Editing ‘your’ page on Wikipedia

Many noteworthy people and companies have pages dedicated to them on Wikipedia. Inevitably, there will be times when the content of these pages is out of date, incomplete, or just plain wrong. When this happens, it can be tempting for companies or even individuals to think they can just jump onto Wikipedia and fix things themselves. After all, anyone can edit Wikipedia, and nobody knows more about their company or themselves than they do. But editing a page on oneself or one’s company carries risks.

The Bias against New Editors

The first risk may simply be that someone taking a new interest in editing Wikipedia probably doesn’t have access to a long-standing Wikipedia editing account.

Editing Wikipedia is like being part of a club. People can do it on a trial basis (Editing without an account), or they can go ahead and “join” by creating an editor account. Having an account allows additional editing privileges like being able to create a new page, but in reality, new editing accounts are viewed with skepticism by longtime editors. In Wikipedia, power is built by reputation, and reputation is built by time and edits.

Editing without an account or with an account that is less than several month old and carries less than hundreds of edits places an editor’s contributions among the realm of untested content from unproven sources. Their edits will be closely scrutinized and will be judged more-harshly than if the same edits came from a proven editor. In many cases, their content will be changed, cut or simply removed by editors looking to enforce a policy or make a point.

There is actually a policy in Wikipedia called “Don’t Bite the Newcomers”, which was necessitated by longtime editors being so harshly-critical of newcomers’ activity on Wikipedia that they became discouraged and quit editing altogether. Unfortunately, this policy is still cited often, as harsh treatment of new editors is still pervasive.

The only way to overcome this institutional bias against new editors is to edit long enough and prolifically enough to become no longer “new”.


Wikipedia’s unique atmosphere

In many ways, Wikipedia operates in its own world with its own specific rules about what is acceptable ad what is not. Even for longtime editors, there are rules about who can edit what, what kind of references need to be provided to prove worthiness, and what kind of tone is appropriate. Among these many rules, one of the more-counter intuitive of these is the idea that the people who know the most about a topic (the person who is the subject of a Wikipedia biography or the people who work for the company that is listed on Wikipedia) are virtually forbidden from editing these pages.


Conflict of Interest

Under Wikipedia’s policies, someone editing a page about themselves or a page about their employer is guilty of editing with a Conflict of Interest (COI). There’s even a COI tag that is sometimes placed on Wikipedia articles as a disclaimer when an editor is accused of having a conflict of interest; it states that “A major contributor to this article appears to have a close connection with its subject.”  And it sits like an accusation in a box above the article body.

Simply put, a COI occurs when the editor’s motivation for editing this page could arguably be driven by desires other than the philanthropic urge to volunteer their time to building the world’s largest online encyclopedia. When this occurs, it represents a Conflict of Interest with the stated purpose of the Wikipedia project, and this is considered improper within the Wikipedia editing community.


Neutral Point of View

In all cases, Wikipedia’s guidelines call for editors to work with a neutral point of view (NPoV), when editing. Coverage of any subject should include the good and the bad and should not strive to promote or to denigrate the subject in any way. The language used should be factual and without hyperbolic statements of value like “Best”, “First” or “Fastest”, and the editing should be done only by editors who have no outside connection with the subject.

That’s right, in the skewed collective worldview of the Wikipedia editing community, the only legitimate entries are ones made by disinterested parties about topics to which they have no outside connection. And there are segments of the Wikipedia editing community who appear to make it their life’s mission to ferret out people editing with a potential COI to remove and discredit their work. This can range from simple pattern recognition within an editor’s editing history to considerable independent research designed to reveal a connection between an editor and a topic.


How COIs are identified

For example, a Wikipedia editor with the account “Jim Smith” makes repeated edits to a page on ABC Company. An interested Wikipedia editor sees these edits as showing an inordinate interest in ABC Company, becomes suspicious, and does some independent research. She finds a press release on the company’s site which lists a James Smith as the company’s Marketing Director and press contact. Armed with this evidence, she edits the Wikipedia page on ABC Company, places a COI tag on it. Removes content added by Jim Smith as being tainted with COI and places a warning on Jim Smith’s editor account that he should reveal that he has a conflict of interest and cease editing the page for ABC Company.

So editing with a conflict of interest doesn’t necessarily mean that the editor has made exaggerated claims. They need not have provided lavish promotional statements about a topic or done anything else improper. No, any editor who can be connected to a topic is presumed guilty of having a Conflict of Interest and will be adamantly instructed not to edit on the pages to which their COI applies. And there need be no conclusive proof of a connection; a bit of circumstantial evidence is enough.


Alternatives to Editing

Editing a page about one’s company or about oneself can be risky. There are groups of people monitoring Wikipedia looking for evidence of COI, and, if they find it, they are relentless in discrediting and discouraging activity they perceive as having a COI… whether there is a real issue or not.

With these barriers to entry and this uphill battle to start making contributions to Wikipedia, companies and individuals sometimes turn to paid services who help them get their content onto Wikipedia. A paid editor can navigate these issues with expertise and can list a company or person on Wikipedia with knowledge of what is effective and what arouses unwanted attention.


Note: The author’s views below are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of SEtalks.com

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