Microsoft's Wikipedia PR blunder (and clean keys)

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I'll pay you to read IT Blogwatch: in which Microsoft is accused of paying others to fiddle with Wikipedia. Not to mention how to clean your keyboard in a dishwasher...

Thus spoke Nancy Gohring (with fried egg):

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.


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.

This horse is called Rick Jelliffe, and he has a mouth:

I’m not a Microsoft hater at all, its just that I’ve swum in a different stream. Readers of this blog will know that I have differing views on standards to some Microsoft people at least. As a regular participant at ISO standards, on and off for more than a decade at my own expense, it has always frustrated me that the big companies would not come to the table ... So I was a little surprised to receive email a couple of days ago from Microsoft saying they wanted to contract someone independent but friendly (me) for a couple of days to provide more balance on Wikipedia concerning ODF/OOXML. I am hardly the poster boy of Microsoft partisanship!


I think I’ll accept it: FUD enrages me and MS certainly are not hiring me to add any pro-MS FUD, just to correct any errors I see ... Actually, I should get off the high horse; much of the FUD amuses me, it is hilarious (I have even heard an ODF guy claim that MS wants to enable death squads with their UUIDs, ROFL); I’m looking forward to the next few days.

D.C. Parris writes from N.C.:

Thus, the document standards war is being fought, not only in the blogs and in the editorial sections of news sites, it is being fought in the reference sites as well. The issue is certainly food for thought. Aside from questions about the impact of this war of words on a reference website, it raises questions about Microsoft's need to pay for editing in a volunteer-dominated website. It also demonstrates Microsoft's commitment to fight OpenDocument, rather than collaborate to make it an even better standard than it already is.

Dr. Tony Hung:

When I heard about Microsof’s latest PR astroturfing blunder, even I had a hard time suspending my disbelief. For pete’s sake, if you’re going to astroturf, at least do it right! ... What I don’t understand (and yes, its easy to pontificate in hindsight — but that’s the beauty of blogging) is how Microsoft could have gotten it so wrong in the first place ... Heck, Microsoft’s real sin is NOT that they were trying to manipulate Wikipedia. I’m sorry to shock anyone’s sensibilities out there, but here’s a clue for you: Other tech companies with standards related issues are ALSO altering Wikipedia. The difference is that they’re doing it discretely


Maybe get your next blogger to sign an NDA clause of some kind.

[Astroturfing: PR campaigns that seek to create the impression of being a spontaneous, grassroots behavior. Hence the reference to the "AstroTurf" (artificial grass) is a metaphor to indicate "fake grassroots" support. --Wikipedia] But John Paczkowski is more circumspect:

Microsoft ... received a merciless beating ... from the Open Source community, which was quick to decry the move as more FUD from a company with a storied history of spreading it. But is that really the case? The company seems to have been honest and open about its intentions. It offered to hire an independent expert to suggest corrections in his area of expertise. Jelliffe obviously isn't a Microsoft apologist. And ultimately any changes he might make to the entries at issue will be reviewed by Wikipedia's editors and removed if they're inaccurate. Given Microsoft's position, what else was it supposed to do? Have Waggener Edstrom make the corrections?

Jack Schofield agrees:

I don't really see why helping to finance independent experts to do it should be an issue. Paying independent experts is what, for example, Encyclopedia Britannica does all the time ... The problem with Wikipedia is that you also have to keep it corrected, because any random bozo can come along and introduce errors, and they very frequently do. (I'm not against Wikipedia ... just an observation of fact.)

Given that the proportion of random bozos on the web has grown steadily from 0% (ie Tim Berners-Lee) to roughly 94.8%, this is not a problem that is going to go away.

Microsoft's Don Dodge toes the line:

Headlines grab attention. Some writers spend more time composing the headline than the article itself because they know that many people just scan headlines for stuff that might interest them. I read [a] headline today that grabbed my attention, but the actual story was very different than the headline hyperbole would lead you to believe.


"Microsoft tried to doctor Wikipedia" Huh? Sounds bad, doesn't it? Reading deeper into the story we discover that a low level employee contacted an independent expert and asked him to take a look at the Wikipedia entry on "Open XML Format". The employee, Doug Mahugh, thought the entry was slanted and thought it should be more objective ... I am sure "Microsoft" would never have approved this employee reaching out to Mr. Jelliffe in this way, but "Microsoft" can't control all the actions of all its employees. This employee was well meaning, but handled this all wrong. Any PR person or VP level person would have known how this seemingly innocent request could potentially be twisted in a news headline, and would have never approved it.

Microsoft's Doug Mahugh speaks up:

I'm the guy you're bashing today ... Nobody ever contacted Rick and asked him to "make edits and corrections favorable to" Microsoft. Also, nobody from Microsoft PR contacted him. I am the person who contacted Rick, and I am a technical evangelist specializing in the Open XML file formats.


I understand and accept that longwinded discussions of lies and their theoretical ramifications is a fascinating hobby for some, but ... Wikipedia's definition of "Microsoft (sic) Office Open XML" is not fact-based, and I think it would be a good thing if there were more participation by persons like Rick who are knowledgeable and interested in the actual facts of file formats.


Call Microsoft evil if you must, but in this case it's Doug Mahugh you're talking about. PR didn't know I contacted Rick. Hell, my own manager didn't know, although it seems likely he knows by now.

Rex Hammock agrees:

When interpreted as “Microsoft offers cash for Wikipedia edit,” sure, it sounds evil. But if Wikipedia has become the platform of record for web-based knowledge, then having a voice there is going to be a requirement for corporate America. Wikipedia either needs to find an accepted “white hat” way for this to be done directly and transparently (and not some “in the discussions, off the website way), or dark-hat, Rube Goldberg solutions will naturally follow.

Rick Jelliffe again, with his summary of what happened:

Wikipedia: Microsoft eats babies!

Microsoft: No we don’t

Wikiepedia person: Tell it to the hand!

MS: Are you interested in correcting this?

Rick: Sure, lets make sure everything is upfront. I know, I’ll publish a blog called “An interesting offer - get paid to edit Wikipedia” to start the conversation.

Microsoft: No problems.





Wikipedia reader: Oh, I didn’t know that Microsoft eats babies.

Unscrupulous competitor: Excellent, Excellent. Release the flying monkeys and pass another baby (urp)

Buffer overflow:

Around the Net Around Computerworld Previously in IT Blogwatch

And finally... How to clean your keyboard in a dishwasher

Richi Jennings is an independent technology and marketing consultant, specializing in email, blogging, Linux, and computer security. A 20 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. Contact Richi at
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