Does Wikipedia Pay? The Consultant: Pete Forsyth
- Does Wikipedia Pay? is an ongoing Signpost series seeking to illuminate paid editing and paid advocacy, for-profit Wikipedia consultants, editing public relations professionals, Conflict of Interest guidelines in practice, and the Wikipedians who work on these issues—by speaking openly with the people involved.
- Last week we interviewed Silver Seren about his involvement with WikiProject Cooperation. For the second round of the series, The Signpost talked with Wikipedia editor, administrator, and former Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) employee Pete Forsyth, owner of the Wikipedia consulting firm Wiki Strategies. The way Forsyth describes it, consulting is altogether different than paid editing, notably for the lack of editing articles directly. Instead, he offers guidance to clients and instructs them about how to engage the community. Does he avoid the common traps of conflict of interest editing? Is this a model that could or should be extended? Can one actually make a living doing it? Much to consider in this week's interview ...
- For a transcript of the unedited conversation, see The Signpost's Interviews desk archive.
Tell me about your background as a Wikipedian. When did you get started? What were your first edits and first impressions? What got you hooked?
I was first exposed to the Internet at college in 1992, and soon I was drawn to the collaborative and public benefit vision of the free software movement. I later built a wiki with colleagues at a local non-profit. Learning about wikis as part of a thriving real-world community was a formative experience. When I came to Wikipedia I found myself developing working relationships, and ultimately friendships, which greatly enriched my experience. My first project was to start the article Oregon's statewide elections, 2006. I was learning myself, and wanted to share my new knowledge with others.
||When others began to improve on my work, I was hooked; it was exhilarating to see unambiguous signs that other people valued what I was doing, and wanted to carry it further.
How did you grow in the Wikipedia community to become an administrator and then work with the WMF?
I quickly found others working on Oregon-related content, including people I knew from local blogs. A few things that stoked my interest: attending open space–based conferences like BarCamp and RecentChangesCamp, and working with peers to reach out to the Oregon Historical Society  and the state legislature . I shared my enthusiasm for Wikipedia with others in my personal and professional life, earning a reputation as a Wikipedia expert.
I began to meet Wikimedia Foundation staff in about 2008, and was flattered to learn that they followed the WikiProject Oregon blog we'd launched. They were interested in our outreach efforts. The foundation later hired me to help design a university program, which became known as the Wikipedia Public Policy Initiative. Through that work, students and professors around the world have begun to learn about Wikipedia, and I met some of the smartest and most dedicated people I know.
When did you start Wiki Strategies? What was your motivation for doing so?
I'd been an Internet and communications consultant for several years, so it was probably inevitable that my Wikipedia interests and my professional interests would converge. I launched Wiki Strategies in 2009 (initially as a partnership with User:Esprqii, though we have amicably parted ways since). We both observed that as Wikipedia grew into a robust and widely known institution, new people and organizations were getting interested. We saw an opportunity with organizations that tried to engage with Wikipedia, but didn't get complete or useful answers through typical on-site interaction. Wikipedia's production model can be very unfamiliar, and a dedicated consultant can offer value through a customized introduction to the site.
How does Wiki Strategies deal with conflicts of interest?
Above all, we only work with clients who agree to disclose any conflict of interest, and approach any related editing in a collaborative, respectful way. We work with clients who agree to do things like stating their affiliation on their user page, and leaving notes on the article talk page and in "Wikipedia:" space when appropriate. Our clients appreciate the practical guidance about how to engage in ways that are ethical and consistent with Wikpedia's values and culture. They're happy to learn how to genuinely improve a highly regarded public resource. On a more pragmatic level, our model eliminates the risk that they will be "outed", because of the high degree of upfront disclosure. From a client's perspective, this translates to stability; there is less likelihood of something unexpected happening with an article months or years in the future, when an effort to openly build consensus has guided their work from the start.
What is the difference between being a paid editor and a "consultant"? What types of services do people pay your for?
As a consultant, my clients are explicitly interested in my expertise in Wikipedia, how it operates, and how to engage with it in effective and ethical ways. I would think "paid editor" encompasses areas where a company has already determined what they want to do, and are paying somebody to carry out a task. Not necessarily good or bad; but in a case like that, I would hope they have a thoughtful Wikipedian working on outlining the project upfront.
Do you ever edit articles that you are paid for directly?
I have never made an edit to an article on behalf of a client. (There's a slight chance I've fixed a typo, or similar, without thinking.) However, I routinely advise clients (and others, in my volunteer efforts) in how to edit articles in an open and respectful way. Typically, clients are "on the clock" while making those edits, and they clearly disclose what they are doing. Here is an example of a client's work. The history and talk page may give a better idea of how Wiki Strategies helps clients with articles about themselves.
