By Gregory Kohs
In the United States, the tenth-most popular website is Reddit.com, a message-based social networking and news sharing site. On Friday, July 3rd, the various message boards of Reddit erupted in turmoil. Volunteer moderators shut down hundreds of the site’s message areas, in protest of the company firing a popular employee named Victoria Taylor. Taylor was Reddit’s communications director and, more widely known to the Reddit community, a beloved facilitator of the “Ask Me Anything” program, where famous celebrities sit down with the Reddit members to answer their questions. The uproar was so provocative, where two days earlier Victoria Taylor didn’t have a Wikipedia article about her, suddenly she does. If you type in “Victoria” on Google right now, the search engine recommends “victoria taylor” as the auto-fill just below “victoria secret”.
Now that Taylor has a Wikipedia article (that is, if it doesn’t get deleted), we learn that prior to Reddit, she worked in the field of public relations for a company called ID PR. The ID public relations firm has its own Wikipedia article, too. If you look at the “history” tab on that article, you can see that it was created in March 2011 by User:AnnBLea, who has also been the most productive editor of the article since its creation. Is it possible that the ID public relations article was written by someone with an affiliation with the ID PR firm itself? AnnBLea’s wiki editing history certainly crosses over several known clients of ID PR, too.
What I am about to show you is a bit of simple investigation that is literally forbidden from taking place on Wikipedia. If you try to publicly connect these dots in a discussion on Wikipedia, the discussion will be removed, and your Wikipedia account may likely get blocked by an administrator. This is because it is considered “outing” to identify the real-world name of a Wikipedia editor who has not self-identified on Wikipedia itself, and “outing” is one of the most treacherous of wiki-crimes. The anonymity of any given Wikipedia editor is one of the most sacred principles on the encyclopedia “anyone can edit”. (Although hundreds of editors are blocked from editing, every day.) Fortunately, as a citizen journalist, my duty is to inform the public, not to blindly obey the curiously contradictory rules of Wikipedia.
So, we know that “AnnBLea” took a great deal of interest in creating and carefully maintaining Wikipedia’s article about ID PR, at the same time that Victoria Taylor worked at ID PR. Thanks to the share-and-share-alike ethos of Wikimedia Commons, we also know that a Wikipedian was identified as “AnnBLea” in a photograph taken June 25, 2011 by Max Klein. We also can see that two days later, the LA Weekly published a photo of what appears to be the same “AnnBLea”. Finally, we can follow ID PR’s Twitter feed to see that when Victoria Taylor went over to Reddit, the person they identified photographically looks an awful lot like “AnnBLea”. It’s not rocket science to put it all together, that Victoria Taylor worked for ID public relations, then used a Wikipedia User account chosen to read nothing like her own name to author the Wikipedia article about ID public relations (incidentally, others have already arrived at a similar conclusion.)
I am not trying to shame or scold Victoria Taylor for her self-interested work on Wikipedia. Most editors on Wikipedia, I find, are adding and manipulating content with some degree of self-interest. Heck, I have even edited Wikipedia articles about my own employer, without plainly disclosing that I am an employee of the subject article. So I am not one to wag my finger at Victoria Taylor. There is such an incestuous relationship in a bustling neighborhood of San Francisco, it’s no wonder this sort of thing goes on. Quite literally, one can take a nearly straight-line walk from Reddit’s headquarters, pass the office of Wikia (Wikipedia’s for-profit spin-off co-founded by Jimmy Wales), and stroll up to the headquarters of the Wikimedia Foundation (owner-operators of Wikipedia), all in 15 minutes. The ingrained self-interest isn’t the real problem.
The problem, rather, is that when one does try to connect the dots on Wikipedia and try to point out the obvious conflict of interest that a beloved “pro-Wikipedia” pseudonymous editor might have, the faithful Wikipedians circle the wagons, hide the evidence, and block the outside investigator wherever possible. This is supposed to be an “open” and “transparent” educational charity. But when it comes to criticism of their own practices, they clam up. This reporter was even barred from attending a Wikimedia conference that billed itself as “skeptics welcome”.
As if that weren’t enough, if you take a look at the Wikipedia editor who created Victoria Taylor’s own Wikipedia biography, that’s one Mr. Lane Rasberry. He is officially paid by Consumer Reports to cram Wikipedia full of references to Consumer Reports. You’d think that would be a practice that is frowned upon, but since he’s a friend of various Wikipedia insiders (including paid editor Max Klein, who took Taylor’s photo in the park that summer day in 2011), everyone looks the other way as he shills for Consumer Reports. If you want to see how Rasberry skews Wikipedia’s content for Consumer Reports, just go take a look at Wikipedia’s article about “toaster” and see if you notice anything odd about footnote #12.
Image credit: Flickr/Alaskan Dude, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic