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June 10, 2007

Six reasons for Assns to steer clear of Wikipedia

A few days ago, my buddy Joe Grant posted eight good reasons for association execs to consider putting content up on Wikipedia. Speaking from quite a bit of experience adding and editing content on Wikipedia, I commented that I could think of a bunch of good reasons why NOT to post association content to Wikipedia. Personally, I think the good reasons outweigh the bad, so lest you think that posting content to Wikipedia is a bad idea, here are just six things you'll want to consider carefully before you jump right into it:

  1. Wikipedians. They are the community of people who are working hard to ensure that Wikipedia retains or advances its standing in the information market. This means that they review virtually every article that gets added or edited. It means that they will revert changes you make if they don't meet the standards in Wikipedia's guidelines and documentation. This means they will nominate for deletion new entries that don't meet those same standards. Don't get me wrong: Wikipedians serve a very valuable purpose and they work hard -- for free! Wikipedia would have nowhere near the respect it does without them. But don't get me wrong: They make it difficult for a novice who doesn't know what they're doing or who is ignorant of the culture to get their entries or edits to stick. Some Wikipedians have a real RTFM attitude and have a low tolerance for newbies.
  2. Wikipedians generally require entries to be composed in a particular style. I remember a co-worker at my first association job showing me how to lay out a press release, just so that it was in line with industry standards. If you don't lay them out in the right style, they get ignored. Same principle applies in Wikipedia, but if your entries aren't laid out in the right style, they don't get ignored. They simply get a note added asking someone to clean up the article, and if no one cleans it up, it gets nominated for deletion. Once nominated, it's just a matter of time until it goes away.
  3. Wikipedia markup language is neither easy nor intuitive. It's not HTML, and it's certainly not WYSIWYG. Virtually very time I want to add stylized text to a Wikipedia article, I have to go to the help file. Internal and external links are non-obvious. It takes time to learn and get used to the markup language. Not to mention the even less obvious markup language for inserting images or citing external sources. External sources you ask?
  4. To verify their veracity, Wikipedia articles generally need to cite external sources. This basically means that your entry needs a bibliography. The sources should be unbiased and independent of the subject matter being written about, and you need to cite your sources in the proper way.
  5. Wikipedians are especially sensitive to entries that sound like advertising. This is precisely where most association professionals will want to start in their Wikipedia dabbling. They'll say, "Let's put some stuff that portrays our association in a positive light (read: marketing collateral) on Wikipedia. It's an unbiased site, so anything that appears there will be taken as gospel." This is exactly what the Wikipedians are there to prevent.
  6. There are Wikipedia vandals. Since the John Siegenthaler, Sr. character assassination, they change articles in subtle ways to fool Wikipedians, or choose somewhat obscure entries to vandalize. Since there's an association for everything, I'll bet many associations seem like great vandalism targets to those who are so inclined.
  7. Wikipedia is the encyclopedia that anyone can edit. That means that people can (and according to Wikipedia guidelines, should) post content that is balanced. So if you post a bunch of stuff saying that your association, industry or profession is the greatest thing ever, someone is likely to come along and post critiques to present both sides of the story. Are you open to critique? Are you willing to take the time to address critiques?
  8. With all of these rules to run afoul of, which are totally non-obvious to the amateur, legitimate Wikipedians and vandals, it stands to reason that your entries will get edited or nominated for deletion. Well, how do you know if that has happened to your article? The uninitiated will probably think, "While it's important enough to this association that this content be posted here, and people will read it, nobody will really care enough to change anything I post." They couldn't be more wrong. There are legions of Wikipedians and vandals making myriad changes to Wikipedia every day. There are ways to keep track of changes to articles you created or edited, but you need to track them, and that will take time and attention.
  9. Anyone can freely copy, redistribute and remix content posted to Wikipedia under the GNU free documentation license, which governs the content posted there. There are now sites that scrape Wikipedia articles and dump the content into its own pages. This presents several troubling possibilities, not the least of which is if vandalized content gets widely redistributed, you've suddenly got a fierce rumor mill or PR crisis on your hands.

So I promised six good reasons, and gave you nine (50% more for free!). I just couldn't stop. There are more reasons for associations to say no to posting stuff to Wikipedia. There are also more than eight good reasons to say yes to it. Think of this post as presenting, just like a good Wikipedia article, a balanced point of view. It will make sense to post some types of content, but it won't be a good decision or use of your time to post other types. All things considered, I think posting to Wikipedia is a good idea, but not something to just be jumped into.

Sometime, I'll follow up with a post with a recommendation on a good Wikipedia strategy that would apply to many, but not all, associations.

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5 comments:

Joe Grant said...

Touché Ben :-)

You made some great points and Associations definately need to be strategic in making this move.

Ben Martin, CAE said...

They sure do. Not something to be jumped into lightly.

Dennis McDonald said...

Another consideration is that the Wikipedian who reviews your stuff may have no technical or professional skills in the area you are posting about.

ljunker said...

In addition to petty vandalism, you may also need to watch out for deliberate changes by individuals who strongly disagree with your association (whether competitors or just folks who object to your profession or industry). I've seen Wikipedia pages turn into war zones where someone on one side of an issue is constantly changing the page, and the other side is changing it back. Eventually a moderator will usually freeze the page so the changes stop, but until the page is frozen you'd have to be pretty vigilant to keep track of what's being changed and what you can legitimately change yourself.

Ben Martin, CAE said...

@ Dennis: In my experience, that is the rule rather than the exception.

@ Lisa: Your description of contested pages as war zones is apt because that back and forth editing is called a revert war. Wikipedians seem to have a lot more incentive to invest time and attention in Wikipedia than the average association staff person.