Wikipedia's most valuable brand asset is trust. For the information portal, which turned 10 last year, to maintain its credibility, and its value, it must cultivate trust with its users, and create trust that self-interested parties are not influencing its product, i.e., its content.
So new questions about Wikipedia editors taking money to change content could combust into the greatest threat the brand has seen to date, bigger than waning interest and wooing academia or even rivals vying for its perch. One Wikipedia watcher suggests scandals are already taking a toll on Wikipedia's bottom line.
Writing on CNet, author Violet Blue points to a Wikipedia discussion page where allegations have been made that:
"Roger Bamkin, trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation UK, whose LinkedIn page describes him as a high-return-earning PR consultant, appeared to be using Wikipedia's main page 'Did You Know' feature and the resources of Wikipedia's GLAM WikiProject (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) initiative to pimp his client's project."
The Wikimedia Foundation, for the uninitiated, operates Wikipedia, and creates the governing guidelines and guardrails that protect the Wikipedia brand. Rather than "full disclosure," Bamkin is accused of fool disclosure by Blue, who notes in her CNet investigation that "Bamkin's current client" list includes "the country of Gibraltar." Numerous news sources have reported that tourist sites on the island of Gibraltar have added QR codes to signs that link to Wikipedia content. Presto, "Gibraltarpedia!"
Blue's allegations of a paid PR scandal compromising Wikipedia — which should be read in full and includes a statement about this being "wildly inappropriate" from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales — points out that in the month of August alone, "Gibraltar was featured as a Wikipedia DYK front page feature an astonishing seventeen times." Can the frequency of the features and the Gibraltar PR campaign be mere coincidence? If the allegations of a Wikimedia insider gaming the system turn out to be true, expect "PRikipedia" to soon be found on the list of ten most notorious Wikipedia scandals. And oh, the irony, of a site that looks to rout out conflicts of interest being hoist on its own petard.
While the deterioration of Wikipedia's brand reputation and trust (built on the "nice people" who volunteer as editors) is immeasurable and by far the most damaging part of the latest scandal, there appears to be a real financial impact as well. MyWikiBiz, which allows "non-notable" users who have been rejected by Wikipedia to "author your legacy on the Internet," points out that five of Wikipedia's biggest scandals coincide with severe dips in donations to the Wikimedia Foundation.
Outside commercial interests have always been a bit vexed about how to commercialize the stupendous resources of the site. Directly paying the organization was out as Wikipedia knew its impartiality was, and is, a core of its success; to take money to rearrange its content would completely be at odds with its humanitarian, independent mission. (Google, another brand whose impartiality is a core brand value, has found a way to live in commercial harmony thanks to Google Ads.) The recent Gibraltar deal appeared a wonderful use of Wikipedia power to accentuate a commercial interest. This is the core reason this most recent pay-for-play scandal may be more damaging than others involving egos or history. Future such deals may be met with skepticism.
Comedy Central wag Stephen Colbert has had about as much fun as anyone using Wikipedia's crowdsourced (and often error-filled - ask novelist Philip Roth) site for fun. The comedian has long capitalized on the site's format by motivating his loyal viewers to incorrectly edit entries as a gag. Most recently, Wikipedia was forced to intervene as the comedian invited viewers to vigorously and erroneously edit potential Republican VP candidiates just as one was about to be selected. Oddly enough, this kind of Wikigag seems to endear the brand to users more than expose its glowing faults. Many Wikipedia fans will not likely be as sympathetic to know that money is changing hands within an organization renewed for its altruism.
This is not Wikipedia's first brush with money influencing content, but it may be the most damaging. A single case can be excused as a bad egg ruining it for everyone. But the impact of this second case creates a expectation of inevitable corruption within the service. That is to say, fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me… You can't get fooled again.
The veracity of Wikipedia's information is at the heart of the value of such services. Wikipedia just launched an EPUB export feature that allows users to turn Wikipedia content into e-book publications, and it's trying to gain the trust of academics. What is the value of such a feature if nobody trusts the content?
The scandal comes at a time Wikipedia has been taking a beating lately. Wikipedia has been accused of severe gender bias wherein "two thousand and ninety-nine of the 3,000 articles shown are predominantly edited by men." This led one researcher to launch a program that purportedly detects "Wikipedia Bias" by allowing users to visually interpret entries by gender of editor. On Oct. 19, the UK's esteemed Royal Society (est. 1660) is hosting an "edit-a-thon" with the goal of improving "the Wikipedia profiles of leading female scientists who have been ignored and overlooked by the online encyclopedia's male-dominated army of contributors."
Meanwhile, and maybe appropriately, this blow comes at a time when Wikipedia is launching an effort to improve conflict resolution. No word on whether or not that includes internal conflicts of interest. [Image at top via MyWikiBiz]
Below, at Wikimania 2012 last month in Washington DC, the Wikimedia Foundation asked conference participants for ideas on how to make Wikipedia better. Their suggestions, as selected and shared on the foundation's YouTube channel: