templates meant to indicate the page cannot be edited in some circumstances. But as she was not an administrator, she couldn’t do this anyway. Once she saw it wasn’t working, she took them down. One could almost file this as a negative, because trying to get a page locked from editing is a sure sign of not understanding Wikipedia. On the other hand, changing your own mistake is a sign that you do. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt here.

Worse:

  • She didn’t cite any source for the claim she is the first African-American female Chief Justice in a U.S. state, making the claim difficult to verify. Anytime one makes a claim of superiority or “firstness,” it helps to source the claim to avoid the dreaded “[citation needed]” tag.
  • She didn’t provide any edit summaries for her work, making it tedious to click through each and find out exactly what she did.
  • She made some changes that didn’t make the page better. In one edit, she edited internal site links embedded in the phrase “Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court” so that instead of directing people to articles about Chief Justices and the GA Supreme Court, it would go to a non-existent page that she probably assumed existed.
  • She also removed internal links to the names of her appointer (Zell Miller) and predecessor (Norman S. Fletcher) for no apparent reason; she also removed the link for “Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court” — perhaps after noticing that it did not lead anywhere. Odder still, she did replace some of this information, including Miller’s name, but removed Fletcher’s name after having initially sought to add it. In any case, he is back in the full article today.

What is the value of adding her photograph vs. removing the name of her predecessor? What is the value of adding new details which are presumably correct, but not citing independent sources? How bad is it to edit your Wikipedia article without seeking consensus of other editors? How should one seek to change their articles on Wikipedia in any case?

These questions and more like it have been coming up more often in recent months. It’s a subject recently addressed by the Wikimedia Foundation’s Jay Walsh in an interview with PR Week. It’s a subject that others are discussing, from law firms in the UK to PR firms around the world. It’s s a subject I weigh every day as a consultant on matters of Wikipedia, and in an article I just published in Politics Magazine.

My answer regarding Leah Ward Sears is that, she made the article better, but not much. She did not go about it the right way, but the right way is non-obvious to most, and the burden is on Wikipedia to make its rules understood by outsiders. While some of her edits were self-serving, they were of a mild sort. At most this was a venal sin, not a cardinal one. Gawker is turning this into a “gotcha” story on the implied theory that interacting with one’s own Wikipedia article is never acceptable. This is a myth, one widely believed and one propagated by many at Wikipedia simply to keep people from meddling with their pages en masse. This is understandable, but it won’t work out in the long term.

If Sears is Obama’s nominee and is further confirmed to the Supreme Court, perhaps it will help put an end to this kind of “gotcha”. I doubt this is significant enough to come up at confirmation hearings if she is nominated, and it should not be. But I will concede that would be kind of entertaining.

Image via Sears via Wikipedia.

Did Rep. Hinojosa Get a Free Pass on Biased Wikipedia Edits?

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on March 30, 2009 at 9:21 am

This weekend, former Tacitus and RedState blogger Josh Treviño asked over Twitter:

Do you think Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX-15) had his staff edit his own Wikipedia entry? So blatant: http://bit.ly/TSbMm

The answer is yes, and yes it is and I see what could be regarded as something of a double-standard here. First of all, Hinojosa’s congressional staff was quite up front about editing the page in the first place, when they contributed from a House-registered IP address in early 2008:

I am a staffer for Congressman Hinojosa in his Washington office and have found some mistakes. We have edited them and added the official biography from our website. If there are questions, please [sic]

Not unlike Twitter, you only get so many characters to explain your edit in the edit summary. This was not a bad way to go about it, although another editor left this note on the Talk page associated with the IP address for the Hinojosa staffer:

ATTN: Staffer for Congressman Rubén Hinojosa

The edit was constructive in the sense that it did not delete unfavorable information from the page. At least, not all that unfavorable. For example, they changed

Finally in 2002 he was elected once again after running unopposed.

to

Finally in 2002 he was elected once again.

which it’s debatable whether this is even the right phrasing, but there is no question they removed (what may or may not be relevant) context.

