Wikipedia’s governing Wikimedia Foundation just made an interesting announcement: For the first time some editorial control will be exerted over articles on living people. Compared to its carefree youthful days, is Wikipedia growing up?
It’s called “flagged revisions” and it basically means that if an entry on a living person is subject to an edit by a member of the general public, it gets passed to an “experienced volunteer editor” to be verified and signed off before it goes live on the published Web site. Though there’s already an existing system that partially protects certain profiles by locking them from being edited, this new system is much more severe and hands-on. And it represents a significant sea change at Wikipedia.
That’s because until now the entire basis that Wikipedia operates on is crowdsourcing on an everybody’s equal basis–it’s just as easy for anyone to edit a wikipedia entry as it is for one of its army of trusted editors. In fact, if you Google Wikipedia you get the site’s URL with the tag line “Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” But with the flagged revisions there’s a line drawn in the sand: Them (the trusted editors) and us (everyone else). But if it really represents such a significant shift, one that even steps slightly towards the curated-entry method that’s driven every other encyclopedia published before Wiki, why’s it happening?
It’s pretty simple really: Wikipedia was born with some radical, open-minded thinking–a kind of innocent youthful exuberance that got reflected in the light-hearted, un-stuffy way articles were generated and updated. It tapped into the crowdsourcing phenomenon that’s only really become possible through the Web, and it departed from the old-fashioned published encyclopedia model radically.
But children do grow up, and life begins to have a curbing impact on their behavior–particularly if they stand out from the crowd. In Wikipedia’s case, it’s grown so very fast it’s taken the encyclopedia world by storm–even forcing Microsoft to shutter its own e-encyclopedia and making the great Encyclopedia Britannica change its business. And recently evidence popped up that noted Wikipedia was deliberately censoring one biography’s updates to save the life of a kidnapped journalist–a very adult decision to make indeed. Now that it’s a real player in the world, impacting real life events and digital ones too, it’s simply time to stop thumbing its nose at the competition, and adopt some more sensible policies.
It’s partly a question of legality–with a number of people threatening to sue the publication for misrepresenting them, and the National Portrait Gallery in the U.K. even bringing a recent case concerning the copyright on high-resolution historic portraits. And it’s partly a question of changing thinking about Wikipedia–as it’s referenced in so many places online for factual content, there’s apparently a growing mentality in the Wikipedia community that its content should be more authoritative. Allowing allcomers–experts, fanatics, lay-persons and the ill-intentioned alike–to edit its entries is not how authority is established. “We have really become part of the infrastructure of how people get information […] There is a serious responsibility we have,” is how Wikipedia’s own Jimmy Wales puts it.
So does this represent the end of the road for the carefree Wiki we’ve grown to know and love? I doubt it. The flagged revision system is only applied to living people for now (and there’ll no doubt be many entertaining complications along the lines of “is person X alive or dead?”) and it’s not as if the entire public-editing system is coming to a close just yet. That’s the only issue Wikipedia fans will have to keep their eye on: whether flagged revisions start being applied to more wider subject topics. Because that really would be the point Wikipedia stopped growing up and started getting old.
[via The New York Times]