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Wikipedia grabs the spotlight

Just in time to relieve us from the overexposure of Facebook's problems, Wikipedia gives us this: Secret mailing list rocks Wikipedia, now playing on Digg and TechMeme. If you like your controversy with a soundtrack, try this entertaining version. Betrayal, a secret cabal, and an alien legal code—who needs TV when this on?

I'm not going to try to summmarize things—the Register's article does a nice job of that. What's going on is an argument about politics and arcane processes, wrapped in principle and spiced with murky power structures and secret mailing lists. The volume of opinion is amazing, and it gives a sense of the amount of time people have to spend there.

Awkward adolescence, indeed.

To me, the interesting bit is that the focus of the controversy, the pseudonymous Durova, has been a useful inside source for marketers, with her dark side opinion piece and SEO tips & tactics from a Wikipedia insider, which appeared under her nom de wiki on Search Engine Land. It's interesting to reconsider her advice on how to interact properly with Wikipedia, in light of the current complaints and revelations.

The Animal Farm reference is obvious. In fact, it's already shown up in comments on other posts several times.

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Social media was (almost) deleted

Did you hear? Social media almost went away. From Wikipedia, that is. The entry for social media was nominated for deletion for being "a marketing buzzword of limited currency." I found a few sources to contribute to the discussion, and the entry survived the process, but only by default. It still needs a solid definition that's based on more than a blog post.

The basic problem is that social media is so often described by example or anecdote (see Lee White's new presentation for a good example). A list of technologies and venues and talk about how people use them are helpful for communicating the challenge and opportunity, but they don't lead to a rigorous definition.

It doesn't help that we have social media, social computing, Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0 and who knows how many other variations, all with similar meanings. Yeah, I know they're not exactly the same, but there's a lot of overlap and hand waving going on.

I know it when I see it
We tend to get close to a definition, assume the rest and move on to the fun part. Take the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. The definitions of social media and social media analysis are implicit in the papers presented, but where's the definition? (However, the existence of peer-reviewed technical papers from ICWSM with social media in the title did help support the argument in favor of keeping the Wikipedia entry.)

Do you know of a good discussion of the term? I'd like to improve the Wikipedia entry, but I'll need more sources first. Published sources are best. Marketing materials are mostly worthless, and blogs aren't much better. As usual with Wikipedia, association with an interested party diminishes the value of a source.

The perception of social media as a term—at least by some Wikipedians—is that it's a marketing buzzword coined by companies who want to sell social media services. The right sources will put that concern to rest and shift the discussion to the parts that we all find more interesting.

So, who has sources?

Oh, yeah
A word on transparency: You probably know that the Wikipedia community can be sensitive about who edits entries. I joined in the discussion of social media using my real name, and my profile page describes my business interests. That's why I'm not just writing my own definition to incorporate into the entry.

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Crash course on Wikipedia

Headline: Harvard Business School professors Karim Lakhani and Andrew McAfee publish a case study on Wikipedia. Confused readers wonder why their version stops before the conclusion. While the analysis and recommendation are left as an exercise to the reader, the case includes a wealth of detail that anyone dealing with Wikipedia should read—and if anything related to your business is in Wikipedia, you should be paying attention. A lot of people get their information there now.

I first wrote about reputation monitoring on Wikipedia in October. I learned about some of the risks of trying to fix errors from a corporate PR guy who was trying to correct material factual errors related to his employer. The challenge—made clear in several recent incidents—is that Wikipedia norms generally oppose changes by anyone who has an interest in the entry. That includes PR agencies and anyone else editing on behalf of a client, and it includes employees making changes for the benefit of their employers.

You might be the world's leading expert on a topic, but if it's related to your income, you're not supposed to change it. The approved method is indirect—you're supposed to suggest changes on the discussion page and let someone else make them on the entry.

Wikipedia on more radars
Wikipedia versus interested parties is almost a meme lately. Steven Colbert summarized it in a bit on "wikilobbying" (via SEOmoz). Someone at Microsoft offers to pay an expert to fix an entry, and the whole world hears about it. Wikipedia adopts the "nofollow" attribute for all outbound links, making it likely to outrank its own sources in Google results. SEOs are not pleased. Should word of mouth marketing and viral marketing be merged? Boy, talk about bias! Sometimes it seems that anti-business is the exception to NPOV.

