Some companies, like General Motors, Procter & Gamble, and Apple, spend many millions of dollars in promotional advertising campaigns. Other companies, like Rolls-Royce, Krispy Kreme, and the makers of Sriracha hot sauce, allocate no money toward traditional ad marketing. According to Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, we can add his new wireless telephony firm to the list of “no advertising” operations. Ever since its principal financier Andrew Rosenfeld met an unexpected and untimely death, cellular start-up The People’s Operator has put its hopes in Wales’ hands, relying on him to enhance their “no ads” public relations campaign. While the company’s recent initial public offering on the London exchange raised about £20 million for the company’s bottom line, The People’s Operator (TPOP) share price has remained stuck below its initial 130 pence peg, with very little trading activity. Expenditures at the mobile virtual network operator are outpacing revenues by a factor of sixty percent, and its P/E ratio is negative 63. Perhaps desperate for new life, what better way to spike awareness and boost consideration than to send Wikipedia’s co-founder on a media tour to announce TPOP’s new social media platform and its pending entry into the U.S. market? If there’s anything Jimmy Wales is good at, it’s getting his mug in front of consumer eyeballs.
But then there’s the matter of the things that come out of his mouth once he’s on camera. As The Register recently quipped, “How can you tell Jimbo is lying? His lips are moving.” On Monday, July 20, Wales appeared on HuffPost Live, with Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani. Wales talked for a while about how TPOP was unique because cellular customers will see 10% of their monthly bill redirected to a charity of their choice. However, no mention was made of the fact that customers’ invoices will also help underwrite Wales’ nearly $400,000 annual salary.
As always with Wales and the media, the conversation invariably turned to Wikipedia. Modarressy-Tehrani asked him about ongoing credibility problems that Wikipedia suffers with self-interested editors and public relations firms manipulating content on Wikipedia in their clients’ favor. Wales tried to downplay this. He says, “It’s a really bad idea for them to do this, because they get caught, and it embarrasses their clients.” He then took the angle of saying, “the problem is very small, it’s pretty rare”.
Oh, the irony
Your trusty reporter never seems to have any trouble finding a contradiction in Jimmy Wales’ biggest public pronouncements. (Remember, his lips are moving, right?) For example, Wikipedia happens to have an article about The People’s Operator. Wales says that PR editing on Wikipedia is “pretty rare”. But if you look at the history of how the TPOP article came to be on Wikipedia, it was created by a user who self-identified as a UK-based marketing consultant. It was then substantially touched up by an editor who appeared to be named Dale Marshall. At the time, Dale Curtis Marshall was a copywriter/content executive at The People’s Operator. Whoops! When Jimmy Wales was asked by reporter Carole Cadwalladr about the PR provenance of Wikipedia’s article about his wireless company, Wales deflected, saying “No, it wasn’t. I’d rather not talk about him.” But Cadwalladr was very prepared, pointing out the facts to Wales:
But, when I looked at the Wikipedia entry for the People’s Operator and looked at the history of the article, and then Googled the name of the person who had written the initial entry and looked him up on LinkedIn, it stated he was a marketing consultant for the People’s Operator.
Wales changed his tune, “I’ll have to look that up. That’s very interesting”, even though this fact had been pointed out previously to Wales on his Wikipedia Talk page. The Guardian had caught him in a lie about his own wireless company on his own pet project, Wikipedia; so he brushed it off by saying “we all know, it happens all the time so there’s no real reason to be shocked by it”. So, which is it, Jimbo — “pretty rare” or “happens all the time”? Maybe it depends on who is getting caught doing it.
As mentioned, Jimbo took his most recent huckster spiel to HuffPost Live. If you take a look, there’s also a Wikipedia article about HuffPost Live. It was spruced up as recently as nine months ago by a User named “Rahel.gebreyes”. Coincidentally, Rahel Gebreyes is employed by HuffPost Live in an editorial role. Jimmy Wales says that this kind of conflict-of-interest editing is a “very small”, “pretty rare” problem on Wikipedia, but we can see that his wireless company was doing it, and the media channel giving him his free PR was doing it. If it’s so small and rare, why does it seem to follow everything Wales or his Wikimedia Foundation touches?
Self-interest as a motivator on Wikipedia
There’s an oft-cited myth that most Wikipedia editors are selfless and altruistic human beings, seeking only to objectively document all the world’s knowledge, regardless of subject. Take a bit of time to really look at Wikipedia, though, and you’ll discover that the opposite is typically the case. Most Wikipedia editors have a reason for editing what they do, and that reason often intersects with their own personal or financial interests. One nearly-completed study of 100 random Wikipedia articles about businesses found that perhaps 35% to 40% of them have either been created or heavily-modified by authors who are benefiting financially from the company’s direction.
Going back to that Wikipedia article about HuffPost Live, you’ll also see a very recent edit from an IP address in Toronto, Canada. The IP address wanted Wikipedia to say that HuffPost Live had recently been brought to Canadian television broadcasts, thanks to a deal brokered by Toronto-based entrepreneur Evan Kosiner. That struck this reporter as an odd thing for an IP address to add to a Wikipedia article, unless the IP address ended at a keyboard owned by Evan Kosiner. There is even a Wikipedia article about Evan Kosiner, initially authored by a user who was later banned from Wikipedia for operating numerous “sockpuppet” accounts that were caught modifying Wikipedia on behalf of paying clients. So, I contacted Kosiner, asking if he would agree to an interview about editing Wikipedia, and generously he agreed. And please note, your reporter is himself deeply experienced with editing Wikipedia in exchange for payment, as the founder of the first and longest-running Wikipedia content-authoring service, called MyWikiBiz.
We should note that Kosiner was speaking on his own behalf, not that of his company or affiliates, and specifically not on behalf of AOL or of Huffington Post.
Kohs: “It appears that you either authored or paid to have authored Wikipedia’s biography about yourself. Why is that?”
Kosiner: “We were asked so often for a bio, that we hired a company that wrote Wikipedia articles. I wanted to make sure that info about me was relevant and timely.”
Kohs: “Isn’t this editing with a conflict of interest?”
Kosiner: “There’s a fine line or border between pushing a self-interested point of view, and updating info and then monitoring what others write about you, and that’s half the fun of Wikipedia. When an article is about a person or a company, the person or company is an expert on this. The process is *supposed* to be a back-and-forth debate between editors. There are things on there [Kosiner’s Wikipedia biography] now that I don’t agree with, but fine — that’s how the editors have put it, so that’s the way it is.”
Kosiner would be right about that. For example, the Wikipedia article about Toronto gets about 3,500 page views per day, but its Talk page gets only about 5 daily page views, and the User page of its most prolific editor (“Johnny Au”) gets only about 8 daily page views. Readers consume Wikipedia articles, but they don’t typically do any further research about their design and evolution. Jimmy Wales’ advice to companies to send an e-mail to the Wikimedia Foundation (it will likely get deflected back to “the community”) or to engage on the Talk page of an article (where few people will read it) has been criticized as painfully naive. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Jimmy Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation to face reality and instead of shunting and ostracizing Wikipedia editors with a paid conflict of interest, try to embrace them and work with them to run a more transparent and balanced “digital tug of war”? Allow them to edit articles directly without shame, then let the articles evolve as a community effort. As Wales says, the way it stands now, when a PR firm is discovered editing a client’s Wikipedia article, he emphasizes that the result is “embarrassment”. Well, shame on him for saying that the problem is small and rare, because his own company, The People’s Operator, was “guilty” of it, as was HuffPost Live, his free PR media platform of the day. How about instead of talking about transparency, we actually behave transparently?