The role of corporations in the Social Web

From the influx of client phone calls and news reports, it’s clear that the release of Wikiscanner has gotten the business world more than a little worked up. (Even Josh has had the same question come up) If you’ve not heard, Wikiscanner

offers users a searchable database that ties millions of anonymous Wikipedia edits to organizations where those edits apparently originated, by cross-referencing the edits with data on who owns the associated block of internet IP addresses.

Basically you can see what “companies” have been changing Wikipedia entries, especially their own. (The reason I say “companies” is that it’s hard to tell these days what represents a “company” activity. Was a change made officially by Corporate Communications, or by a random employee surfing the Web from his couch on his work laptop while watching The Simpsons?) This has caused a quasi-flood of media attention and blogger ire, resulting in a debate about what the role of “companies” is in the Wikipedia culture. Many believe that a commercial interests should stay the hell away from the Social Web, or at least destinations like Wikipedia. This belief seems to be based, perhaps rightly so, on the idea that since companies are inherently bad Web citizens, unable to do anything but “market”.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been asking my friends in the social media game to give feedback on what the role of corporations is in Wikipedia. I’ve gotten a number of answers but most come down to these points:

  • Companies shouldn’t participate, it’s not their place.
  • Companies should spend their time building their communities so that their communities can make changes to Wikipedia on their behalf.

That first point is really bothersome to me. As consumers we’re begging and pleading with companies to participate as equal partners in the Social Web, yet if they step out of line, we lambast them for it almost immediately. The Social Web is supposed to be for “anyone”, and I believe that includes companies (After all, companies are made up of individual people) Wikipedia even says that “anyone” can edit a page on the site. The key is how to not be stupid, whether we’re talking about an individual or a company. On Wikipedia, not being stupid starts with an understanding of their culture.

One of the foundational principles Jimmy Wales created Wikipedia on is the idea of “Neutral Point of View” (NPOV). According to Wikipedia, this means:

All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV), representing fairly and without bias all significant views (that have been published by reliable sources).

Further, Wikipedia “strongly discourages” writing about yourself or anything you’re involved with.

Typical problems with autobiographies include:

  • They are often biased, usually positively. People will write overly positively about themselves, and often present opinions as facts. Wikipedia aims to avoid presenting opinions as facts. (Neutral point of view does not mean simply writing in the third person).
  • They can be unverifiable. If the only source for a particular fact about you is you yourself, then readers cannot verify it. (One common area where this is the case is with hopes, dreams, thoughts, and aspirations. There is no way for readers to verify what you think.) Everything in Wikipedia articles must be verifiable.
  • They can contain original research. People often include in autobiographies information that has never been published before, or which is the result of firsthand knowledge. This type of information would require readers to perform primary research in order to verify it. Wikipedia is not a publisher of first instance; original research is not permitted in Wikipedia.

In a rush to avoid negative PR for their own companies, far too many are rushing into conversations about how to ban employees from making Wikipedia edits and/or blocking Wikipedia all together.

This is absolutely the wrong way to deal with this!

The Social Web, and the benefits thereof, is a two-way street. You can’t on one hand ask customers for reviews, comments, feedback, product ideas, etc. while also then curtailing your efforts of giving something back. When your employees edit content on Wikipedia, they aren’t editing your corporate content alone. They’re likely making changes to content that has absolutely nothing to do with your business, but they’re helping to support the overall Social Web. You want to be known a that kind of company… customers are much more likely to give you a helping hand if that’s the kind of organization you are.

So then what do you do to help your company avoid PR nightmares?

  1. Develop a Social Media strategy – even if you don’t think you are doing “social media stuff”, you still need a strategy to handle things just like this. This is as much about clearly defining your culture as anything. I’m always surprised at how often employees of most companies have no idea what the values of the company are all about. When you know what your culture is, it’s a lot easier to understand what is and is not allowed, without specifically having to outline absolutely every situation that might arise in a Procedure Manual (that nobody will ever read or that HR would be able to actually keep up to date).
  2. Provide examples and details – While having a larger strategy is crucial, make sure it’s clear to your employees how to translate this to action. This is NOT about creating Procedure Manuals, it’s about starting internal discussions, providing good/bad examples, and clarifying where employees are free to make decisions on their own and where they’re not.
  3. Respect the culture – Wikipedia has their own rules (outlined above, and in much detail on the site) and their own processes. Respect that and act inside those bounds. They have multiple methods for asking and receiving help and clarification. Use them.
  4. Identify yourself – If you’re editing as an employee, you should be logged into Wikipedia. Absolutely zero anonymous edits! If you’re not comfortable enough to associate with your edits, you’re likely being a jackass anyway. Nobody needs another jackass on Wikipedia.
  5. Edit Smart –  At the end of the day, this all comes down to “not being stupid”. Be a good Web citizen and do your best to help the Social Web first and foremost, not yourself. Often you’ll get more out of clearly acknowledging your faults than from trying to make them disappear.
  6. Be prepared to defend your actions – Most companies aren’t prepared to say things like “Certainly we edited our Wikipedia page; the information was dead wrong, and as part of the Web community ourselves, we felt obligated to correct it. That’s what Wikipedia is about.” Just make sure your efforts are worth defending.
  7. Be Prepared to apologize for your employees – Unless you outright ban your employees (through policy and/or technology) from participating on sites like Wikipedia, there are going to be problems along the way. Be ready to say “We strive hard to maintain a positive presence in the Web community, and have made our values [link to values] clear to our employees. Sometimes they do silly things, and when they do, we’re the first to strive to correct them.” Then go fix it.
  8. Remember the real troublemakers – Before you get terribly freaked out about your employees changing “George Bush” to “jerk”, consider the real problems we’ve seen with commercial involvement in the Social Web. In my experience, sanctioned professional communicators, marketers, and account planners are vastly more dangerous to a company’s  reputation than random employees. (Remember splogs? Wal-Marting Across America?

As our work/life boundaries continue to blur, this is most certainly not the last time we’ll have this conversation. Whether Wikipedia, MySpace, or whatever comes next year, it’s easier to track employees and the usage of corporate infrastructure for personal activity will continue to increase. (Or at least until we can stop checking our email at 8p or discontinue weekend conference calls)

This issue isn’t about what you can ban, it’s about how you can participate. What kind of culture and values does your company have and how do you ingrain those to your employees?