But the process worked
The Wikipedian aversion to PR and proprietary interest makes things challenging, but a funny thing happened: since we talked, a page that was bothering the unnamed exec above got fixed. The bias toward a competitor is—well, not entirely gone, but greatly diminished. The entry has been renamed from the competitor's brand name to the generic term, and it describes both competitors' brands as examples.

So I looked up some other examples, and they were fixed, too. The entry that inaccurately linked Dow Chemical to the Bhopal disaster has been corrected and has lost its activist bias (it does link, appropriately, to information on the lingering controversy). The entry on public relations no longer describes some of the worst bad PR practices as if they're typical, and the entries for word of mouth marketing and viral marketing were not merged. Maybe the process works, after all?

Lessons learned at others' expense
The lessons for marketers are clear. Pay attention to Wikipedia entries related to your business. If you see material errors or negative information, address them, but tread lightly. Work within the Wikipedia system to address problems, and be extra sensitive to the appearance of violating its norms. If you represent a commercial interest, you are not considered a member of the community, and the fallout from a botched effort to correct your entry will be worse than the entry itself.

Wikipedia includes many entries on how to do Wikipedia. The new HBS case study will give you a quick introduction in a much more manageable form.

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Reputation monitoring on Wikipedia

Now that you're monitoring blogs, product reviews and domain name registrations, have you considered Wikipedia?

If you aren't familiar with it, Wikipedia is the free, community-edited, online reference that has taken a primary place in many people's reference library. It's a great resource with information on many, many topics. Its greatest strength is also the problem—anyone can edit it, and the information isn't always accurate. If you're using it as a source for a history paper, you're risking a bad grade. What if people are getting misleading information on your products?

I was talking to an executive at a large industrial company last week, when he told me about an ongoing problem they have on Wikipedia. It seems that a product his company invented is credited to a company that licensed it from them, and another product is listed under a competitor's trade name in Wikipedia. In theory, the generic term should be listed, with trade names listed as examples. But they've been unable to make corrections stick, so far. Since people use (and many trust) Wikipedia, the company needs to get the entries corrected, but the process isn't always as simple as it looks. As they deal with this, his team is becoming expert on Wikipedia.

For a happier example, Dan Pink recently learned that his book is in Wikipedia (I would link to the post, but Dan's item archive links never work for me):

A Whole New Wiki?

A Whole New Mind has its own Wikipedia entry. In fact, it's had one since June. Of course, I didn't know until this weekend when, er, my ten-year-old daughter showed me. Cool.

The entry on A Whole New Mind (aff) presents the book in a good light, and it includes links to entries on Pink himself and his first book, Free Agent Nation (aff). Those entries don't exist (yet). Should Dan write something? I think I would, but I would keep it short and factual—not a big promotional page. Look at entries for other living people as a guide, but the fact that someone created a page for his book suggests that a brief biography entry is appropriate.

Monitoring Wikipedia for your business
If you're responsible for your company's image, Wikipedia is just one more place to know what's being said about you. Our corporate example demonstrates the importance of looking up your competitors, too, since you or your products may appear on pages about them. Here are some steps for getting started:


  • Look up your company, products, inventions, brands, and people on Wikipedia. Do the same for other companies in your ecosystem: competitors, partners, suppliers and customers. Take note of any entries that present a problem. You may be involved with these pages for a while.

  • Browse the Help section and read a good selection of entries before you start making changes. Wikipedia is like other Internet subcultures that want newcomers to learn their ways before making noise.

  • Anyone can edit Wikipedia entries. If you find simple errors, fix them. Then monitor that page to see if the errors return. Be sure to see the Discussion and History tabs at the top of each entry.

  • Set up an account on Wikipedia. Registered users can create new pages and set up watchlists to track changes to Wikipedia entries.

  • Just to keep things interesting, remember that Wikipedia exists in multiple languages. You'll need to track them individually.

YouTube may get all the attention (and Google's money), but Wikipedia is the kind of low-profile, apparently objective, information source that potential customers could rely on when they're getting ready to buy. Will they find your product there? Wikipedia is not the place for a sales-oriented pitch, but it shouldn't be the place for inaccurate, adverse information, either.

Update: I posted more thoughts and some updates in Crash course on Wikipedia.

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About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Studying complexity and futures.
  • Principal, Social Target

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