There is no 'you' in 'Wikipedia'

Mon 26 Jan 2009 10:58 AM

As the NY Times reports, the free-wheeling days of Wikipedia editing may be over. The crackdown follows a recent incident in which Wikipedia entries reported Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd were reported to be dead. As the Washington Post admits, the false claims only persisted for a few minutes. Nevertheless, the story is headlined "Kennedy, Byrd the Latest Victims of Wikipedia Errors", suggesting that the misreports somehow harmed or inconvenienced the two old and frail senators. Piffle, of course, and the Post story concludes by giving examples of traditional news media misreporting obituaries. [insert apt quote from Mark Twain]

This has led Wikipedia cofounder Jimbo Wales to call for changes in the way Wikipedia works. Wikipedia visitors who are not logged in as trusted users would no longer be able to change articles and have the revisions appear immediately. Instead, their changes would have to be approved by a trusted user before they would become part of the Wikipedia corpus.

It is unclear how much delay this would produce. Wales hopes it would not be more than a week. There is a tension here: If the restriction is only for some articles rather than others, then there will still be an evanescent flux of falsehoods in the rest of the Wikipedia. If the restriction is extended to all or most of the Wikipedia, then the delay will become intolerable.

Delay is also problematic because several users may change a page before any of the changes are accepted. If they are all adding the same information and making the same corrections, then some editor will need to decide which version to use. If they are making different changes in overlapping parts of an article, then some editor will have to fix the grammar and usage to make the changes fit together. In short: Jumbled nightmare.

In addition to adding delay, the process puts more power in the hands of approved Wikipedia users. Note that this is not simply the divide between registered users and anonymous users; the Ted Kennedy death reports were entered by registered user Gfdjklsdgiojksdkf. So the elite corps of trusted Wikipedia users will have responsibility for what appears in these shielded articles.