Does Wikipedia Pay? The Founder: Jimmy Wales
- Does Wikipedia Pay? is a Signpost series seeking to illuminate paid editing, 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.
- A scandal centering around Roger Bamkin's work with Wikimedia UK and Gibraltarpedia (see Signpost coverage) erupted this week, making for a tumultuous time in paid editing. Negative attention was also directed at Wikipedia consultant Maximillian Klein, whose company advertised services for placing articles on Wikipedia. Media responses grabbed onto both as a sign of Wikipedia's corruptibility.
- In light of these events, opinions on how to avoid future controversy are as important as ever. One of the most vocal contributors to the paid editing debate has been Wikipedia's co-founder, Jimmy Wales. Wales has consistently argued that paid advocates should always disclose their status, as Bamkin did, and never directly edit articles in that topic. He calls this the "bright line" rule and hopes it can set a clear boundary that paid COI editors simply do not cross.
- The Signpost spoke with Jimmy Wales (user page) to better understand how he views the paid editing environment and what he thinks is needed to improve it.
When was the first time paid editing came onto your radar? When you conceived of Wikipedia, did you ever imagine that editors would be financially compensated for their work, or that companies would employ people to influence articles?
From the beginning, it was something I thought we should pay attention to and prevent to the maximum extent possible. I remember the feeling of the Internet community – the appropriate cynicism – when Yahoo introduced a system whereby you could pay them for expedited review of your website for possible inclusion in their directory. Allegedly, such review would be neutral with no guarantees, but many people quite properly had doubts.
It was obvious even then that there are some people who are willing to act immorally.
You've been the most visible and strident promoter of the "bright line" rule prohibiting direct editing by paid editors. What influenced your thinking around this practice, and why do you think it is so important?
The "bright line" rule is simply that if you are a paid advocate, you should disclose your conflict of interest and never edit article space directly. You are free to enter into a dialogue with the community on talk pages, and to suggest edits or even complete new articles or versions of articles by posting them in your user space.
||There are easy means to escalate issues if you're having a problem. There is simply no excuse for editing directly.
I've been an advocate of this because I think it makes a lot of complicated problems vanish completely. First, it avoids the sort of deep embarrassment and bad press for the client that has become common. Second, it answers the concerns that some people have about how to interact with Wikipedia as an advocate. It's almost impossible (assuming you behave in a polite manner) to get into trouble suggesting things on a talk page. And finally: it works. There are easy means to escalate issues if you are having a problem. There is simply no excuse for editing directly.
In my reading, WP:COI at least allows uncontroversial or minor changes, and at most permits any non-promotional edits, even major ones, although they are "strongly discouraged". From the 2009 paid editing RfC to the 2012 COI RfC, a direct prohibition of paid editing has failed to gain consensus. Yet you've described those who support or tolerate paid editing as an extreme minority. Do you agree that the bright line rule is not policy? If it's not, why do you think the community hasn't implemented it yet?
One of the biggest problems in this area is a lack of precision in talking about this. Even in your question, you say "paid editing" but that's much too broad and tends to confuse the issue quite badly. If a university decides to encourage their professors to edit Wikipedia as a public service as a part of their paid duties, that's a wonderful thing (so long as they steer clear of advocacy!). It's paid advocacy that we should be talking about.
I'm unaware of any serious arguments that we should welcome paid advocates into Wikipedia to edit articles about which they have a financial conflict of interest. (To be clear, there are a few people who argue in favor of that, but their arguments are so implausible that it is difficult to take them seriously.)
You've made a distinction between an employed academic versus a PR professional – the first editing in their free time in the area of their expertise and the second as a tainted advocate who shouldn't edit directly at all. Does 'advocacy' lie in the person (and their context) or only the person's behavior?
Both are relevant. If you're a PR professional editing on behalf of your client, then hiding behind the excuse that you're only making NPOV edits doesn't cut it with me at all. There's simply no reason to do that, when working with the community openly, honestly, and editing only talkpages is more effective.
The Public Relations Journal of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) published a report by Marcia DiStaso based on a survey of public relations professionals. That report stated that 60% of PR professionals said their clients' articles contained errors; this was more broadly used to claim that 60% of all articles contained errors. What did you think of that result, of the study, and of the attention it received?
It's useless nonsense that we should ignore completely.
The DiStaso study noted that when editors attempted to propose rather than directly make changes, responses were sometimes not received (in 25% of cases) and others took weeks or longer. Does promoting the bright line make it easier for PR professionals to blame Wikipedia for the errors they're presumably not allowed to correct? Would a fair or necessary corollary to the bright line be that Wikipedia should improve its responsiveness to PR editor suggestions and Template:edit request?
||Here's a standing offer: any PR professional who feels their concerns have not been addressed in the English Wikipedia should come and post to my user talk page. I will personally see to it.
I think we should take seriously claims that PR professionals who try to do things the right way are ignored, and investigate every case that is put forward, but it's important to understand that those claims are largely false. One issue here is that PR professionals have not generally taken the time to escalate to the appropriate places.
Here's a standing offer: any PR professional who feels their concerns have not been addressed in the English Wikipedia should come and post to my user talk page. I will personally see to it. This idea that PR people have to edit Wikipedia article directly because they can't get a response any other way is sheer and total nonsense.
You started an FAQ page for your views on paid advocacy. What is the status of that page, and what are your hopes for it in terms of clarifying or influencing policy?
I expect that page will become the basis for a strict policy banning paid advocacy.
