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 ). 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.