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Microsoft's step into Wikipedia prompts debate

Conflicting opinions are among issues community-run sites must grapple with

By Nancy Gohring
January 24, 2007 12:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - The debate over the revelation that Microsoft Corp. offered to pay a developer to make changes to Wikipedia pages points to problems that can arise when a major Web site is managed by a community of people.

On Monday, Australian software engineer and author Rick Jelliffe wrote in a blog posting that Microsoft had offered to pay him as an independent source to make changes to certain Wikipedia entries. The offer, which Jelliffe doesn't appear to have accepted yet, set off a heated discussion about the ethics of such a move.

Responses from Wikipedia volunteers, which include conflicting opinions and indicate possible miscommunication, show the types of challenges a community-run online organization can face.

Microsoft said that before approaching Jelliffe, it tried to contact Wikipedia with concerns about some entries.

"But Microsoft couldn't get a reply -- hence why they decided it was important to enlist someone's help to actually address the inaccuracies in the posting so it would be fixed," said Catherine Brooker, a spokeswoman at Microsoft's public relations firm, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide Inc., in an e-mail.

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. The site is maintained almost exclusively by volunteers. Around 1,000 administrators work on the English language site. Together, they set the policies that govern the site.

With so many people in charge, there are bound to be some differences of opinion and difficulties in communications.

David Gerard, a volunteer spokesman for Wikipedia,  called the potential arrangement between Microsoft and Jelliffe  disappointing, but another Wikipedia worker didn't seem bothered by it. Mathias Schindler, a board member of Wikimedia Germany, sent e-mail to Jelliffe praising his efforts to fix the relevant postings. In the e-mail, which Microsoft shared, Schindler said he hoped to discuss with Microsoft the Wikipedia articles related to the software maker.

Schindler didn't directly comment on the issue of Microsoft paying Jelliffe for the work.

For his part, Jelliffe hasn't said much since his initial blog posting. He didn't seem to mind the tone of the comments left after the posting, some of which were quite critical of Microsoft's offer.

"Yes, they are harsh, but open source and open standards are ideas that capture the minds and hearts of people. They are the new socialism, and the devotees are passionate," he wrote in an e-mail. The Wikipedia entries in question include articles about the OpenDocument Format, an electronic document format backed by open-source proponents, and Microsoft Office Open XML, a competing format.

Ultimately, the discussion around Microsoft's relationship with Jelliffe should draw more people to contribute to the relevant Wikipedia pages, resulting in amore informative article, Gerard said. Microsoft spokeswoman Brooker echoed a similar sentiment. As of 2 p.m. GMT, 21 changes to the OpenDocument Wikipedia entry had been made on Wednesday.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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