If you don't edit articles directly, but you do edit the text of client drafts, can you be sure that your clients are not editing directly? If they were, does that mean you're paid editing by proxy? Do you provide guidance as to what clients should do next once you're done working with them?
I go to great lengths to set clear expectations with my clients prior to starting any paid work. I work closely with them through their first edits; if they were to stray significantly from what we agree on, that would just be weird – it would be a significant betrayal of a trust-based relationship we've both invested in. I suppose I'd end the project, and scratch my head about why they had hired me to begin with. When I look back at past clients' articles, I've never seen anything that raises any flags for me. In the few cases where they're still engaged, they're doing good work and being open about their identity.
What has surprised you about working with clients? What's the most common misunderstanding they hold about Wikipedia?
||As a consultant, I have learned to ask a lot of questions and listen carefully when getting to know a prospective client. On Wikipedia, such discussions often get skipped over while we deal with massive quantities of information. I think as Wikipedians, it's tempting to focus on the worst-case scenario (inserting non-neutral material) rather than considering the broad range of reasons people and organizations might want to engage.
Nearly every organization I talk to expresses a strong appreciation for Wikipedia's commitment to neutral and factual information. They recognize that
it's a fundamentally different model from other media, but generally don't understand fully how
it's different. As the Internet has become more complex and interactive, I think it becomes more difficult for most people to distinguish even among the most popular sites they visit every day. I'm sometimes surprised by the specifics; for instance, I've heard this sort of thing many times: "Years ago, I just clicked an edit button and fixed a typo. But I'm sure that's been locked down now – you can't just edit any page without [insert hazy theory], right?" I'm actually more surprised by Wikipedians' assumptions about why an organization might be interested in Wikipedia.
Have you ever turned down a client?
Yes. I get inquiries from people and organizations who are marginally notable from time to time. I typically advise them that resources spent on making the case for notability are not a good investment, and are better spent on other kinds of earned media.
How much do you earn from your consulting? Is it your primary job? Enough for spending money? Quit your day job? Retire early?
All my income relates to Wikipedia; it's my day job. I am comfortable with my income, but I won't be rich any time soon.
At heart are you a regular Wikipedian who's paid for working on Wikipedia on the side, or a consultant who occasionally does editing unrelated to your company?
A Wikipedian, without hesitation. Yes, I believe it's important to maintain a strong connection to the volunteer-driven nature of the project, and I'm not sure there's a better way to do that than through volunteer work.
You've managed to do what many experienced Wikipedia editors would dream of, which is to make money around Wikipedia. Do you think your path is a feasible one for other editors?
||As demand for services relating to Wikipedia grows, it's imperative that we point the way toward practical steps companies can take that are built on the site's core values and policies.
Absolutely. It's not only possible, but vitally important
to the future of Wikipedia that engaged, experienced, and mission-driven Wikipedians develop consulting skills. It's not an easy path, and it's not for everyone; I've worked hard to get this far. But the demand for expert advice in how to engage with the biggest, most widely read body of work in human history is not going to subside. I will
say, I don't have a lot of confidence in models where the consultant's focus is entirely
around direct conflicts of interest. I try to work with clients who have an interest in improving a general topic area, building goodwill as a good "digital citizen," and/or learning something about online community engagement through an exploration of Wikipedia. I believe staying active in these areas, both in my paid work and as a volunteer contributor, is essential.
You're getting paid to do what many do for free. Is that fair? Can the community survive with a split between those who are volunteers and those who are employees?
I disagree, in two respects: (1) I continue to volunteer heavily, and I don't think I could be a very effective consultant if I didn't; and (2) my paid work is very unlike my volunteer work. At the core, it's about gaining an understanding of my client's strategic objectives (either as an organization, or on a specific project) and exploring where it does or doesn't align with the strategic objectives of Wikipedia/Wikimedia. I don't believe this is work that takes place routinely in the volunteer community. There are some excellent examples where it has, but I doubt very much if the Wikipedians who have done this sort of work as volunteers imagine themselves doing so in a volunteer capacity for any length of time.
No, I don't believe the community could survive a split of this kind. I believe it's essential that paid consultants act as, and be accepted as, members of the community. This means actively serving the site's mission to connect all humanity with the sum of all knowledge. Our community has always been diverse, with writers, software developers, photographers, Foundation staff, etc.; the fact that paid consultants have a different approach than volunteer editors shouldn't exclude them from the community. But effort on the part of consultants and of other Wikimedians is needed for the relationship to work well.
What is Wiki Strategies working on now and next?
