Remember when the Internet was primarily made up of web pages created by average human beings? Not many people complained when flashy pages with tons of screaming GIFs were overshadowed by corporate advertisements as companies started to explore the use of the web as a promotional tool. Now you can hardly surf without seeing some official product webpage. MySpace has gone through a similar transformation, particularly for the entertainment industry where celebrities and fictional characters can easily have their own MySpace page.
Now corporations are trying to move in on Wikipedia, a movement that’s not being well received by fans of the online encyclopedia. Thanks to WikiScanner, a website that traces the changes made to Wikipedia, people can see who owns the networks those changes are coming from, and the results are a bit scandalous.
According to the New York Times, quite a few of Wikipedia’s entries have been changed in ways that are morally questionable. Sea World’s entry was changed so that “orcas” were changed to “killer whales,” but along with the biological clarification was the deletion of a paragraph that commented on Sea World’s lack of respect toward the species. The source of the edit came from an Anheuser-Busch computer, the owners of Sea World. Someone at Pepsi removed information on bad health effects from the drink. Wal-Mart had a paragraph about employee compensation removed.
Naturally, the Wikipedia community isn’t happy about these changes. It’s not so much that the changes occurred, but the way in which they were changed, and that these were things that were done with a lack of objectivity. Traditionally it’s seen in a bad light to change one’s own information – a moral debate that exploded in the past when former MTV VJ Adam Curry changed his own Wikipedia entry to take claim for things that were up in the air. Now companies are following that path, but like Curry, they’re getting caught in the act. I’m actually surprised this is an issue again. After the Curry explosion, I know lots of Wikipedia users were terrified to make any edits that didn’t seem completely objective. Then again, that might be the problem: these companies were late to the party, and weren’t adopters of Wikipedia when the previous scandal occurred.
Instead of arbitrarily removing objectivity and negativity, companies are urged to make use of Wikipedia’s “talk” page to discuss aspects of the page, but that doesn’t address the moral debate behind this: is it fair to edit your own entry in the interests of objectivity, and how removed do you need to be from a subject to maintain that objectivity? In the Times article, most of the companies involved disavowed any knowledge of employees making these changes, but didn’t discourage it. On the other hand, Dell computers spokesperson Bob Pearson states that Dell employees are expected to identify their employer when making use of “Web 2.0” features such as Wikipedia, Twitter, or MySpace.
The joyous thing about Wikipedia is that the community typically balances out campaigns of misinformation, leading to times the site has been more reliable than other news sources, despite its reputation for inaccuracy. Thanks to WikiScanner, it’s likely the site just got more reliable because Corporate interference is now more easily detected.