Earlier this week, Tim Bray wrote a blog post entitled On Linking where he pointed out that it has become quite common place for him to link to the Wikipedia entry for a subject even if there is an official site. He also realizes this is a problem when he writes

Why Not Wikipedia? · But this makes me nervous. I feel like I’m breaking the rules; being able to link to original content, without benefit of intermediaries, is one of the things that defines the Web. More practically, when I and a lot of other people start linking to Wikipedia by default, we boost its search-engine mojo and thus drive a positive-feedback loop, to some extent creating a single point of failure; another of the things that the Web isn’t supposed to have.

I’d be astonished if the Wikipedia suddenly went away. But I wouldn’t be very surprised if it went off the rails somehow: Commercial rapacity, legal issues, or (especially) bad community dynamics, we’ve seen that happen to a whole bunch of once-wonderful Internet resources. If and when it did, all those Wikipedia links I’ve used (396 so far, starting in June 2004) become part of a big problem.

As if on cue, a little bit of hubbub broke out on the Web after Rick Jellife blogged that he'd been approached by Microsoft to help keep some articles about its technology neutral. Lots of folks in the press have jumped all over this and called it an attempt by Microsoft to "astroturf" Wikipedia from the usual suspects on Slashdot to more mainstream news sources like USA Today.

Let's dig a little deeper into the issue and look at the facts as opposed to the sensational headlines. Mike Arrington over at TechCrunch has a good collection of links to the relevant online occurences in his post entitled Battleground Wikipedia which contains the following excerpts

Doug Mahugh at Microsoft freely admitted to doing this in a comment to a Slashdot article on the matter. According to another source, a Microsoft spokesperson also chimed in, saying that they believed the article were heavily written by people at IBM, a rival standard supporter, and that Microsoft had gotten nowhere flagging mistakes to Wikipedia’s volunteer editors. However, the discussion area of the Wikipedia page in question does not show any Microsoft involvement.

Microsoft clearly didn’t feel comfortable making direct changes to article about their technology, and frankly they can’t really be blamed for that. Editing an article about yourself is considered a conflict of interest by many in the Wikipedia community, and people are routinely trashed for doing so.
In the words of Deep Jive Interests “if you’re going to astroturf [Wikipedia], do it right!”

I'm trying to figure out how we go from Microsoft having problems flagging mistakes to Wikipedia editors and trying to get the relevant entry updated while not violating Wikipedia's conflict of interest rules to Microsoft is trying to astroturf Wikipedia.

Given that the Wikipedia entry is the first or second result on Google searches for "ooxml" and Office Open XML yet has contained misinformation and outright fabrications about the technology, shouldn't Microsoft be trying to get the article corrected while staying within the rules of Wikipedia?

As an experiment I've updated the Wikipedia entry for TechCrunch with a mention of some of the claims about Mike Arrington's conflicts of interest on the site and references to negative  blog posts but no link to his side of the story. TechCrunch is big enough for Mike not to care about this but what should be his course of action? According to Jimmy Wales and the pundits it seems (i) he can't edit the entry  himself nor (ii) can he solicit others to do so. Instead he needs to write a white paper about his position on conflicts of AND then link to it from the talkback page for his entry.Yeah, I'm sure that's going to get read as much as the Wikipedia entry.

It's sad that if Microsoft had just done what other companies do and had a bunch of employees policing its brand on Wikipedia (see the Forbes article Shillipedia), this would never have made the news. It's unfortunate that this is the reward Microsoft gets for being transparent and open instead of taking the low road. 


Categories: Social Software
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