We assume good faith here. In what case is it appropriate to assume that a person, because they are paid of their job position, is out to spin rather than improve an article?
It doesn't matter, and this question is again the type of thinking that completely muddles the issue. The appearance of impropriety and the potential for scandal for the client is reason enough to avoid it.
I'm completely unpersuaded by arguments in either direction: that PR people are so evil that they will sneak around and edit if they are banned from doing so openly, or that PR people are so good that we should simply trust that they'll only want to be improving articles rather than spinning. Both of those positions are untenable, but more importantly, both those positions are absolutely irrelevant.
Have any paid or COI editors made positive contributions to the project?
I'm sure some have, but I fail to see any relevance to this question.
What do you think of collaborative efforts such as WikiProject Cooperation and Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE)?
It's hard to have a simple opinion about complex and noisy community discussion areas. Basically, I can say that I'm happy for people to talk about it.
What role do you think PR organizations such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) can play in improving the relationship between their industry and Wikipedia?
They can put forward clear ethical standards for their member organizations that ban paid advocacy in Wikipedia article space. That should be the clear and overwhelming message from them. They should offer suggestions for the right way to work with the Wikipedia community. They should make it 100% clear that I'm personally committed to this issue and willing to address concerns directly on my user talk page!
CIPR has published a Draft of Best Practices for their members. I worked on the Plain and simple conflict-of-interest guide and presented a version of it to the PRSA as a talk called Learning to speak in Wikipedia's language". Do you think providing resources and education such as these for PR professionals is part of the solution? If so, how can we get those resources into the hands of the PR industry so that we close the knowledge gap?
I do think part of the solution is education. PR professionals need to know that "dark arts" are counter-productive and not in any way necessary. If we have an error, just talk to us about it, we'll fix it. If we don't have sufficient information, just provide it for us (well-written, NPOV, and on the talk page of the article), and we'll deal with it appropriately. This is not mysterious or difficult.
You spoke to employees at Bell Pottinger after their COI editing scandal. Did you treat them as people who suffered from ignorance or as people who had conducted themselves with malice. In other words, is the PR profession just not informed, or does it need moral guidance as well?
||If lying to people is not wrong in Lord Bell's world, well, I'm unable to respond except with astonishment. If I had worked there, I would have quit that day. If I were his client, I would have fired him.
I'm a really nice person who assumes good faith. People sometimes do bad things, whether from ignorance or malice, and it is possible to forgive them. I found the staff members there to be contrite and apologetic.
On the other hand, Lord Bell himself made it very clear to me, in the meeting, that his grasp of the ethics of the situation is essentially zero. After hearing me explain what was done wrong, including Bell Pottinger employees lying about their identity, he said – in the meeting in front of his entire staff – he said that as far as he could tell they had done nothing wrong. If lying to people is not wrong in Lord Bell's world, well, I'm unable to respond except with astonishment. If I had worked there, I would have quit that day. If I were his client, I would have fired him. His attitude is disgusting and dangerous for his clients.
There seems to be a trend, or at least the emergence of one, of experienced editors beginning to offer their services and expertise, as Wikipedia 'consultants'. What do you think of that trend? Is it compatible with a neutral encyclopedia?
I don't think there is any such trend, at least not among good editors. And no, it's not compatible with a neutral encyclopedia.
You once described Wikipedia as a novel economic development where distributed communities of people with time, knowledge, and interest produce content that would otherwise be economically unfeasible. You have also described Wikipedia as a "cathedral of knowledge", a place free from the detritus of commercial motivations and advertising in particular. Do you think paid editors or even advocates can ever be welcome in that picture?
Of course, we can be welcoming to anyone. But it's important that those who have a financial conflict of interest avoid direct article editing at all times, and disclose fully.
In 10 years, what would it meant to you if there was an entire cottage industry of Wikipedia editors who were paid for their work? Do you think the encyclopedia could survive such a development?
It's difficult to answer such a hypothetical. It's so at odds with reality that it just isn't going to happen.
You've identified paid advocacy as a unique problem, but unpaid advocacy is also something the encyclopedia deals with regularly. The worst of those cases result in ArbCom cases, blocks, and bans. As the community has mechanisms to deal with unpaid advocacy, do you think paid editing or paid advocacy is more uniquely or severely a threat?
In many ways, it's less of a threat. The point is that it's a simple and cleanly identifiable threat, and there's a mutual interest in following the bright line rule: it's better for clients of PR firms, and it's better for Wikipedia.
WP:BLP policy has gone a long way towards recognizing and remedying the real harm that Wikipedia can do to living people. Is there an imbalance in the fact that we don't have a corresponding policy protecting corporations from real harm?
WP:BLP applies to corporations, which are just collections of people. I don't see any need for extending the policy, although I could be convinced if evidence were produced of an ongoing problem that an explicit extension would help solve.
One of the challenges of updating COI policy has been the difficulty of codifying who exactly is an advocate versus just an editor, and what types of edits are controversial versus benign. What are your thoughts on the task of making COI policy more detailed, concrete, and ultimately effective?
I don't think it is difficult at all, as long as we trash this concept that it is ok for people with a financial conflict of interest to make "benign" edits directly. That opens a huge can of worms in terms of determining which edits are benign. Best to not edit article space directly at all.
I think we can be relaxed about "emergency" situations – vandalism or severe BLP violations. Even those kinds of edits should be generally avoided by those with a COI – better to raise the alarm at BLPN or similar noticeboards (again, my user talk page is highly effective at getting the attention of good editors). But if someone with a COI makes an edit like that, we don't need to freak out.