My major projects are not ones where a conflict of interest is central. Our current focus is on broader projects. For instance, supporting volunteer improvement of a broad topic area, earning a reputation as a good digital citizen, or learning about online collaboration and publishing through engagement with the Wikipedia community. I believe such projects have a lot more potential, both to advance the Wikipedia mission and to have a positive impact for my clients. Currently, my two main projects involve helping organizations contribute to broad topic areas on Wikipedia (such as Consumer Reports  and the Open Education Collaborative Documentation Project ). These projects are exciting to me because I see great potential to build bridges between different groups that share core values, but approach their day-to-day work in very different ways. I have some side work advising on articles that involve more direct conflicts of interest (along the lines of the Pixetell example above), but it's not my central focus.
Companies and other organizations have rich and complex relationships with knowledge generation and dissemination. Some have vast archives of research that may be hidden from public view, only because they see no easy way to share them. Some have business models that would simply work better if the public had better access to factual information. Some may have good reason to worry about casual or inaccurate Wikipedia editing on the part of their employees, and want to learn what they can do. Encouraging and helping organizations to openly and respectfully explore how Wikipedia may relate to their efforts has become my central focus, so I no longer do many projects that focus on one, or a few, articles about a company itself. To read more about current projects, check out the Wiki Strategies blog.
Are you hiring?
No, but we are beginning to explore what kinds of tasks can be spread among sub-contractors. I would like to be in a position to hire Wikipedians in the next year.
Conflict of interest policy and practices
What do you think of Jimbo's strong stance against direct editing of articles by COI editors?
A strict prohibition on article editing for editors in a conflict of interest would go against healthy, everyday Wikipedia practice, and would have devastating consequences. Conflicts of interest are common, and only some of them involve money. They can be managed through ethical behavior and sound judgment. Striking the right balance can be a challenge, but new and experienced Wikipedians challenge themselves to value neutrality above their own opinions every day, often with excellent results. Numerous organizations have, and will increasingly develop, an interest in contributing to Wikipedia. If we were to prohibit them from ever editing articles, there would be two major results. In cases where directly editing an article is common, accepted practice (for instance, non-controversial edits), (1) we would throw away any ability to influence how they edit articles, and (2) we would create a situation where such edits could not be disclosed, for fear of being punished. We would effectively be promoting secrecy over disclosure and accountability.
In little over a decade, we've developed a new model of peer production, knowledge management, and publication. We have built the largest, most widely read body of work in human history. Along with these accomplishments comes responsibility: we have to help the people and organizations of the world understand how to make sense of Wikipedia, and how it relates to their work. We are "the encyclopedia anyone can edit." Establishing and adopting practices about how to do so is the way to stay true to that vision; excluding entire classes of people is not. To simply tell organizations "no, you can't participate" is not a practical or reasonable approach, doesn't align with day-to-day, normal practice on Wikipedia, and wouldn't align with our mission. At the core, it would be an abdication of our goal and responsibility to improve the way knowledge moves through society.
||We are "the encyclopedia anyone can edit." Establishing and adopting practices about how to do so is the way to stay true to that vision; excluding entire classes of people is not.
Do you see a need for the community to keep out paid/PR/COI editors?
Wikipedia is founded on inclusion, not exclusion. While any serious Wikipedian should be concerned about the influence of special interests (monied or otherwise), excluding broad categories of contributors, whether from the entire project or from editing article content, is the wrong way to go. That kind of exclusion would go against everyday, healthy Wikipedia interaction, in which reasonable contributors engaging in respectful ways are treated well. It would also take us in a new direction, in which there are giant asterisks next to our core policies of Be Bold and Assume Good Faith.
It's reasonable to expect people with conflicts of interest to clearly disclose them, and to respect emerging consensus even if they don't like it; but it's not reasonable to treat them as second-class Wikipedians. What's more, every one of us has various conflicts of interest. Ideally, we develop skills that help us minimize the impact of those conflicts on a project devoted to neutral information. People in a professional role are no less capable of developing those skills than anyone else, but it would certainly be helpful if other organizations' policies toward Wikipedia were to develop in ways that fully support Wikipedia's mission. That aspiration is at the core of my consulting work.
How can the constructive paid editors be accommodated while still dealing with the unethical ones?
I am continually impressed with the efforts of Wikipedians to deal with counterproductive editing. But there is always room for improvement. I believe organizations that value Wikipedia for what it is can be important allies in that process. Their actions can be used to guide future efforts by other organizations; and their reports about positive experiences based in ethical practices can reach audiences difficult for Wikipedians to access directly. Above all, I believe it is of critical importance to develop strong and clear consensus that openness about one's affiliations is a key component of ethical engagement with Wikipedia. By "consensus," I don't mean mere agreement just among Wikipedians, but also among the general public, companies, non-profits, government entities, and thought leaders in general.
