Paying raises ethics question
The Web encyclopedia has rejected paid entries for businesses.
BOSTON (AP) -- When a blogger revealed this week that Microsoft Corp. wanted to pay him to fix purported inaccuracies in technical articles on Wikipedia, the software company endured online slams and a rebuke from the Web encyclopedia's founder for behaving unethically.
The imbroglio will soon pass, but it raises a bigger question: Why is it so bad to pay someone to write something on Wikipedia?
The "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" requires articles to have a "neutral point of view." But most contributors surely have some personal motivation to dive into a subject, whether it's adoration of "Star Trek" or a soft spot for geraniums.
What's to say contributors who get paid have a harder time sticking to the golden path of neutrality? And doesn't Wikipedia have a built-in defense mechanism -- the swarms of volunteer editors and moderators who can quickly obliterate public-relations fluff, vanity pages and other junk?
About the service
That is precisely what ran through Gregory Kohs' mind last year when he launched MyWikiBiz, a service that offered to write Wikipedia entries for businesses for 49 to 99.
A market researcher in West Chester, Pa., Kohs researched Wikipedia to see if his idea violated the site's communal spirit. He found what appeared to be an answer in his favor: Wikipedia's Reward Board.
The board is Wikipedia's internal forum for people who would like to see certain topics introduced or improved so they have a chance of achieving the rare status of "featured article."
Here's what got Kohs' attention: Offers for barter or even cash are common on the forum, and the person making the offer can remain anonymous.
So Kohs and his sister decided to launch MyWikiBiz. But a few days after they put out a press release in August, MyWikiBiz's account on Wikipedia was blocked. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales called Kohs to tell him MyWikiBiz was "antithetical" to Wikipedia's mission, as Kohs recalls the conversation.
Kohs noted that he was openly identifying himself as the author of his clients' pages. And he cited the Reward Board.
Wales was unswayed. But he told Kohs he could create Wikipedia-like entries for his clients on MyWikiBiz.com. Then Kohs could reach out to Wikipedia editors and see if they'd like to "scrape" the pages -- use them as Wikipedia entries.
Kohs says he got about 10 clients into Wikipedia this way over the next few weeks. (He won't name the clients because he wants their entries to stick.)
Changes to policy
Around that time, however, Wikipedia's volunteer crews were tweaking the site's conflict-of-interest policy. As Kohs read one new rule, he could post his clients' copy on his own personal user page inside Wikipedia, rather than on MyWikiBiz.com. Presumably that would make it easier to attract Wikipedia editors' interest.
Wales had earlier told Kohs that step would be forbidden. So Kohs wrote Wales that it appeared the community now disagreed with him. Wales shot Kohs down in a terse e-mail.
"Absolutely unacceptable, sorry," Wales wrote.
Ultimately, Kohs was permanently shut out of Wikipedia. Instead he launched Centiare.com, a Wikipedia-esque -- but paid -- directory for businesses.
"I think I was rubbing him the wrong way," Kohs says now. "I probably should have just kept my mouth shut."