Wikipedia is not a place for promotion

January 24, 2011

Last week, one of the most popular questions asked by journalists, bloggers and other people reflecting on the 10 years of Wikipedia was: what are the main challenges for Wikipedia over the next 10 years? In my list of answers, I remarked conflicts around self-promotion in Wikipedia as one of the topics that will create many issues in due course. Indeed, with more than 400 million unique monthly visitors, according to comScore data, Wikipedia is now the 5th most visited website. That also make it a major attraction for experts in promotion, PR services, marketing and advertising.

What I didn’t expected (honestly) is that, one week after that, I would be able to find an exemplary case of this kind of issues. I’ve just discovered WikiExperts, a division of OnlineVisibilityExperts, which offers (I quote verbatim):

INCREASE VISIBILITY AND CREDIBILITY of your company, brand, or product by being present in Wikipedia – world’s largest and most used research tool. Wikipedia has more traffic than Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, Delicious and almost all other social media. Your social media marketing strategy is incomplete without it.

For anyone familiar with Wikipedia policies, it’s obvious that this service comes into conflict with one of the things Wikipedia is not: Wikipedia is not a soapbox or means for promotion. If we take a closer look at the previous blurb, we can find some questionable points. The statement that Wikipedia is “the world’s largest and most used research tool” is very clever, but somewhat biased. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. Thus, it can be used (in the adequate way) to start our own research, pointing us to more authoritative information sources. Wikipedia’s accuracy depends, among other things, on the many reviews from volunteer editors and support from outside, reliable information sources (a.k.a [citation needed]). It’s just the first step, not the end of the journey. Another point quickly grabbed my attention. These folks are explicitly considering Wikipedia as a key part of a social media marketing strategy, comparing it to Twitter, MySpace or LinkedIn. Should we really do that? Well, I think the answer is: no, we shouldn’t.

Many people tend to think about social media in terms of audience and outreach. Today, marketing and PR experts constantly follow global trends to identify where (phisically or, now more frequently, virtually) we spend most of our time. It would be really tempting to consider Wikipedia as a great platform for promotion. Except for the fact that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, which imposes some restrictions not shared by other social media. In Twitter, for example, I am free to talk about anything I want to. And this also includes expressing my very personal point of view about any topic. However, in Wikipedia editors must follow certain policies, in particular the five pillars. More precisely, NPOV is incompatible with promotional purposes about topics in which one might have direct interests (such as charging for writing a Wikipedia article on behalf of a certain company, organization or individual).

All the same, we can even find the WikiExperts code of ethics, where they state they adhere to Wikipedia policies, such as avoiding opinionated, biased or unsupported content, not removing negative information, writing about not notable topics or performing activities contrary to Wikipedia principles. Even after reading this, one wonders how this could be ever achieved if you are being payed, explicitly, to improve the public image your contractor. We must also note that this is quite different from initiatives such as the Public Policy Initiative or scientists improving Wikipedia entries on RNA biology. These editors doesn’t have a direct interest in presenting  a certain point of view. They just want to improve Wikipedia’s coverage about those topics, for the common good. It is very difficult to assert that you can do the same if you are an interested party in a “social media marketing strategy”.

This is not the first time promotional affairs have been detected in Wikipedia. In his excellent book, Andrew Dalby points out some examples such as Marshall Poe or Boy*d Up (this one apparently misinterpreted). As time goes by and Wikipedia popularity continues to increase, I’m afraid that we will see a significant increment of these actions. However, we must remember that Wikipedia is not just like any other social media. If Wikimedia Foundation is working to keep it going without advertisements, it is for very good reasons (like preserving the NPOV pillar). Any other attempt of circumventing these basic policies would be just trying to subvert the principles of Wikipedia itself, those that led it to become the flagship reference for open content that it is today.

As a final remark, let me clearly state that I’m not arguing against the business of social media management or PR. On the contrary, companies should care about building a better image in the virtual world, and creating more agile communication channels within their own community, as well as with customers. In fact, Wikipedia has developed some mechanisms for on-line social interaction, but this is wholly aimed to support debate on writing encyclopedic articles.

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13 Responses to “Wikipedia is not a place for promotion”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Maha Shaikh, Felipe Ortega. Felipe Ortega said: New post: Wikipedia is not a place for promotion http://bit.ly/fnLceJ [...]

