Et tu, Mr. Wales?

“Jimmy, I love Wikipedia. It’s an amazing creation — one that I use every single day. Like you, I want it to be as accurate and objective as possible. I admire the fact that you strive tirelessly for these ideals.”

That’s how Scott Baradell over at Media Orchard describes Wikipedia in an open letter to Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. I learned about it via Kami Huyse’s blog. There is, however, a “but” in Baradell’s description.

“With your blanket policies against corporate contributors and others, you are digging yourself a hole — one that promises to get deeper for the foreseeable future, and damage your brand in the process.”

Baradell wrote his letter in response to a feud between Microsoft and Wikipedia over factual accuracy. Microsoft has hired “an independent expert who could determine whether changes were necessary and enter them on Wikipedia” after flagging posts on the discussion pages didn’t do the job.

Now, I don’t agree with hiring “an independent expert.” Their intentions might have been righteous, but it just doesn’t make them look good. But then again, I don’t have a problem with corporations or public relations practitioners making edits to Wikipedia entries. It all comes down to how they do it. As Baradell puts it: “I’m confident you’ll find — over time — that policing the content, rather than the contributors, makes a lot more sense.”

I have edited several entries, including articles about the Chicago Lighthouse, where I worked as an intern, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where I work now. In both instances, I edited the article fairly and relevantly and I wouldn’t do it any other way. If someone would have disagreed, I would have listened and discussed it on the appropriate discussion page (no one did).

For example, when Bernard Haitink was named principal conductor, one user wrote that he was Daniel Barenboim’s immediate successor, which was not the correct term, so I took it out. I didn’t take it out because I was concerned about the messaging or the perception of the CSO; I took it out because it was wrong and an encyclopedia should be right.

Now I see that someone wrote that we announced the new in-house recording label CSO Resound in 2007. Technically, we announced it in November 2006. Now tell me Mr. Wales, why exactly wouldn’t I be able to correct this?

Here’s some good advice for public relations practitioners who are thinking about editing Wikipedia entries.

And, somewhat surprisingly, I found the following on the Wikipedia article on Jimmy Wales:

In late 2005, Wales was criticised for editing his own biography page on Wikipedia in a way some characterized as “revisionist history.” In particular, Rogers Cadenhead drew attention to logs showing that Mr. Wales had removed references to Sanger as the co-founder of Wikipedia. He was also observed to have modified references to Bomis in a way that was characterized as downplaying the sexual nature of some of his former company’s products. An article in the July 31, 2006 issue of the New Yorker magazine expanded on this topic:

‘Even Wales has been caught airbrushing his Wikipedia entry—eighteen times in the past year. He is particularly sensitive about references to the porn traffic on his Web portal. “Adult content” or “glamour photography” are the terms that he prefers, though, as one user pointed out on the site, they are perhaps not the most precise way to describe lesbian strip-poker threesomes. (In January, Wales agreed to a compromise: “erotic photography.”)’

In both cases, Wales argued that his modifications were solely intended to improve the accuracy of the content.

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