Some Websites Continue to Grow in Importance, and Wikipedia is One You Should Keep Your Eye On.
By Thomas J. Roach
Over the last five years, Wikipedia has consistently ranked in the top 10 most popular websites. Its competition is search engines Google, Yahoo and MSN; the current social media fads Facebook and Twitter; and shopping sites Amazon.com, Ebay and Craigslist. In that group it is the only general reference work.
This means that in the digital century, Wikipedia has the status of The Encyclopedia Britannica, Webster’s Dictionary, and the Guinness Book of World Records combined. When customers, legislators, community groups and potential employees want information on a company, Wikipedia may be the first and only place they look.
Unlike Facebook and LinkedIn, where subscribers control what is posted and can limit access, information in Wikipedia is collaboratively and continually edited. From a public relations perspective, the process makes Wikipedia not only a source of information, but also a forum for public debate.
Professional business communicators, therefore, need to monitor and participate in the process of posting and editing information on their own organizations and on issues that affect their organizations.
There are currently more than 4 million articles posted on Wikipedia in English, and the number will continue to grow. Most companies in the aggregate industry do not have entries on Wikipedia, but as the site matures the information net will reach smaller and smaller operations.
The entry on Permanente Quarry in Cupertino, Calif., has approximately two pages of information and pictures. It tells readers what the quarry mines, who owns it, when it was founded, and notes that dumped quarry waste materials are “degrading the aesthetic value of the adjacent Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve.”
The article also details controversies with the Sierra Club and the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors, and mentions the incident in 2011 when a disgruntled employee killed three people.
Wikipedia articles can usually be edited by anyone with access to the site, but access is defined differently for different language editions. Only registered users can create articles in the English edition. It is considered inappropriate to edit an article on your own organization, so most public relations professionals recommend suggesting edits of Wikipedia content to editors who are called Wikipedians.
Companies can usually expect fair treatment in the editing process. Wikipedia notes that a 2005 investigation of its science articles published in Nature claimed that it had a rate of accuracy and serious errors roughly comparable to that found in The Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia footnoted Britannica’s claim that the study’s conclusions were flawed.
While entering and editing information on your own company is not recommended, it is still useful for anyone with public relations responsibilities to become a Wikipedia contributor. Becoming a Wikipedian and contributing to other articles is the best way to learn the process. Currently, Wikipedia has over 100,000 active contributors.
For those who want to go deeper into Wikiculture, there is an annual conference for users sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundation. It is called Wikimania. There is also a social gathering in major U.S. cities called The Great American Wiknic.
The most important fact to understand about Wikipedia is that it is designed to grow and has nothing to constrain the scope and depth of its coverage. The comparison of Wikipedia to The Encyclopedia Britannica is especially instructive because of what the two encyclopedias do not have in common.
The old Britannica, with its physical footprint, had to limit its content to what it could fit onto pages and into books that were shipped in a box and stored on a shelf. Wikipedia has no such limitations.