Lessons from Microsoft’s Wikipedia Participation


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Bill GatesI bumped into Rick Jellifire on Wikipedia. The one that made headlines in 2007 for accepting an offer to get paid by Microsoft to contribute to Wikipedia.

He was upset about the media’s depiction of his Wikipedia participation as a secretive attempt to corrupt Wikipedia’s neutrality. The media said his plans were “revealed” even though they were never a secret. The media presumed he was going to do something wrong.

Rick was kind enough to respond to a Q&A interview regarding his Wikipedia participation on Microsoft’s behalf and their foray into Wikipedia Marketing.

There are conflicting reports on whether Microsoft hired you to improve the balance of articles or to make factual corrections. Which one was it?

I don’t remember them constraining me to either, actually.

Microsoft was concerned about a single article, which was the page that came up on top of a Google search for OOXML (the file format Microsoft Office files use). As more people got interested in OOXML leading up to standardization, they would naturally start at that page, but the page was just not very good.

My own judgment was that the article (at the time) was very light on plain, uncontroversial, technical information.

You continued to make edits to Microsoft-related articles years after the headlines in 2007. Did you have repeated engagements with Microsoft?

No I haven’t had any engagement since from them –or anyone– relating to Wikipedia content.

At the moment I work as a Content Architect for a multinational publishing company, and last year I worked for the Australian prudential regulator as a programmer.

It is not my understanding that anything prevents me from making NPOV edits when I am a free agent with nothing to disclose and no commercial ties to parties to a Wikipedia article.

Microsoft hired you because of your technical expertise, but you didn’t have any experience editing Wikipedia with a COI (Conflict of Internest). How do you think that effected the project? Would it have been different if you were paired with a Wikipedia consultant?

Let me be clear that I did not “edit” that OOXML page. I used the discussion pages, with many eyes watching!

If Microsoft or I had more experience, or had the benefit of foresight, I would have been more careful in my initial blog post. I think some of my comments caused people who were prone to and primed for panic attacks both to panic and to attack.

Using the word “edit” continues to haunt me.

The task was to see if I could legitimately get the page improved, but the mechanism of editing the page content directly was not necessary.

Also, I should have been less sensational framing things in terms of OOXML versus ODF (another Microsoft Office file format). I think some people thought I would be interfering with the ODF entry to spread misinformation about ODF, rather than just being part of the backstory that my usual readers would be interested in.

Andrew Sullivan has famously written that blogs are conversations. In this case, there were readers who didn’t treat it as a conversation but instead they treated it as ammunition. This is why I still object, say, to Wikipedia phrasing it as “Rick Jelliffe revealed …” because there is the suggestion of some secrecy or parlor trick.

So I think that Microsoft could have done with someone with more knowledge when setting the parameters of the project (or just to tell them “It will be less hassle just to do it yourselves”).

In your blog you stated that Microsoft wouldn’t approve any copy you provided to Wikipedia. What was the communication like between Microsoft and yourself during the project? Did they ever threaten not to pay if articles weren’t fixed?

No, certainly not.

They were very apologetic to me for all the trouble. We were amazed that it got Chinese Whispered from my blogs “I have been approached…what do you think?” through the Slashdotters and media outlets to “Australian programmer caught secretly editing Wikipedia” with even talk of bribery!

You say that you worked with the community and stuck to Talk pages, but your edit history shows direct edits with summaries like “reduced anti Microsoft bias” on article edits. Can you explain?

I am clearly talking there about how the improvement to the OOXML article was handled at that time, not to any constraints that would apply when I was a free agent again and to pages not related to OOXML.

I certainly do edits pages: I did a lot on the SGML entry, for example. And the Robert Harris (the poet) page. Today before I got your message I did a bit on an English folk song my mother used to sing ”The Water is Wide‘.”

You make corrections about things you are interested in and hopefully know about, when there is no COI impediment, and you try to flag them clearly so that editors can jump on any mistakes. If I see a statement that is against NPOV (Neutral Point of View), even if it concerns Microsoft, then why not take action on it? Isn’t that how Wikipedia works?

Now I may have a different perception to other people though; to me, my interactions with Microsoft have been rare and fleeting, never a major part of my time, career or income; it may be to others who only know my name in relation to the Wikipedia kerfuffle that I am necessarily somehow part of the MS camp.

Looking back at the same articles now – 5 years later – have they degraded?

No, the OOXML entry is better now, I think. Not much info on recent events though.

What would you suggest other companies in a similar situation as Microsoft do about ethical Wikipedia engagement? Do you know what Microsoft is doing now?

No idea, to the second. But to the first, yes, I think any company in a similar position would be well-served by getting some information.


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