However, I am not sure why adding material from his official bio is “constructive” when Wikipedia explicitly forbids plagiarism. Using information from the bio would be one thing, if there was at least a citation. Instead, are a few examples from what they added:

In Congress, Rubén Hinojosa is regarded as a champion for the disadvantaged and has distinguished himself as a strong advocate for education, housing and economic development. His primary goal in Congress has been to reduce the chronic unemployment rate in regions of the district.

And:

As chairman of the Education Task Force for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressman Hinojosa ensures that federal education policy never loses sight of the youngest and fastest growing population in the country – Hispanic Americans.

And:

On the House Financial Services Committee, Congressman Hinojosa is widely recognized as a leader on issues affecting the underserved, from banking to housing.

Favorable impressions of a subject can be attributed to independent observers, but it should never presented as a true-because-Wikipedia-said-so fact. Yet as Treviño noticed, it has largely remained intact in the year-and-change since. In fact, one editor did stop by a few days later to clean it up, but only slightly.

A partisan job? Probably not — that editor was a retired aviation engineer from Bristol, England. Nevertheless, it’s worth asking whether a Republican congressional staffer making these kind of mistakes would have received the same benefit of the doubt? If one takes into account the case of former Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.), whose staff was caught in mid-2006 making similar changes to his Wikipedia bio, this seems unlikely. Then again, the staff of former Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) was called out for doing something similar earlier that year, so the answer is not so simple.

The bottom line here is that Rep. Hinojosa’s page needs some major work to bring it back in line with Wikipedia standards. If nobody gets to it soon — and in fact the page has remained unedited for two months now — I may just have to get in there and fix it myself.

Searching for Wikipedia Assistance on Craigslist

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on March 22, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Here’s an interesting request for Wikipedia assistance on Craigslist, sent to me by a friend and former colleague from my hometown of Portland, Oregon — coincidentally, also the birthplace of the wiki — just a few days ago:

some wikipedia help (SW Portland)  Date: 2009-03-18, 11:01PM PDT  I am looking for help with wikipedia. I could really use a good wikipedia editor willing to help and post what seems reasonable on Wikipedia within the rules. The topic is "string matching algorithms and structured data". You need to have a basic undertsnading of this topic.  Your need to be an experienced wiki editor and have credit in the wikipedia community regarding such topics.

I’ve clipped a bit from the bottom, but it also includes this:

* Location: SW Portland
* it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
* Compensation: $25+ depends on qualifications.

With the math knowledge requirement and low monetary offer, I am not surprised that the ad remains at the time of this writing.

The mention of compensation could well raise concerns among editors who are wary of financial interests influencing content on Wikipedia. While I am sympathetic to this point of view for the simple reason that they are often correct — people who are willing to put money against getting something changed on Wikipedia are likely to be willing to pay for edits that satisfy their interests but fall short of Wikipedia’s goals — this is also why the Conflict of Interest guideline specifically states: Where advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest. How serious is the advertiser about following this? I’d say the phrase “what seems reasonable on Wikipedia within the rules” has to be pretty close, but what may seem “reasonable” to someone unfamiliar with Wikipedia guidelines may nevertheless conflict with them.

While this request appears to be small ball, it does remind me of the time when a Microsoft employee offered Australian programmer Rick Jelliffe money to edit a Wikipedia article of interest to the company. Presumably knowing he would be sympathetic, Microsoft instructed Jelliffe to use his best judgment, and the controversy only kicked off once Jelliffe himself wrote a blog post about it. Notwithstanding comments from the likes of Jimmy Wales saying he was “disappointed” in the situation, it is unrealistic to expect that interested parties cannot seek to correct inaccurate or incomplete information — which is what Microsoft says it was doing. Lost in the controversy was the possibility that IBM, Microsoft’s rival, may have had people anonymously weighting the article in question.

Ultimately, Jelliffe’s biggest mistake was not disclosing the arrangement on the article’s Talk page at the time of his edits. This may have meant additional scrutiny on the page, but that comes with the territory. And if anyone takes up this guy’s offer, I’d recommend they do the same.