  2. More precisely, NPOV is incompatible with promotional purposes about topics in which one might have direct interests (such as charging for writing a Wikipedia article on behalf of a certain company, organization or individual).

    I don’t think that’s true: I think you can write fairly about a topic while still getting paid to do it. More generally, I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with a company hiring someone to basically improve the Wikipedia article about them: to flesh it out with correctly-referenced information, and to keep out vandalism. (I don’t know whether such a thing ever actually happens in practice, but that’s a different story.)

  3. I get your point, but I think it would be really difficult to maintain a NPOV when you have a *personal* interest on a certain entry. That’s why Wikipedia guidelines establish that you shouldn’t edit articles about your own biography, your company/working place, etc. Temptation could be hard to resist, specially if people add sourced info that it’s not so positive. Keep in mind that these folks are talking about a “marketing strategy”. It’s difficult to believe such campaign would just stop on maintentance/update work. What would you say to your clients if something happens like “well… you know, we opened a new article about the company, but now the fact is that it includes a lot of negative info (of course, well sourced) and thus, we cannot simply remove it, nor ask for article deletion. So sorry…”

    Such a thing does occur, in practice. That’s why the above guideline exists. Sometimes it’s detected, but not always.

  4. I don’t know – it seems like it would be possible, if you knew what you were doing, and weren’t an unethical company. I should clarify that I’m not in such a business, nor do I plan to be. :) But the state of articles about corporations in Wikipedia is pretty weak right now, in my opinion – a lot of articles have information about the company’s founding, information about the previous few years, and not much between those two. So if a company wanted to spend money to improve the quality of the article about them, and they knew the difference between information and spam, I think that could end up being to everyone’s benefit.

  5. As the founder of the first registered paid editing service for Wikipedia (an enterprise called MyWikiBiz, which has an article about it on Wikipedia), I’m disappointed that my acquaintance Felipe Ortega didn’t reach out for my perspective prior to authoring this post. Anyhow, in this discussion, I would have to side with Yaron Koren — it is absolutely possible (and relatively easy) to maintain a neutral point-of-view and meet (and usually exceed) Wikipedia’s standards for referencing sources and such, even while having a personal and/or paid interest in a certain entry. Besides, WP:OWN policy should remove any strong bias from paid content, over time.

    The reason why paid editors do (and should) remain clandestine about their editorial work is that there are certain Wikipedians who take great joy in deleting perfectly acceptable content, if they determine that someone has been paid to create it. I have preserved two articles that were deleted from Wikipedia due to a “paid” badge of shame. One of them even went through an “Article for Deletion” discussion, with the final “vote” going 5-2 in favor of *keeping* the article (including a trusted administrator’s persuaded opinion), yet it was deleted anyway.

    Here are the articles…

    http://www.mywikibiz.com/SEO_2.0

    http://www.webcitation.org/5w0ITjLtx
    (See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Graffiti4Hire )

    Are we saying that those two articles are worse than these other examples of Wikipedia content that have been on the encyclopedia for years?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PHluid

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morna_Nielsen

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Oliver_%28banker%29

    Hmm…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Oliver51ps
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/John_Oliver,_Bank_Planning_Consultant

    Wikipedia seems chock full of promotional content about businesses and individuals. How is it that they escape deletion? Only that they weren’t suspected or proved of being “paid” for.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Greg.

    Short answer (from Wikipedia article on MyWikiBiz): “No official Wikipedia policy prohibited paid-for contributions at the time” [when MyWikiBiz was founded]. However, this does not stand anymore, as I explain in the post.

    Cheers,
    Felipe.

  7. @Felipe Ortega
    I think if you carefully read all of Wikipedia’s policies on paid conflict of interest, if you choose to interpret them as such, they do not “prohibit” anything. Just lots of “strong discouragement”. I would also strongly discourage a non-profit organization running an unfair bidding process, then selecting a board member’s company as your landlord for extra office space, and using “Usability Grant” money to pay for it… but it’s not “prohibited”. Monkey see, monkey do, I believe is the best way to approach Wikipedia policies.

