This week we present an open letter from one of our forum members, Mason (known as “28bytes” on Wikipedia).
Jonathan E. Hochman is the founder of a marketing business specializing in search engine optimization. He is also a long-term Wikipedia participant (since 2005!) and an administrator on the site, where he contributes under the name of “Jehochman”. As he states on his personal Wikipedia profile page, Hochman does not “edit” on behalf of his clients. But truth, on Wikipedia, is in the eye of the beholder. Hochman may not create or contribute to articles about his customers on Wikipedia *now*, but as the following will show, he has done so on numerous occasions in the distant and not so distant past.
28bytes, as the reader may recall, was the most popular candidate in last year’s elections to Wikipedia’s supreme and far from uncontroversial decision-making body, the site’s “Arbitration Committee”. He resigned after having been criticized (especially by Jehochman) about also having an account here on Wikipediocracy, as well as having edited some articles he had a close connection with.
We’d also like to give a hat tip to Mila, who did a lot of research to bring this topic to light. You can see her forum post about Jehochman here.
AN OPEN LETTER TO JEHOCHMAN
Dear Mr. Hochman,
I am sure you recall leaving a message on my talk page six weeks ago asking that I resign from the arbitration committee for not disclosing to the Wikipedia community that I had (and have) an account here on Wikipediocracy. This was one of about two dozen messages you left on my talk page within a period of a few hours, many of which made the claim that not disclosing this fact was lying – specifically “lying by omission.” You even helpfully linked to lying by omission, a subsection of Wikipedia’s “Lie” article, in case I was unclear what exactly you were accusing me of.
You repeated these accusations on Jimmy Wales’ talk page, on Newyorkbrad’s talk page, and on other editors’ talk pages. You accused me, in a comment on the Wikipediocracy blog post about me, of being a “security risk” for this lack of disclosure, and made similar accusations in an email to the arbitration committee. You unilaterally “removed” me from the list of arbitrators.
From your very forceful posts, comments and emails to (and about) me, I gathered that honesty was a very, very important issue for you – much more important than, say, an editor’s right to choose what and when they disclose about their offsite activities.
And I took what you said to heart. You’re right: disclosure is important. Honesty is important. You – and some others – felt that I had not been honest with you by not telling you about my activities on this website. So I resigned from the arbitration committee, as you had requested. As I said then, if there is even the slightest doubt that I had earned my seat on the committee fair and square, I would rather not serve than allow that doubt to damage the committee’s standing and divide the community.
Lying by omission
So you can perhaps imagine my reaction this week when I learned, from a Wikipediocracy forum post, that you had repeatedly written articles about the clients of your marketing company, without disclosing your connection. Your userpage states very plainly: “I don’t edit on behalf of clients.” That appears to be – at best – misleading.
I won’t rehash all the specifics of the articles involved – the forum post does a very thorough job of connecting the dots based on entirely public information – but one example jumps out at me: your work with Bob’s Discount Furniture. You were (or are) the marketing consultant for that firm. You wrote the Wikipedia article for that firm – the first pass of which was very promotional in tone. And as best I can tell, you haven’t disclosed that connection anywhere on Wikipedia. That’s about as clear-cut of an example of a conflict-of-interest (“COI”) violation as you can get.
You also are (or were) the marketing consultant for the voice-over-IP phone company BroadVoice. You edited the Wikipedia article about BroadVoice – in fact, you are its most frequent contributor. As with Bob’s Discount Furniture, there is no on-Wikipedia acknowledgement that a key contributor to that article is a paid marketer of the article subject. But what’s worse, you created an entirely negative BLP about the CEO of BroadVoice competitor Vonage. That skates pretty close to “revenge editing” in my book.
Look, we’ve all made mistakes. I’ve made plenty of mistakes myself over the years, and COI editing was one of them. As you know, I’ve written articles about topics I was personally involved with. It might be tempting for me to harangue you for hypocritically demanding a standard of “disclosure” in other editors that you’re not willing to honor yourself, but that’s not why I’m posting this. Rather, I’m posting this to offer you some friendly advice. (Really.)
Please don’t resign
Other people may disagree with me on this (and several have), but I don’t think you need to resign your position as administrator over this. One thing I learned in the wake of my outing in December was that the Wikipedia community is really quite forgiving of the people who’ve been long-term contributors to the site. (Yes, I can hear my fellow Wikipediocracy members gagging upon reading this, and I will hasten to add that that forgiveness is far from universal or consistently applied, but that’s a topic for another time.)
When I disclosed my COI editing on the administrators’ noticeboard, and later when my account here was made public, I was actually taken aback at how kind and supportive most of my fellow editors were. There were exceptions, sure, but as far as I can recall only one editor said that those two mistakes were sufficient to throw me under the bus. And I don’t think, in your case, that editor will say that.
So trust the community; don’t resign your bit or quit the site, but instead be proactive and go tag those articles with a “connected contributor” template, and let the people at the conflict-of-interest noticeboard know about it so that they can take a look with neutral eyes. I’ve done it myself, with articles I have a COI with; I assure you it’s not painful.
People will ask you about this on your talk page. Engage them respectfully and honestly, even if they’re being harsh and unkind to you. Don’t disappear and leave the allegations unaddressed. Don’t simply delete or “archive” their comments without response. My first inclination was to post this open letter to your talk page, instead of here, but I noticed that you tend to quickly remove uncomfortable conversations from your talk page (and in some cases, “ban” from your talk page editors who offer criticism.) So I am posting this here instead, where it cannot be quickly deleted and forgotten. I hope that in the future, you will consider letting other editors’ comments on your talk page stand, even critical ones.
You are not the first Wikipedia administrator who has engaged in undisclosed paid editing, and you won’t be the last. Jimbo may not approve (and I understand entirely where he’s coming from, even though I, like you, have broken the “bright line rule”) but it’s a fact of life. As long as there’s no “official” rule against it, administrators will likely continue to engage in paid editing, all the while scolding new editors (and the occasional ArbCom candidate) for writing about their garage band, car wash, convenience store, or video game.
All the rest of us can ask is that when you scold them, you not hold them to a different (higher) standard than you hold yourself. If you’re willing to criticize other editors for things they did in 2010, then be willing to accept criticism for things you did early in your wiki-career; don’t brush aside criticism of undisclosed paid editing as having been “a long time ago” if you don’t apply any sort of statute of limitations to your fellow editors.
And update that user page! If the facts are “I used to edit for clients, but I stopped in 2009 (or whenever)”, that’s what should go there, instead of a statement that gives the impression that you don’t edit for clients and never have. As I said, Wikipedia can be a very forgiving community; own up to your mistakes – even the ones we don’t (yet) know about – and I’m confident that you can have a long, productive and rewarding career as an administrator ahead of you.
Mason (aka 28bytes)
P.S. You may even consider “paying it forward”; there are no doubt editors who are blocked (or even banned) right now for COI editing no worse than you – or I – have done. Perhaps even blocked by you? Take a look through the block logs and see if you can find any such editors, and consider whether it might be worth trying to bring them back into the fold. There are certainly worse things than having editors who know a thing or two about the subject they’re writing about, after all.