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Wikipedia: Help or hindrance?

I remember even when I was in high school, my teachers used to say that Wikipedia was NOT a reliable source to reference in any academic work.  Universities won’t accept it either.  So what exactly is Wikipedia good for?  Personally, I find it to be an invaluable source for grasping a basic understanding of just about anything.  Want to know who Joseph Smith, Jr is?  Look it up on Wikipedia.  I bet you couldn’t find out that sort of information in a hard copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in less than 20 seconds?

What is Wikipedia? According to academic, Dr Axel Bruns in his book Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From production to produsage, ‘Wikis enable their users to create a network of knowledge that is structured ad hoc through multiple interlinkages between individual pieces of information in the knowledge base’.  Bruns explains, that Wikipedia is an online encyclopaedia that endeavours not to ‘present representations of knowledge, but to encapsulate the current state of accepted knowledge itself.’ 

In layman’s terms Wikipedia is an editable space for the compilation and aggregation of knowledge and encourages online enthusiast communities to facilitate discussion around topics of interest. 

Wikipedia is not simply an archive of information.  It is a live application that is constantly updated and subject to gatewatching.  By nature it is effective in its coverage of unfolding events.  Bruns points out that that this coverage is not intended to highlight and analyse events, but rather to chronically document history as it is made.

As with many other new media applications, Wikipedia has had, is having, and will have an impact on public relations.

Wikipedia has the potential to be a hindrance to public relations practitioners.  In an ideal world, the fact that people are able to contribute to and edit content on Wikipedia, would mean that content would be monitored and information would therefore be accurate.  This is not always the case.  As my teachers said, information on Wikipedia cannot always be relied on.  So what’s to say that people wouldn’t use Wikipedia to air grievances about an organisation?  If this happens, it doesn’t matter how quickly the edit is rectified, chances are, someone else has already seen it. Having said that, it is also quite possible that public relations practitioners would use Wikipedia to generate their own spin.  In his blog Tricky Wiki, Peter Dizikes gives the example of ExxonMobile employees changing their Wikipedia entry to glamorise the organisation’s environmental record.  

On a slightly more ethical note, Wikipedia functions allow organisations to monitor their entry and ensure that inaccurate information is mediated.  It also allows them to promote their organisation and provide detailed information to the public that could not be easily distributed elsewhere.  Additionally, Wikipedia gives organisations the opportunity to report the truth.  For example, people know that ExxonMobile has not got a shiny environmental record, so it would be far more beneficial for them to own up to this and instead report on the changes they are making now to rectify the wrongs.

Having said all that, is it ethical for public relations to interfere with Wikipedia at all?  Does it go against the very concept of WikipediaPeter Dzikes believes this is the case.  Perhaps it is.  However, I am of the view that organisations should be able to defend themselves.  The gatewatchers aren’t always able to pick everything up and it is only fair that organisations should be able to right the wrong.    

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