Selling it like it is: Paid editing & Wikipedia
The origin of edits, of who is best placed to write about a particular topic, is a controversial issue in Wikipedia. Editing the encyclopaedia is a volunteer activity, editors are unpaid, and users contribute to the project to further the ethos of making the “sum of all knowledge” freely available (Baytiyeh & Pfaffman 2010). There is however, a subsection of editors who are paid for their contributions to particular articles within the encyclopaedia. Not paid by Wikipedia itself or the Wikimedia Foundation, but by other organisations in their capacity as a marketing/PR professional. The most recent case to receive press involves contributions from user ‘Arturo at BP’, an employee of the petroleum giant (see articles at The Huffington Post and CNET).
In accordance with Wikipedia policy when there is a conflict of interest (WP:COI), Arturo never actually directly edited the article on BP. He made his connection with BP known, both in his username and explicitly on his user page: “I have established this account to help improve BP-related articles in line with Wikipedia standards and guidelines. In the interest of full transparency, I chose “Arturo at BP” as my username so that my affiliation with BP is abundantly clear to all parties I may interact with on Wikipedia.”
The issue among other editors in Wikipedia, is that contributing editors to the article often accepted Arturo’s proposed text and contributions to the article unchanged. As the user Slim Virgin states: “I’ve noticed editors simply slotting in what Arturo writes, including large sections, which means that BP is writing the article about itself, without this being signalled to the reader in any way.” Editors who have been inserting Arturo’s text defended their actions, by referring to the Wikipedia policy of neutrality. Editor SilverserenC states, “I don’t care whatsoever about who is writing the information. I only care that the information is neutral and shows all relevant sides.” The conversation continued (and continues in other places on Wikipedia) to play out about the importance of neutrality and reliability over transparency. In the press, it has played out as the ability of Wikipedia to be an open, legitimate and reliable source of information, when corporate contributions cannot be easily identified.
Arturo’s actions however are not an isolated case. Wikipedia is being packaged as a platform along with the likes of Facebook and Twitter as part of larger social media communications strategies. Public relations firm Bell Pottinger Private promised its clients favourable coverage in Wikipedia articles, in some instances removing information regarding human rights violations and links to terrorist organisations (Newman & Wright, 2011). In other cases, Wikipedia is the sole focus of a promotional strategy, where consultants sell their expertise in navigating Wikipedia’s policies and increasing a client’s presence in the encyclopaedia. Former Wikimedia UK chair Roger Bamkin resigned over his involvement with Gibraltarpedia, where he received payment for developing QR codes for the project, which were then placed on monuments around the island and linked to Wikipedia entries that as a Wikipedia admin, Bamkin often promoted or featured.
Similarly, former Wikipedian in Residence Max Klein offered services through his consultancy called untrikiwiki where clients could purchase “Wikipedia editing as a PR service” (Blue 2012). As marketing consultant and Wikipedian Mike Wood (2013) notes, “People and companies see it as a social media website where they want to have their profile posted.”
While these cases stirred a lot of feeling and controversy, not all of the responses to “paid editing” from the community are negative. Many editors see this practice as actually improving the encyclopaedia. If professionals follow Wikipedia’s guidelines for contribution and clearly state their COI, then their contributions are valid and can increase article quality. These editors view following policy as the most important guideline for editing the encyclopaedia.
Others are more sceptical of the involvement of marketing professionals. For while Wikipedia is indeed open, it is also neutral and they argue contributions from such editors can never be so. These editors argue the open, non-profit structure of Wikipedia cannot be accommodating to commercial contributions. Information should be sourced from a variety of neutral and verifiable sites, and the organisation itself can never be a valid source of encyclopaedic knowledge.
However the tension between the social and commercial interests is not only evident in a non-profit platform like Wikipedia. Across social media sites, attempting to achieve the balance between user and corporate demands has contributed the evolution of these platforms. In its early days, Twitter struggled to negotiate its meaning and accommodate the needs of its different stakeholders. Did it enable person to person communication, or was it more suited to one-way mass communication from marketing channels (van Dijck 2011)? Similarly YouTube’s role was negotiated in a struggle between corporate interests and audience use (Burgess and Green 2009). The difference being in these cases, commercial activity is clearly identifiable through the use of dedicated accounts and channels. In Wikipedia, the presence of commercial interests is much harder to see. Unless a reader navigates to the article history, follows user accounts or deciphers IP addresses, the origin of edits is not immediately apparent.
How the issue of paid editing plays out in the future of Wikipedia will be interesting to examine. For it is hard to imagine that corporations, with millions invested in their brand and image, will rely on the contributions of anonymous volunteers to write and maintain the Wikipedia articles they have an interest in. It is similarly hard to imagine volunteers committed to an open ethos, will simply offer up their project to commercial editing by paid professionals.
Watch this (non-profit, free and open) space.
References & More Info
Baytiyeh, H. & Pfaffman, J. 2010. Volunteers in Wikipedia: Why the community matters. Educational Technology & Society, 13 (2): 128–140.
Blue, V. 2012. Corruption in Wikiland? Paid PR scandal erupts at Wikipedia. CNET, September 18, 2012.
Blue, V. 2013. BP accused of rewriting environmental record on Wikipedia. CNET, March 20, 2013.
Burgess, J. & Green, J. 2009. YouTube. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Stuart, H. 2013. Much Of BP’s Wikipedia Page Allegedly Written By Company Employee Arturo Silva. Huffington Post Tech, 21 March 2013.
Wikipedia. 2013. Talk:BP/Archive 9. Last modified 4 April 2013 at 00:55.
Wood, M. 2013. I Get Paid To Edit Wikipedia For Leading Companies. Business Insider Australia, 10 January 2013.
Van Dijck, J. 2011. Tracing Twitter: The rise of a microblogging platform. International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, 7(3), 333–348.