Wikipedia: take an interest, but be disinterested

Sir John Riddell gravestone in East Greenwich Pleasaunce, London SE10What do the following have in common?

  • Crewe Alexandra midfielder Nick Powell
  • Sir John Liddell, director-general of the Medical Department of the Royal Navy (1855-1864)
  • building services engineer Max Fordham

On the face of it: nothing. However, they are all the subjects of Wikipedia articles which I have recently edited. I have no personal connection with any of these people, but I have various interests that lead me to contribute to Wikipedia (something I’ve been doing since October 2003), helping, I hope, to improve it.

Why did I edit these pages? Well, as a long-suffering Crewe fan, I saw recent news stories about Powell, looked at the Wikipedia page and identified poor, often unreferenced edits of the article, so I tried to add some neutral, verifiable content to improve things. On Sunday, I noticed Sir John’s gravestone in a local Greenwich park and wondered if Wikipedia had an article about him (it didn’t, but does now). And an update to an article about the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers appeared in my Wikipedia watchlist, linking to a page “in need of Wikification” so I spent an hour or so ‘wikifying’ Mr Fordham – like Powell, the subject of a biography of a living person and so needing special attention.

This is just normal activity for a Wikipedian. As volunteer editors, anyone can edit this online encyclopaedia, and Wikipedia regulars like me will often spend hours amending and updating ‘good faith’ contributions and reverting vandalism, as well as contributing new content and references – usually on subjects which interest us but where we can take a disinterested view (ie: “Having no stake or interest in the outcome; free of bias, impartial”).

However, for people new to Wikipedia, the rules can seem quite daunting, and for those – like PR or marketing professionals – with a vested interest in an organisation, individual, client or other subject of a Wikipedia article, there is the additional challenge of avoiding any potential conflict of interest. This is, of course, why the CIPR has been working with Wikimedia UK to develop draft best practice guidance for PR practitioners on how to engage with Wikipedia (see previous post), and has been something that – as someone with a foot in both CIPR and Wikipedia camps – I have been actively involved in.

Three CIPR Wikipedia events

If you are interested in this debate, the next week will see three developments:

First, tomorrow (Wednesday 20 June, at 5pm), CIPR TV will host a Wikipedia debate, discussing the occasionally volatile relationship between PR and Wikipedians. In a show presented by Gem Griffiths, David Gerard, an active volunteer for Wikimedia UK, and Philip Sheldrake, a CIPR social media panel member, will discuss how the guidelines are a first step towards mutual respect between both communities.

Second, on Thursday 21 June and again at 5pm, I will be talking about Wikipedia Basics in the latest CIPR Social Media Summer (#ciprsm) event at CIPR HQ in Russell Square, London. I will describe the Five Pillars of Wikipedia, the Core content policies, and provide tips on editing and formatting, as well as talking about the guidelines. I will be urging PR people to become Wikipedia editors and contribute to articles about which they, too, can be both interested and disinterested – echoing CIPR CEO Jane Wilson’s view that If you want to understand Wikipedia, become a Wikipedian.

Third, a snapshot of the draft best practice guidelines will be grabbed at 23:59 GMT on Sunday 24 June and then disseminated widely by the CIPR among public relations professionals in the UK and further afield as “version 1” (though the debate will doubtless continue and further versions are likely to appear in due course).

 The ICE and Wikipedia

The CIPR debate has been additionally interesting for me, as it parallels an ongoing conversation within another organisation, the Institution of Civil Engineers. Having already invited another Wikimedia UK volunteer to lead a workshop at the ICE (see post), I hope  the ICE will soon be taking further steps – including briefing sheets, a follow-up workshop and maybe hosting a guest editors day. Certainly, the ICE Information Systems Panel meeting I attended last week was keen to maintain some momentum.

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