  8. I believe paid editing could improve content and increase the number of articles available on Wikipedia.

    You would need mature oversight and have an established place to insert content openly, to be moved into articles by other editors.

    This isn’t going to happen, because the WMF and the hierarchy of administrators and bureaucrats is opposed to the very idea.

    Too bad.

  9. I think that what you’re proposing, Bill, is not very different from the first working process established at Nupedia (having Wikipedia at first as a draft box), which proved to be inefficient long time ago for this purpose.

    Regarding your last sentence, I think it is clearly not supported by the accounted history of the different Wikipedias. The policies and guidelines are established by the community of editors, like in many other open collaborative projects. Community members decide, and the best example is that a number of guidelines and recommendations are specific for certain languages.

  10. (N.B: Your comment system seems to flinch at editing. My original comment was delivered, pre-chewed, to the plate of the forum. *2: This is rather silly, that’s the second time it happened.)

    This is going to come across as a bit harsh, and I apologise for that, but there’s not really any other way to write it. Only someone with absolutely no experience in communications, journalism or technical writing could make a statement to the effect that it is not possible to write in any particular way.

    Not only is it possible, but it is, to some extent, the raison d’etre of those professions. It is why proper communications professionals are paid so much.

    On the other hand, I can see where you are coming from. I certainly have the capacity to believe that your average wikipedian pretending to be a writer would fail the “NPOV” (is that what you all it, how quaint) test you set.

  11. “These folks are explicitly considering Wikipedia as a key part of a social media marketing strategy, comparing it to Twitter, MySpace or LinkedIn. Should we really do that? Well, I think the answer is: no, we shouldn’t.”

    I agree that Wikipedia is much different then the likes of Facebook, Twitter, etc. However interaction with the Wikipedia community is something companies need to consider, along with the basics of what makes a good article. No one owns an article, and current policies and guidelines allow folks with Conflicts of Interest to participate and contribute in order to improve Wikipedia.

    “All the same, we can even find the WikiExperts code of ethics, where they state they adhere to Wikipedia policies, such as avoiding opinionated, biased or unsupported content, not removing negative information, writing about not notable topics or performing activities contrary to Wikipedia principles. Even after reading this, one wonders how this could be ever achieved if you are being payed, explicitly, to improve the public image your contractor.”

    Perhaps the question is if clients will pay for advice and services that are in-line with Wikipedia policies and guidelines? If your topic is notable, then it is reasonable to ask for a fair and neutral article.

    Companies, organizations and people can, and do, create articles about themselves on Wikipedia. It’s not an easy task, and requires much time and effort for their contributions to be accepted by the community. It often goes wrong, because they were not yet aware of how to interact with the community.

    A note: because of our Code of Ethics, WikiExperts.us has sadly had to decline many potential clients.

  12. That’s an interesting (but somewhat different) debate. Whether and how communication professionals will adapt to new collaborative and open projects building huge info repositories (like Wikipedia). So far, I think that they have adapted quite well. For example, NYT is, in fact, taking a lot of benefit from micro-blogging. Indeed, they even have their own URL shortening service, clear evidence that this kind of platforms is very valuable for them.

    However, this post is not about the background of editors, but on writing about topics that will directly benefit editors. Interestingly, one could leverage his/her authority about a certain knowledge area writing good stuff in Wikipedia, in collaboration with the community. That’s good for you, but you wouldn’t have direct intrests. However, writing an article about your company in *an encyclopedia* is a different case. In fact, the real rationale behind this debate is outreach: the +400 million unique visitors in Wikipedia every month. I wonder if many companies would have ever considered to be displayed in Wikipedia, should it had 1% of those monthly visitors. Thus, the clear goal is plain promotion and IMO that does not fit the main goals of an encyclopedia.

  13. +400 million uniques every month is indeed a reason why many people are attracted to Wikipedia, for a variety of reasons. For example, if it had 1% of those monthly visitors, would your extensive academic studies of Wikipedia generate as much interest as they have?

    To the issue of editors benefiting themselves: In the cases where a company helps with creating a good, fair and neutral article in-line with Wikipedia policies and guidelines, would you agree that this is a benefit to both Wikipedia and the company?

    It might be interesting if a quantitative study could be made of the reliablity and accuracy of company articles in Wikipedia.

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