The world is learning to love and value Wikipedia. At the moment, the absence of clear and actionable guidelines about how to engage constructively leaves everything up to individual interpretation. Without those guidelines, much of that interpretation will be self-interested. Consider this: given a genuine choice, what organization would want to be perceived as an adversary of Wikipedia? By offering useful guidelines for organizations on how to engage in ethical and productive ways, we have a tremendous opportunity to influence organizational behavior. Strange as it may seem, ethical guidelines need not be formal or enforced to be useful and effective. My clients ask me all the time: "what's the right way to do it?" Through all the work we have done as Wikipedians, we have established our own authority and influence. We have more power to advance our mission through straightforward communication than we tend to realize.
There's a long list of scandals dating back to MyWikiBiz through WikiScanner and BellPottinger, in which COI editors have been exposed, blocked, embarrassed. If you were Gregory Kohs in 2006, would Jimbo have blocked you? Why do you think you are still in good standing with the encyclopedia?
The Bell Pottinger story provides a plain-as-day example of the risks inherent in a simplistic, short-sighted, and unethical approach to engaging with Wikipedia.() As such it is valuable to us as a movement, and to businesses considering whether and how to engage with Wikpedia. By failing to think through the best way to engage with Wikipedia, Bell Pottinger let its clients down and exposed them to backlash. They created a situation where principled Wikipedians had no choice but to publicly criticize the firm and its practices, and reverse the damage. As for myself, I like to think I'm in good standing with the encyclopedia because I continue to advance its mission on a daily basis, in an open and collaborative way – both in my paid work and in a volunteer capacity.
Do you think WP:COI needs to be updated, promoted to policy, or demoted to essay status? Should policy prohibit direct editing by paid editors?
It's good as is. I especially appreciate the bolded sentence in the lead paragraph: "Where advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest." The page is very useful in establishing relationships with my clients. It provides a clear picture of how conflicts of interest can be problematic for Wikipedia, without outright denying the possibility that a person with a COI might be able to make a valuable contribution.
Should COI disclosures be required for paid editors?
Creating a requirement, given the project's strong dedication to individual privacy and anonymity, strikes me as impractical in the extreme. I do think it's important to establish a strong consensus, extending far beyond Wikipedia's inner circles, that openness and transparency are critical to ethical and effective engagement with Wikipedia, especially when there is a clear conflict of interest. Clearly articulating the benefits of disclosure, and advancing it as common practice in numerous small ways, will ease tensions between Wikipedia and other entities. (I'm not advocating a fundamental change – there are tons of great anonymous editors – but I do think we would be better off if it were more the exception than the rule, moreso where conflicts of interest exist.)
Should editors be able to advertise their services *on* Wikipedia?
Advertisements are disallowed by policy. We've gotten really good at dealing with this in article space (e.g., "Company X makes product Y" is generally OK, but a graphic listing specific prices, slogans, etc. is not). If we weren't distracted by the "paid editor" component of this issue, I think we'd all agree the concept translates directly to user space. Mentioning a service in passing is one thing; boldly advertising it, with a rate, at the top of a user page -- that's something else entirely. That's advertising, and advertising is prohibited.
What do you think of recent efforts to improve relations between the PR industry/paid editors, and Wikipedia. I'm thinking of CREWE and WikiProject Cooperation in particular.
Improving relationships is always a worthy goal. But the interest public relations firms have in Wikipedia doesn't usually align strongly with Wikipedia's mission. I'd be somewhat surprised if a clear and positive path forward emerges from the PR industry; but I've been surprised by many things in my time as a Wikipedian, so I wouldn't rule it out completely! In my own business pursuits, however, I see better opportunities with other kinds of businesses and organizations.
The big picture
This model for continual improvement emerged from the discussions around the five year strategic plan for the Wikimedia movement.
What is your plan for the next five years with Wikipedia? What do you think its biggest challenges are, and how do you see the community addressing them?
As a participant in the Wikimedia strategic planning process, I take a great deal of pride in the five-year plan that emerged . The dedication and creative energy of the community has always been essential to advancing the project. I'd like to see a Wikipedia where the community of contributors better reflects the diversity of the broader world, in all aspects; currently, the low representation of women and the global south in our contributor base strike me as major shortcomings. In building community around wikis, I've found that helping people understand the potential of the medium, and the values that have brought it to its present state, are vital ingredients. That's why I focus my efforts in these areas.
What's your favorite quote or piece of advice about Wikipedia?
In the occasional cynical moment, Valfontis' Law resonates pretty strongly! ("The amount of time and effort spent explaining policy and procedure to any user is inversely proportional to the likelihood that user will become a productive editor.") But overall, I'd have to go with the nutshell version of the Be Bold policy: "If you see something that can be improved, improve it!"
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