Friday, January 26, 2007

Microsoft and Wikipedia

You've probably heard that Microsoft is in the doghouse for offering to pay a blogger to edit Wikipedia articles about their technology. It sounds at first like something along the lines of "flogging" (a la Wal-Mart), but I don't think it's quite that clear.

Microsoft Corp. has landed in the Wikipedia doghouse after it offered to pay a blogger to change technical articles on the community-produced Web encyclopedia site.

While Wikipedia is known as the encyclopedia that anyone can tweak, founder Jimmy Wales and his cadre of volunteer editors, writers and moderators have blocked public-relations firms, campaign workers and anyone else perceived as having a conflict of interest from posting fluff or slanting entries. So paying for Wikipedia copy is considered a definite no-no.

"We were very disappointed to hear that Microsoft was taking that approach," Wales said Tuesday.

Microsoft acknowledged it had approached the writer and offered to pay him for the time it would take to correct what the company was sure were inaccuracies in Wikipedia articles on an open-source document standard and a rival format put forward by Microsoft.

Spokeswoman Catherine Brooker said she believed the articles were heavily written by people at IBM Corp., which is a big supporter of the open-source standard. IBM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Brooker said Microsoft had gotten nowhere in trying to flag the purported mistakes to Wikipedia's volunteer editors, so it sought an independent expert who could determine whether changes were necessary and enter them on Wikipedia.

Brooker said Microsoft believed that having an independent source would be key in getting the changes to stick -- that is, to not have them just overruled by other Wikipedia writers.

Brooker said Microsoft and the writer, Rick Jelliffe, had not determined a price and no money had changed hands -- but they had agreed that the company would not be allowed to review his writing before submission. Brooker said Microsoft had never previously hired someone to influence a Wikipedia article.

This sounds like a pretty reasonable approach, and it raises the larger issue of how a company should react when information on Wikipedia appears to be either incomplete or incorrect.

It's also hard to be overly critical of Microsoft when Wikipedia's policies are, at best, a bit fuzzy. Browsing through Wikipedia policy and guideline pages is one of those experiences, you find a lot of suggestions, but not a lot of rules. That reflects Wikipedia's fundamental nature: it's a community that is constantly changing as its members contribute to it. That's true of the policies, as well as the articles.

It seems clear that for an employee to go into Wikipedia and start cutting and pasting company language into articles is a conflict of interest.

But what if a company thinks that articles are problematic, and encourages a friendly third party to edit them? For example, someone might put links to Wikipedia articles on their web site and invite their site visitors to read them and edit them if they were so motivated. That doesn't appear to contradict the idea of Wikipedia.

But what if the company approaches an independent expert and says, "We think these articles aren't very good, and we'd like somebody to edit them. You know this stuff. Go edit them, and we'll pay you for your time." If that expert is going to go and do that work independently, with no review by the company that's paying for the time, is there a conflict?

I don't think so. There's a big fuzzy area between paying someone to be a direct agent of a company ("go to Wikipedia and write these words") and paying someone to go do what they want. In the middle, you have situations where someone is advising corporate clients about Wikipedia. If I tell a client, "I think the article should say this. Maybe you should suggest that to that customer that really loves you," am I violating the spirit of Wikipedia?

This is a moving target, and it will be as long as Wikipedia is the kind of productive, cooperative anarchy that it is today. Moreover, I don't think this is any kind of crisis that needs a solution.

The great thing about Wikipedia is that it's got built-in self-correction. Microsoft can pay someone to spend ten hours a week working on Wikipedia articles. IBM can do the same. And then a whole community of users not being paid by anybody will probably pay referee.

I do think, though, that Wikipedia will be on shaky ground trying to stop people unless they are very responsive to complaints about content that is simply wrong.

The Microsoft spokeswoman says that they flagged the articles they thought were wrong, and didn't get anywhere. Given that, what would one expect them to do?

Expect some ongoing tension over this topic.

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