How resilient is “open”?

Cliff dwelling – Keet Seel – Kawestima – Navajo National Monument shared CC by Al_HikesAZ

I noted the apparent efforts by unknown actors to alter the history of MOOCs on Wikipedia in my previous post. Partially in response, Darren asks “Am I safe in assuming $ has something to do with so many anxious to rewrite history?”

I’m pleased to see that Audrey Watters is indeed looking into this process:



To respond to Darren’s question, I suppose it is possible that this effort is motivated by simple (or unfathomably complex) ego, but I think money is a far more likely explanation.

It brings to mind a fascinating discussion from Jimbo Wales’s User talk page on Wikipedia. Like so many questions of ethics and process on this platform, the discourse descends into an intertransdimensional series of rabbit holes that I find difficult to navigate. For you prudish types that wish to avoid a powerful sensory derangement experience, here’s a simplified version:

For the past year, Arturo Silva, a full-time employee at BP’s Corporate Communications department in Houston, Texas, has evidently been writing draft articles about BP and asking Wikipedia editors to upload his content to BP’s official Wikipedia page.

Silva, whose Wikipedia moniker is “Arturo at BP,” is the head of BP’s Wikipedia engagement team, which interacts with Wikipedia editors to improve BP’s Wikipedia page, according to a statement provided to The Huffington Post by Scott Dean, a BP spokesman.

Silva’s Wikipedia user page clearly labels him as a BP employee, and he appears to have stayed within Wikipedia’s guidelines by not directly editing the BP article himself. However, at least two Wikipedia editors posted his content to Wikipedia’s BP article and did not indicate that they had obtained the information from a BP employee.

A comparison of Silva’s draft articles to BP’s official Wikipedia page shows that some of the official BP article had been copied and pasted from Silva’s drafts, including sections on sensitive environmental topics and the controversial practice of drilling in the Canadian oil sands. Other sections appear to have been paraphrased from Silva’s content.

Wikipedia editor SlimVirgin estimates that “around 44 percent” of BP’s Wikipedia entry “has been written by BP.

Attempts by various actors to influence Wikipedia articles are nothing new. To me, the most fascinating phrase here is “he appears to have stayed within Wikipedia’s guidelines”, a fact repeatedly argued in the Wales User talk page referenced above. Indeed, Arturo at BP insists “my affiliation with BP is abundantly clear to all parties I may interact with on Wikipedia.” His efforts have proven to be uniquely successful.

I can’t mount an argument one way or the other right now, but I’ve wondered for some time about ways that openness may in fact leave systems uniquely vulnerable to dedicated manipulation. As Stephen Downes notes, rewriting history favours “those with time and money to do so.” Just to say it again: British Petroleum has a “Wikipedia engagement team”. A team.

It’s not as if “closed” systems are particularly resistant to the influence of money and power. But resting assured that “openness is the best disinfectant” is likely to fail us as well.

22 thoughts on “How resilient is “open”?

  1. Well, we are only human and influence in all its forms is part of human nature. Openness only works as part of a governance system. If the system is open but no one takes action it is a bit like living in a democracy where no one votes; the potential is there but the desired result is not being achieved.

    I’m reminded of the Federalist quote on the necessity of checks and balances:

    But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

    The Federalist No. 51

  2. I’d be curious to know at what point it’s decidedly not ok to edit a page of a person or project that you have an affiliation with? Never? I’m sure those people notable enough to have their own Wikipedia entry would be tempted to fill in more information there and possibly correct errors. But if that’s not ethical who becomes the authority on who you are? If ds106 had an entry would it be unethical for you to write anything there, given you teach the course?

    I’m reading through the COI guidelines and it looks like except in the case of correcting egregious errors on the page of a person, that person should neither create nor edit the page (ie. “If they’re notable enough someone else will know about them and write about them.”). I guess in cases like this I call into question the view of Wikipedia as an accurate and reliable historical document. When we say people are “rewriting history” we seem to imply that Wikipedia is. But I’m certainly uncomfortable with handing over the authority of subjects who may have limited access to information about that subject to be deemed the only ones above the ethical boundaries to write on the subject.

    1. And somehow I thought I was on Alan’s blog when I wrote “given you teach the course” so insert a better hypothetical about whether Jim, Martha, Alan et. al would be ethically allowed to edit.

  3. I’m glad Audrey’s been digging in to this, it’s very interesting. It resonates with a couple of other things too – Gardner’s ‘that’s not what I meant’ keynote and Dave Cormier’s recent post on the history of open in education. In both cases a commercial, US-centric view of the world is becoming the concrete version of events – not necessarily out of some planned attack to claim history, but more a form of lazy imperialism.
    Terry Anderson and I wrote a paper of resilience in HE recently ( – that framework may be useful for considering resilience of open generally?

  4. Ian – thanks for your comment, and it’s a pleasure to discover your work. Lots of interesting stuff over at your site!

    Tim – If you want to spend a few months of disorienting reading, do look in on the many discussions of “neutrality”, “notability” and COI in the Wikimedia universe. It’s been a never-ending irresolvable issue, and frankly it’s worn me out. Though at least they have processes designed to address abuses… and the platform seems to do a decent job of at least tracking and analyzing activity.

    I’m familiar with the argument that if an accurate entry requires the subject-person to do the editing, then it likely fails the “notability” test. But wait… what? DS106 doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry? That strikes me as an egregious omission… But then again, I’ve always temperamentally tilted toward being an “inclusionist”.

    Martin – I read the article you wrote with Terry last week, and that influenced my title wording… even though I did not refer directly to your piece. (I started to, but realized if I did I would not have time to finish the post that day.) And of course, I respect the work that Richard Hall and Joss Winn performed introducing this line of thinking.

    I had always presumed that adopting open processes broadly enhances the resilience of an institution — to plug into your framework, by potentially enhancing “latitude”, promoting attitudes that diminish “resistance”. (I hope I understand those pieces correctly.) But seeing how easily the xMOOCs adopt the language of “open”, or the types of abuses noted above, or the general rise of “openwashing” in general… I think my presumptions may not be so solid as I hoped.

  5. I’ve still been chewing on this, Brian, and appreciate your reference to it:

    “Rewriting history favours ‘those with time and money to do so.'”

    Honestly, it makes me (re)consider how important it is to maintain a few friends along the way (just in case you need someone to cover for you, when all is said and done.) Pushing the envelope is very difficult work, I guess mostly because it’s nearly impossible to make everyone happy at the same time.

  6. Thank’s. Important clarification. The difference between a MOOC connectivist and one that is not, is considerable. The participant may realize to compare.

  7. My preference is the connectivist. It is the term which is attached to “open”, “network”, “sharing”. Others are not really open. I tried one. Not the same, because the knowledge they keep it and give it little by little. They are not really shared.

  8. I blogged about Audrey’s post here – re-writing might be happening (or, re-purposing perhaps), but if you think Wikipedia is the site (qua, location) for that, a) I disagree, and b) edit “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”

  9. This is an important conversation, and one that I think extends far beyond the digital realm and into many aspects of our civil society. For example, I think of municipal governments where the influence of a few who show up (usually commercial property developers) tend to outweigh those of the majority of citizens because they are the ones who have the most to financially gain from favourable city council decisions.

    Now, the analogy is not perfect because Wikipedia et al are not democratic systems in the sense that we don’t elect representatives. And there will always be those who will have more time, money and energy to commit because they have an interest. But I think what you and Audrey have done with your digging, questioning, writing and presenting in the open space of the web has provided one of the best examples of the resiliency that is inherent in open systems; that resiliency in open systems comes through the meaningful participation of engaged, committed and informed network citizens.

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