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Last Updated: Friday, 25 August 2006, 14:50 GMT 15:50 UK
Not as wiki as it used to be
Wikipedia is considering introducing a form of prior restraint on edits. Bill Thompson wonders what this means for its users

An elephant, Getty
The Wikipedia entry on elephants was edited to say their numbers had tripled
For some time the people behind Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia assembled from reader contributions and edited and maintained by those who care to get involved, have been coping with the fallout from a widely-publicised failure of their quality control mechanism.

Last November US politician John Seigenthaler took Wikipedia to task in the columns of USA Today over a false and defamatory biography of him that had been posted on the site.

The biography, it eventually emerged, had been written as a prank, but it remained online for four months before it was noticed and removed.

Since Mr Siegenthaler Sr was neither controversial enough to merit consistent attention, or interested enough in what happened online to bother to Google himself regularly, his biography simply sat there unremarked, although we have no way of knowing how many school essays mention his entirely fabricated involvement in the assassination of Robert and John Kennedy.

Change management

Those of us who had been using Wikipedia for some time were, of course, well aware that not everything on it was necessarily true or accurate, and the real surprise was more about the wider media interest in the site and its content that the Seigenthaler story triggered.

Wikipedia is, and will continue to be, a work in progress, a best effort by thousands of people to create an accurate, impartial and useful repository of human knowledge. As such it has succeeded in covering more topics, in more languages, than any other encyclopaedia.

But it necessarily contains errors, some placed there deliberately by writers with a specific agenda and others simply mistakes that have gone unnoticed.

Sometimes the errors are entirely frivolous, of course, as happened earlier this month when fans of US comedian Stephen Colbert followed his joking suggestion and edited pages on elephants to say that their population had recently tripled.


What makes Wikipedia special and encourages those of us who are registered with it to participate in the community is the sense that we can all make a contribution.
The errors are not a reason to dismiss the site's usefulness or importance. While Wikipedia should never be the last place one looks for information about a specific topic, I increasingly find that it is the best starting point for an exploration of a new subject.

However the nature of the "Wikipedia" itself seems to be shifting, largely as a result of policy decisions made since the Seigenthaler case, and this may well affect its continued usefulness.

While it continues to advertise itself as "the free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit", in practice there have always been limits on what some users can do, and an administrative and managerial team who have greater privileges than other users.

From relatively early in its existence it has been possible to ensure only administrators edit a page, but recent changes make it harder for ordinary users to create and update pages on the site.

Over time this new layer of control could mean that its timeliness and breadth - which other encyclopaedia has a list of Muppet characters based on real celebrities? - suffer as those with something to share are deterred from doing so.

A big change at the end of 2005 was the introduction of "semi-protection" for pages which were being vandalised. Once a page was marked in this way only registered users of at least four day's standing could make changes.

Semi-protection seems like a sensible and moderate response to a major problem for the site, and it is clearly not being abused by administrators to limit debate unnecessarily.

Fresh start

But now there are suggestions that a new architecture of control will be introduced for Wikipedia as a whole, if it proves successful when it is applied to the German-language site next month, and this could have far wider implications.

John Siegenthaler Sr, AP
John Siegenthaler wrote a scathing criticism of Wikipedia
Under the new approach, page edits will no longer be immediately applied to pages but will instead have to be approved by an administrator before they become visible. Vandalism or changes which are not approved will not appear.

This is a major shift, from a "publish and fix" policy to one of prior restraint, where a cadre of privileged users will supervise what appears.

It is still only a proposal, so it is not yet clear if the new checks would be applied to every page, but this is obviously being considered seriously by Wikipedia's founder Jimmy Wales, and the site's Wikimedia Foundation.

The large number of control features that are being added to Wikipedia, raise an interesting question for all who care about the site and its content: when does the Wikipedia stop being a wiki and just become another website?

After all, if the special thing about a wiki is that pages can be edited by any user, then introducing layer upon layer of editorial control must mean that at some point Wikipedia becomes no different from any other online publication where content is approved before it is displayed.

And then the only special thing is that the editing tools allow in-page editing rather than requiring site visitors to use special software or go to an administration section of the site as most blogging sites do.

But that's hardly the basis for a revolution in the way human knowledge is gathered and distributed, is it? It begins to look more and more like any other community website with a limited degree of user participation.

What makes Wikipedia special and encourages those of us who are registered with it to participate in the community is the sense that we can all make a contribution. Putting more and more steps between editing and publishing risks damaging that sense of engagement and, as a result, could rapidly diminish Wikipedia's usefulness.

If Wikipedia can find a way to combine community participation with greater oversight, perhaps by encouraging every registered user to check changes and edits instead of leaving it largely to the central cabal of administrators, then they may be able to make the new approach work.

Perhaps we should all be asked to check one random page for every ten or twenty we look at, giving our time to make the site work in return for better content?


There's been quite a lot of discussion about this article over on the Wikipedia mailing lists, and as a result the details of what the German group are proposing to do are a lot clearer.

Rather than hold any pending edits until they are approved, edits will still be allowed to any unlocked page on the site.

Unregistered users will not automatically see these pages when they visit, so that the chances that someone will inadvertently come across a vandalised page should be reduced, but the pages will still be available if someone wants to see them.

There's no decision yet as to who will be able to "approve" a page, and of course the English-language Wikipedia is simply watching what happens in Germany and seeing how it works, so there will be no change for those of us who use the English version.

This clarifies a number of the points I raised in the article. I was wrong to say that "Under the new approach, page edits will no longer be immediately applied to pages", since the changes will be there, and someone who wants to see the latest edits will be able to do so.

However for most users, the page they see will not be the latest edit but the latest approved page, so my wider point that this would mark a significant shift in the "wikiness" of the site if it was universally adopted still holds.

In the end, the success of Wikipedia depends on the willingness of large numbers of us to write, edit, fix and expand articles all over the site.

Whether the technology which makes this possible is a wiki or a more conventional editorial process is less important than the project itself, which has provided millions of people with a (mostly reliable) source of information that can transform their lives - or just help with their school projects.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet

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