When Microsoft got caught in late January offering to pay an Australian blogger to edit a Wikipedia article that contained incorrect information, you almost felt sorry for a Goliath.
And, if Microsoft had any goodwill stored up, the community might have framed the argument as a victimized Microsoft rising up against a dogmatic Wikipedia that, in a good-faith attempt to bar overt biases, was paradoxically allowing incorrect information to pervade its pages.
But because the company at hand is Microsoft, and because Vista has been delayed and expensive computers with the new OS installed have been gifted, no such empathy has been expressed.
Wikipedia's policy regarding corporations editing entries is not apparently definitive, but the volunteers who police the site have deterred campaign workers and PR firms from contributing. Given the no-holds-barred nature of perspective, especially in politics, perhaps some oversight is necessary. But would you really think it was fair for, say, a Wikipedian sympathetic to Wake-Up Wal-Mart to have unfettered access to the Wal-Mart entry while the company is shut out?
Given a mulligan, I'm sure Microsoft would handle the situation differently. And, on the face of it, paying someone to edit a Wikipedia entry is wrong.
But Microsoft's plight should lead all to glance at the macro element - that is, to debate the thrust and future of an online world if companies and their PR firms are marginalized in a dialogue that directly impacts them.
PR bloggers have been vocal in decrying this paradoxical effect. Constantin Basturea, director of new-media strategies for social media communications firm Converseon,, told PRWeek, via e-mail, "The current approach to employees and corporate participation in Wikipedia is encouraging dishonesty, is preventing people from becoming members of the community, and, as a result, is undermining the quality and credibility of the encyclopedia, while failing to address the problem of bias." (See more comments on PRWeek's The Cycle blog).
Failing to include companies in discussions encourages astroturfing as a last resort for the corporate voice, that nefarious act of inventing a grassroots community for a product, company, or service, or otherwise hiding one's corporate agenda.
If watchdogs fear PR firms exploiting the haziness of anonymity in online communities, then they need to create stronger disclosure requirements. If they want companies to disclose allegiances, then maybe the same onus should also be on others in the community.
More than a few people see the ascendance of blogs as the true equalizer of the people. And I don't suspect the public will summon up much compassion for muzzled corporations, they of historically thick advertising budgets. But if people want to herald Web 2.0 as the environment where everyone has a voice, no one can be barred. The Web is not Utopia, but it should be fair.