Posted November 30, 2010 11:31 am by with 3 comments

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It’s a pretty slow news day so I started thinking. Already we have crossed into dangerous territory but my interest was captured by the response to the recent Wikileaks mess by Wikipedia’s co-founder Larry Sanger.

Over the weekend he went on the offensive on Twitter by posting the following thoughts regarding Wikileaks

I’ll go ahead and say the obvious: Wikileaks is an enemy of the U.S.—and not just the government. Deal with them accordingly.

How does Wikileaks repeatedly get massive troves of classified material?

Did a person or group in the U.S. govt have access to ALL these docs & leak them to Wikileaks? If so, that person or group is traitorous.

@wikileaks Speaking as Wikipedia’s co-founder, I consider you enemies of the U.S.—not just the government, but the people.

@wikileaks What you’ve been doing to us is breathtakingly irresponsible & can’t be excused with pieties of free speech and openness.

His fellow co-founder, Jimmy Wales, launched a similar ‘attack’ on WikiLeaks back in September. He stated

Jimmy Wales criticized WikiLeaks, which released thousands of classified military documents earlier this year, for using “wiki” in its name even though the site is anything but a “wiki.”

Now, here is where my inner cynic kicks into high gear. I don’t know whether the founders of Wikipedia are truly distraught over what Wikileaks has done but I can posit that they would be very upset with close association in names. So much so that Sanger posted the following before he told his side of the story of why Wikileaks is wrong for what it is doing.

First, let me say that my main complaint is against releasing secret diplomatic communiqués, not against Wikileaks’ other work, which is less important for purposes of this discussion. Also, when I said I was “speaking as Wikipedia’s co-founder,” I was distinguishing wikis generally from Wikileaks, which is not a wiki. I was and am not speaking for Wikipedia, but only for myself. To those who said that they’d stop contributing to Wikipedia, you might not know that I left Wikipedia a little over a year after I got it started, and have since founded a competitor. I’m no longer even the editor-in-chief of this competitor; I’m now working on brand new things.

That competitor he references is Citizendium. I don’t have the numbers but as far as a brand, the one that Sanger is associated with that allows him to do all of these other ‘brand new things’ is Wikipedia not Citizendium. What do you think he needs to protect?

Now here comes the potential online reputation concern. Many (and I would argue most) people in the world are not going to know that Wikipedia and Wikileaks are not associated in any way except for the use of the common Internet term ‘wiki’ in their names. Wales even made sure to point out that Wikileaks is not a wiki which can be translated as “Don’t confuse Wikipedia with Wikileaks, even unintentionally, please!”

Why is this an issue? It’s because the Internet to the masses is still a mystery and as a result perception is more reality than ever before in history. No one at Wikipedia ever imagined that they would need to ‘defend’ their reputation beyond being a place where anybody can say anything about anyone and get great rankings in the search engines. Now they can be linked, albeit incorrectly, to one of the greatest threats to America’s security in a long, long time.

I realize that there are a lot of dotted lines to be drawn here in order to make this observation but that doesn’t make it any less valid. This could be a problem for just about anyone who decides to use a common phrase in their own brand name.

It has never been more important than now to monitor and protect your brand even if it is not being directly attacked. Guilt by association is a very real and powerful thing. Our new Internet centric world has made gullible people even more susceptible to being misled. Among the masses there is this “It must be true if it’s on the Internet” thinking that is completely boneheaded but it’s easy so most people adopt it. I think that the folks at Wikipedia are acutely aware of this potential disaster and are working to separate themselves as best they can.

This whole thing caught my attention because even with being part of the Internet culture like I am, I can’t help but think of Wikipedia when I hear Wikileaks. I know there is no connection but I don’t think the large majority of people online will be able to discern as easily.

Do I think this going to take Wikipedia down? No, not at all. I do think, though, that on some level they now have to fight to distance themselves from Wikileaks which could bring up a whole new spate of ‘Wikipedia accuracy’ as oxymoron arguments.

No matter what the connection it has made me even more aware than ever to truly ‘read between the lines’ when someone has something on the line (especially if they don’t directly admit it). PR and spin are as effective as ever for some but more transparent and despicable to many others since it’s often hard to tell where the spin ends and the truth begins in the online space.

What’s your take on this one? If you were the founders of Wikipedia and had the positions of power they do in the Internet space due to that brand name would you be concerned about the potential damage a “guilt by name association” connection could do? Or would you just ride it out and let the Internet take care of it for you?

Either way it is risky and that’s what makes online reputation monitoring more important than ever. The digital world has more landmines than anywhere else and with new ones popping up all the time it’s better to be ready for anything than having to react to something.

Your thoughts?

  • I think you are right. The names are similar and it does bring about an association even though they are not linked. Same thing with Wikianswers. It can positive when all of the “wiki”s are behaving, but it only takes one bad apple…

    I believe they need to be on the offense and it is good that they are taking a stand. Free speech is my right to say what is on mind, however, it does not include yelling, “Fire” in a crowded room. :O)

    • Rich Gibson

      The largest ‘Reputation’ problem for Wikipedia is that someone who is no longer involved in Wikipedia is speaking on behalf of Wikipedia in attacking a media outlet as part of a personal political vendetta.

      The secondary ‘reputation’ problem is that the person most associated with WikiPedia, which has ‘NPOV’ as a core value, is attacking a rival media organization using deeply non-neutral language.

      WikiLeaks is not an ‘enemy of the US.’ The bastards who lied to create a war where over 60% of those killed were civilians are enemies of the US.

      Also, perhaps people should learn what a ‘wiki’ is – the fact that WikiLeaks is not open to public edits does not have anything to do with whether or not it is a ‘wiki.’

  • I think, at least within the Wikipedia community, there is a very open concern about the branding issue –
    – Wikipedia owes a lot to people having a good feeling associated to the name – if that’s not there that can hurt