wikipedia page, barack obama wikipedia

What Does the “Flagged Revisions” Policy Mean for the Future of Wikipedia?

August 28, 2009 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
Wikipedia is imposing editing restrictions on all its living biographies. Some believe the change will make the site more reliable, but others believe that it goes against the egalitarian ideals of Wikipedia and places too much control in the hands of a select few.

Living Biographies to Be Protected

Wikipedia, the user-generated online encyclopedia, will in the next several weeks institute restrictions on editing biographies of 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,” reports The New York Times.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales called for the policy to be implemented in January, after edits made to the entries of Sens. Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd, who became ill during President Obama’s inauguration, said that they had died. “This nonsense would have been 100% prevented by Flagged Revisions,” wrote Wales on a Wikipedia discussion forum.

Flagged revisions are already used for potentially contentious entries such as Barack Obama and Michael Jackson. But by extending the policy to all living biographies, some users are worried that the site will be slow to implement legitimate changes to entries. On German Wikipedia, which has flagged revisions on all entries, edits take up to three weeks to be approved.

Furthermore, some are worried that the egalitarian mission Wikipedia is being ruined. “As things get more and more popular online, some of these [Wikipedia-style] experiments realize they need to temper some of their experimental nature and learn from more traditional forms because they're just not sustainable,” said Marshall Kirkpatrick, lead writer at the blog ReadWriteWeb, to CNN. “It makes me shed a little tear, too, because presumably it will lead to a slowdown of new content creation, and it does seem like a departure from the essential nature of Wikipedia.”

Background: Wikipedia biography controversies

Living biographies on Wikipedia are a frequent target of vandalism and biased editing, leading to some of Wikipedia’s biggest controversies. In addition to the misreported deaths of Kennedy and Byrd, PC World provides 13 other “blunders” on Wikipedia biographies.

By far the most serious error was made in the biography of John Seigenthaler, a former aide to Robert Kennedy. The entry, which was posted by an anonymous user and allowed to remain on the site for four months, accused Seigenthaler of being complicit in Kennedy’s murder. Seigenthaler responded to the lie in an editorial in USA Today.

Living biographies can also create controversy even when the information is true. When New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2007, the paper wanted to keep the story quiet, but a Wikipedia user repeatedly posted it onto the site. It was not until the Times asked Wales to intervene that the information was kept off the site.

Commenting on the story, NYU communications professor Joseph M. Reagle told the Times, “Wikipedia has, over time, instituted gradually more control because of some embarrassing incidents, particularly involving potentially libelous material, and some people get histrionic about it, proclaiming the death of Wikipedia. But the idea of a pure openness, a pure democracy, is a naive one.”

Analysis: What the new policy means for Wikipedia

Wikipedia advertises itself as the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” but, in order to prevent vandalism and maintain accuracy, the site has been forced to implement several measures that reduce the freedom of average users to implement changes.

For example, in 2005 it barred unregistered users from creating entries after the Seigenthaler incident. The entry had been created by an anonymous user and had escaped the notice of other editors.

The site has become more exclusive, according to the Augmented Social Cognition Research Group at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which found that more and more of the site’s content is being produced and edited by a group of “elite” editors, defined as those who make more than 1,000 edits a month. This small group of editors not only makes the most changes, but also has the least changes reverted.

This trend has likely helped to keep Wikipedia more accurate, but it has also discouraged other competent users from contributing. Aaron Swartz, a 22-year-old who in 2006 was one of Wikipedia’s most active editors, told The Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson that he now edits less because he feels the site has become too exclusive.

He said, “In general, the biggest problem I have with the editors is their attitude. They say: ‘We're not going to explain how we make decisions, we basically talk amongst ourselves.’”

In an editorial, The Guardian argues that Wikipedia is facing the threat of a “gradual ossification of the site, as new users feel excluded from altering and adding entries, and existing ones give up,” adding that it “risks restricting the pool of knowledge on which the site can draw.”

But others see the more restrictive measures as a necessary step to ensuring the accuracy of its content. “They've made a leap here,” said John Abell, New York bureau chief for Wired, to CNN. “I think it's a good leap, a necessary leap, a righteous leap. In the history of Wikipedia, this will probably be seen as a pivotal adjustment.”

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines