Wikipedia’s Top-Secret ‘Hired Guns’ Will Make You Matter (For a Price)
Power brokers break the rules to make a name for their clients
People trust Wikipedia. The free online encyclopedia is now the fifth-most visited website in the world and is a pipeline of information for digital assistants like Alexa and Siri. Ask your iPhone what a lynx is and up pops an information box with content pulled from the open platform. (It’s a medium-sized wildcat named for the “luminescence of its reflective eyes,” by the way, at least according to the 1,668 people who have edited the page since 2001.)
Because the encyclopedia has millions of pages filled with dynamic content, Google’s algorithm typically includes relevant Wikipedia pages near the top of its search results. Though the online encyclopedia isn’t by its own admission perfect, the tech companies have in effect anointed Wikipedia, which is monitored, fact-checked, and filled with material from a community of volunteer editors.
That’s the idea, anyway. Because Wikipedia is so ubiquitous and widely trusted—by tech corporations who build it into their products, or the British readers who said they trusted it more than newspapers in a 2014 poll—the “volunteer” aspect has become a little fuzzy. A market of pay-to-play services has emerged, where customers with the right background can drop serious money to hire editors to create pages about them; a serious ethical breach that could get worse with the rise of—wait for it—cryptocurrency payments.
“This guy’s got enough money to last multiple lifetimes, and he’s just really conscious of his weight on his Wikipedia page,” Brendan Gibson tells me. Gibson, a 34-year-old American expat, is sitting across from me at the Slow Boat Brewery in Beijing. He’s the founder of What About Wiki, which professionally writes and maintains Wikipedia articles for paying clients.
In the three years since Gibson founded What About Wiki, his favorite client remains a pro baseball player who contacted him with a very specific request. “He didn’t want anything changed except for his photo because he had lost a lot of weight,” Gibson said. When the athlete tried to change the photo himself, someone undid his edit. So he sought…