Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Wikipedia vs Microsoft

Did Microsoft really suffer a black eye in its controversy with Wikipedia last week?

I keep thinking about the notion that all PR is good PR.  Yes, it reinforced Microsoft’s bad guy image among the
blogger community, but it clearly has the blogosphere buzzing about Microsoft and whether they have a legitimate beef.  More broadly, it shines a light on the conflict of interest policies of Wikipedia.  As discussed on makeyougohmm, it wouldn’t be the first time that Wikipedia got something wrong.

The whole controversy centered around Microsoft being unhappy about the open source entry on Wikipedia.  Based on Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policy, they could not post their views directly to the site.  Unable to persuade editors to accept their “corrections,” they offered to pay a third party PR person – one Rick Jelliffe, chief technical officer of Sydney computing company Topologi – to insert the changes for them.   

The proposed payment was supposedly for Jelliffee’s time, not for his endorsement.  Unlike last year’s WalMart grassroots campaign, Microsoft was upfront in what it was doing.  From what I have read, Microsoft employee, Doug Mahugh, encouraged Jelliffe in an email to be straight forward about their relationship and reassured him that Microsoft would not approve any of his Wikipedia edits. 

According to the AP, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said “the proper course would have been for Microsoft to write or commission a ‘white paper” on the subject with its interpretation of the facts, post it to an outside website and then link to it in the Wikipedia articles’ discussion forums.”  A valid approach, but unlikely to draw the interest of many who regularly use Wikipedia. 

Personally, I find Wikipedia incredibly useful even though I am not incredibly happy with EarthLink’s entry.  The service is popular, influential and viewed as a credible source by the millions who use it.  Once more, it is free, easily accessible, and I like the collaborative, emergent spirit that is its guiding principle. 

But the whole controversy puts me in a quandry. I would not have taken the path that Microsoft took.  Payment would not be an option, but I am sympathetic to their situation.  I get paid for what I do.  I am also upfront about whom I represent.  I don’t want my compensation to get in the way of a fair hearing.  As Scott Karp points out on Publishing 2.0, Wikipedia wields a lot of power.  In the mainstream media, companies unhappy with their portrayal in an article would not be denied a forum or an opportunity for inclusion just because they represent a particular point of view.   

Microsoft or any company, for that matter, has a real challenge on their hands when it comes to influencing the debate and defending itself on Wikipedia and in the world of new media.   Where the goal is transparency, openness and honesty, payment of any kind is frowned upon, even if the intent is to be transparent, open and honest about the point of view that is represented.   

In the age of new media, companies will need to work doubly hard to be acknowledged and get their point of viewed accepted.   The good thing is that PR does not have to solely rely on reporters to reach the public.  The challenge/opportunity is that we now have many more citizen journalists to contend with.   Aaron Uhrmacher who works on the EarthLink account at Text 100 suggested an alternative approach.  Perhaps Doug could have begun a conversation on his blog and try to get people to correct the mistakes on their own as vigilant and knowledge XML community members. Or as Michael Arrington suggests:  “It’s clear that the only way to safely clear the record on Wikipedia when you are an involved party is in the discussion area of a page.”  

In the end, no matter what your intentions, making direct changes yourself or paying third parties is not the answer – even if the opinions are unbiased.  On Wikipedia or in the blogoshere, collective intelligence is the currency of power.   That is a hard lesson for companies that cling to traditonal ways of communicating. 

Let me get back to you. 

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Posted by Dan Greenfield in 01:18:36

One Response to “Wikipedia vs Microsoft”

  1. Karen Crosby says:

    One of the things that has always bothered me about Wikipedia that its “standards” are a moving target. There’s a lot of that in the media in general these days. But, that said, I agree with Michael Harrington and with Dan as to the “hard lesson” that individuals as well as corporations are in the process of learning.

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