Wikipedia to add a layer of edit

Written by New York Times | Updated: Aug 28 2009, 03:27am hrs
Noam Cohen

Wikipedia, one of the ten most popular sites on the Web, was founded about eight years ago as an experiment to create a free encyclopedia from the contributions of volunteers, all with the power to edit, and presumably improve, the content. As the English-language version of Wikipedia has just surpassed 3 million articles, that freewheeling ethos is about to be curbed.

Officials at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that governs Wikipedia, say that within weeks, the English-language Wikipedia will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people. The new feature, called flagged revisions, will require that an experienced volunteer editor for Wikipedia sign off on any change made by the public before it can go live. Until the change is approvedor in Wikispeak, flaggedit will sit invisibly on Wikipedias servers, and visitors will be directed to the earlier version.

The change is part of a growing realisation on the part of Wikipedias leaders that as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace-the-chaos culture into something more mature.

Roughly 60 million Americans visit Wikipedia every month. It is the first reference point for many Web inquiriesnot least because its pages often lead the search results on Google, Yahoo! and Bing. Since Michael Jackson died on June 25, for example, the Wikipedia article about him has been viewed 30 million times, with 6 million of those in the first 24 hours.

We are no longer at the point that it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks, said Michael Snow, a lawyer in Seattle who is the chairman of the Wikimedia board. There was a time probably when the community was more forgiving of things that were inaccurate or fudged in some fashionwhether simply misunderstood or an author had some ax to grind. There is less tolerance for that sort of problem now.

The new editing procedures, which have been applied to the entire German-language Wikipedia during last year, are certain to be a topic of discussion this week when Wikipedias volunteer editors gather in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for their annual Wikimania conference. Much of the agenda is focused on the implications of the encyclopedias size and influence.

Although Wikipedia has prevented anonymous users from creating new articles for several years now, the new flagging system crosses a psychological Rubicon. It will divide Wikipedias contributors into two classesexperienced, trusted editors, and everyone elsealtering Wikipedias implicit notion that everyone has an equal right to edit entries.

That right was never absolute, and the policy changes are an extension of earlier struggles between control and openness. For example, certain popular or controversial pages, like the ones for Britney Spears and for President Obama, are frequently protected or semi-protected, limiting who, if anyone, can edit the articles.

And for seven months beginning in November, The New York Times worked with Wikipedia administrators to suppress information about the kidnapping of David Rohde, a correspondent in Afghanistan, from the article about him. The Times argued that the censorship would improve his chances of survival. Rohde escaped from his Taliban captors in June, but the episode dismayed some Wikipedia contributors. The new system comes as some recent studies have found Wikipedia is no longer as attractive to first-time or infrequent contributors as it once was.

Ed H Chi of the Palo Alto Research Centre in California recently completed a study of the millions of changes made to Wikipedia in a month. He concluded that the sites growth (whether in new articles, new edits or new contributors) hit a plateau in 2007-08. For some active Wikipedia editors, this was an expected developmentafter so many articles, naturally there are fewer topics to uncover, and those are not necessarily of general interest.

But Chi also found that the changes made by more experienced editors were more likely to stay up on the site, whereas one-time editors had a much higher chance of having their edits reversed. He concluded that there was growing resistance from Wikipedia community to new content.

To others, the new flagging system reflects Wikipedias acceptance of the responsibility that comes with its vast influence. Wikipedia now has the ability to alter the world that it attempts to document, said Joseph Reagle, a professor of communications at New York University and one of a half-dozen scholars to earn a PhD in Wikipedia studies (itself a discussion topic at Wikimania).