Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Microsoft pays for Wikipedia edits: the rest of the story

This morning's Oregonian had a wire story about Wikipedia that caught me entirely by surprise. I felt even more surprised because when the Oregonian reports about something I'm involved in, usually they're several steps behind and I know enough to not only see how they got the story wrong, but have a good idea who's benefitting from how the story is told. I didn't in this case, so I spent part of the morning researching this story.

First, even though the Oregonian had a link to their profile about Ward Cunningham, inventor of Wiki technology, as far as I know he has not expressed an opinion about this dispute. I don't understand why they even bothered to add his name to the article.

Second, the article in question, Open Document, had not been compromised with clearly pro-Microsoft information in the last few days -- but there had been a storm of edits, much paranoia, and at least one editor who claimed that he was not a paid employee of Microsoft. (A minute's study of his user page proved his claim; actually, it took me only ten seconds, but he has some nice photgraphs of England on that page, so it took me a little longer.) A link on the talk page led me to where the action was, far far away from Wikipedia: one Rick Jeliffe posted on his blog over at O' that he was considering doing some consulting work editting Wikipedia for Microsoft, and asked for input from his fellow bloggers.

As can be expected when Microsoft's name is involved, there was a lot of emotion but more sense than in the similar discussion on Slashdot. One commentator at O' even made a bizarre claim that there were a large number of paid contributors on Wikipedia currently -- which another surpise to me. Up until a few months ago, when I let my attention drift from the interactions on Wikipedia, I had seen no signs or allegations of this -- unless you want to include professionals (e.g., professors, teachers and academic researchers) contributing to articles in their fields of expertise.

This entire controversy is based on the assumption that if a person is paid to edit Wikipedia, then that person will make edits to bias the articles to favor his employer. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened in the past: from marginal businesses to staffers of the US Congress, the British Parliament, and the German Bundestag. The result is that an average employee of a given company who spots a factual mistake in an article that she/he can fix, is discouraged from making that correction; Wikipedia, its readers and everyone else suffers because a selfish few have abused our trust, and poisoned the well for those who can play fairly.

This all could be saved if there was a Wikipedian Code of Ethics, but the only one I know of was copied from a college website, and concerned itself more about plagiarism than conflict of interest. And most Wikipedians would rather keep paid contributors far away from the edit button -- despite the fact "paid contributor" is not a clearly defined idea. So I doubt that this Code will appear in the near future.



Here's an interesting article on the ongoing Microsoft/Wikipedia Neutral Point of View Debate
Interesting blog. At the top the writer sets the tone: "Cause sometimes you want to fire the fat, razor riding, linux nerd with too much facial hair, but you can't; so you make him admin windows server 2003 instead."

Most of the "Linux nerds" I know are clean-shaven. And while many of them are physically out of shape, I can't think of any one I'd call "fat."

And he concludes "Jimmy Wales should focus more on the ideal goals of maintaining the Neutral Point of View, and removing bias from articles. This is what Microsoft is trying to acomplish."

Microsoft is only interested in a Neutral Point of View if it is to their benefit. Like any corporation.

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