Publicity following last week's announcement of an alliance between Apple Computer and Intel had both positive and negative implications for Wikipedia. While Steve Jobs gave Wikipedia a glowing endorsement in his keynote address, media coverage in the aftermath resulted in an incident described as using Wikipedia for a "reputation hack".
The positive publicity came during Jobs' keynote at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference last Monday. He brought up Wikipedia as one of several examples of "widgets" in the new Apple Dashboard feature. Jobs introduced Wikipedia by saying, "It has now become one of the most robust and certainly accurate encyclopedias in the world because you've got experts from all over the world contributing to it."
As a demonstration of the Wikipedia widget, Jobs looked up the Tiger article (since Tiger is also the code name for the latest version of the Apple Macintosh operating system). Stan Shebs, an Apple employee attending the conference, said, "I was very relieved to see that the tiger article wasn't in a vandalized state".
A key element of Jobs' speech, the announcement that Apple would be switching to Intel microprocessors, had already been widely rumored and continued to receive a great deal of media attention for several days. This in turn led to a Tuesday column by Steven Vaughan-Nichols on eWeek, opining that the strategy might undermine hopes that Linux could gain ground in the desktop OS market.
On Wednesday, Slashdot posted a story that pointed to Vaughan-Nichols' piece and then proceeded to play up Symphony OS, a new Linux operating system project still in alpha development (although the eWeek column had actually advocated consolidating efforts around one of the major Linux desktop environments, not developing even more new ones). The submitter, "esavard", pointed to the Wikipedia article on Symphony OS as a place to start for information. This article had been started on 19 May by EliasAlucard.
One Slashdot poster called the story "An advertisment [sic], disguised as an Apple article, disguised as a Linux topic." Meanwhile, not surprisingly for a fledgling project, the attention quickly overloaded its website, a fact that was promptly noted with reference to the Slashdot effect on the Wikipedia article. Then on Thursday, blogger Clay Shirky joined in, echoing the earlier comment in a post entitled "Wikipedia, Authority, and Astroturf". He criticized the Slashdot editors for letting the story through, saying that they fell for "an interesting kind of spam, or maybe we could call it a reputation hack." According to Shirky, the incident taught a lesson that, "Since the threshold for exclusion from the Wikipedia is so low, there is almost no value in thinking 'Hey, it’s got a Wikipedia article — must be serious.'"
Shirky's comments were also picked up by reporter/bloggers from BusinessWeek and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer  . However, Symphony OS project head Ryan Quinn said both the Slashdot and Wikipedia postings were unsolicited and admitted, "It did make it look like someone was trying to bring attention to the project by riding the coattails of the apple/intel announcement." In the meantime the Symphony OS article was nominated for deletion, but most of those commenting nevertheless favored keeping it.
Although Shirky speculated that the similar-looking esavard and EliasAlucard were "pretty closely related", EliasAlucard strenuously denied this. The denial seemed to be borne out by Quinn, who had received a separate email from esavard apologizing for the way the incident backfired. Shirky later apologized for making this insinuation. Quinn also reiterated that these efforts were not by anyone representing Symphony OS, for the simple reason that "we did not want the traffic."
In reality, the events do not exactly meet the common definitions for problems like astroturfing (formal public relations that simulates grassroots popularity) or spam (unsolicited bulk communications) alluded to by Shirky. The incident seems better described as a poorly executed grassroots project without enough forethought, apparently because it was not actually coordinated. In a way, a closer analogue might be last month's abortive effort to promote Creative Commons using the grassroots marketing company BzzAgent.