Because even the "administrators" designated to oversee certain types of articles are all volunteers and are not necessarily credentialed in any way above and beyond the average user, communications with the e-bureaucrats may take days or weeks—if ever. Experiments in editing an existing article with known errors about a living person for purpose of this article were quickly and without much explanation reverted back to their erroneous state. Emails seeking clarification from the volunteer overseeing the article as well as to the email address for disputes (per Wikipedia protocol) went unanswered.
Says Robbin S. Goodman, executive vice president and partner at Makovsky + Company Inc., a PR firm based in New York, "The navigation [etc.] is very difficult. I believe only a small minority of people care and take the time."
"The Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated"
And then there are the biographies of living people written largely by people other than the living person. John Seigenthaler Sr., former assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s, was shocked one day in 2005 to find his bio on Wikipedia complete with statements linking him to the Kennedy assassinations and written in such a believable way that the average user would have no reason to question the statements. While telling his story on CNN, reporter Kyra Phillips (who was moderating an interview with Seigenthaler and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales), also expressed surprise and dismay by the treatment of her own biography on the site. (Seigenthaler wrote about his Wikipedia experience in a November 29, 2005, USA Today article.)
As recently as this month, there was a "dead before his time thanks to Wikipedia" controversy—the comedian known as Sinbad was reported as having died on March 14.
Although Seigenthaler's fictitious five-line bio was removed and Sinbad returned to the ranks of the living after much publicity, there are an unquantifiable number of bios and other public-domain information that is written with errors ranging from misinformation to mischief and mal-intent. Wikipedia itself provides a general disclaimer of not being responsible for the validity of content provided and is legally not liable for any type of lawsuits resulting from libel, defamation, or other claims.
Inaccuracies permeate everything from Johnny's fifth-grade history report to a professional doing research. Levick's Grabowski recalls an AP reporter's recent complaints of being "burned" by inaccurate Wikipedia information more than once.
"In America, there's this notion, especially with institutions, that everything should be out in the open and democratized," Grabowski says. "The problem is when brands get that democratized—whether its Wikipedia or whether it's a TV show or CBS Records—when everyone has a stake in it, no one has responsibility [for the brand], and responsibility is the key word. If no one owns or is responsible for the Wikipedia brand, then pretty soon you're going to lose the brand—because what is a brand? A brand is trust. And if you lose the trust, you lose the brand.
"Let's say a firm is in a battle against someone like PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] or a rival company," he continues. "What's to stop them from creating a headache for [the other company] by hiring a couple of young college students to go on and mess with their entries on Wikipedia?"
Makovsky + Company's Goodman agrees that responsibility and accuracy are key and asserts that every brand is facing similar challenges by virtue of blogs and community sites in addition to wikis. "From a marketing point of view, a company needs to take ownership from the standpoint of monitoring vigilantly for accuracy."
Earlier this year, Microsoft was embroiled in criticism that it went too far in correcting its own Wikipedia entry by attempting to hire a blogger to correct entries the company claims were inaccurate and "heavily slanted." Microsoft spokeswoman Catherine Brooker reported to CNN that she believed the articles were written by employees of IBM and that attempts made by the company to flag the mistakes were not responded to by the volunteer administrators. Wikipedia's Wales suggested that the company "write a white paper" to address the inaccuracies.
Levick's Grabowski believes that for Wikipedia, the lack of ways to control quality and accuracy due to its business model (or lack thereof) may be a "fatal blow." Both Goodman and Grabowski believe that it will take a shift in the model via quality controls by experts (other than volunteers) to make it over the long haul.
In a survey conducted by Makovsky + Company with 500 Fortune 100 executives, only 20 percent monitor what is said about their company on blogs, and only 8 percent said they had taken any action in regard to what was being said about them. The survey respondents were not asked about wiki sites specifically.
As wiki-based sites expand to corporate intranets and entrepreneurial start-ups, lessons other than Wikipedia's own trials and errors are bound to be learned, including what is and is not a good business concept. In June 2005, the Los Angeles Times launched its own "wikitorial" (open-source online editorial) beginning with one on the Iraq invasion. It quickly decided it wasn't such a great idea.