A quick note: some things discussed in this article were later shown to be not entirely factual. For an update, see this post: Addendum to On a Restricted Wikipedia. I still feel that the discussion here is worthwhile though, so the rest of this entry remains unedited. Enjoy.
The big news in social media lately, at least from where I'm sitting, is the slow introduction of moderation to the enormously successful Wikipedia. The New York Times reported today that in a matter of weeks users of Wikipedia will be faced with a new barrier to entry, so to speak. Articles about living people will now be protected, and edits to them will have to be approved by a "trusted" editor (still a volunteer, notably).
This is clearly a fundamental change to the original spirit of Wikipedia which up until now has made it's way with self policing as it's primary means for protecting its content. Why the change of heart?
Well, let's look at some other news surrounding our favorite informational site.
1. Composer Maurice Jarre dies at age 84. Newspapers all over the world include with his obituary the quote "When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear". A fine, lovely quote that could not have been more perfect for the situation. Of course, it was a fake, added to the man's Wikipedia page by a sociology student. (read about that here)
2. Journalist David Rohde Spent 7 months in captivity after being kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan. An editor at Wikipedia repeatedly tried to update the site with this information only to have it continually pulled down. Turns out, Wikipedia was in cahoots with the NYT to keep Rohde's kidnapping a secret, reportedly in order to increase his chances of survival. (explanation, from the NYT)
3. In 2005 the Wikipedia page for John Seigenthaler, Robert Kennedy's Administrative Assistant in the 1960s, was edited claiming the man was connected to the Kennedy assassination. The offending information was removed at Seigenthaler's request by Wikipedia administration. (in his own words)
4. More humorously, in 2006 Stephen Colbert encouraged users of Wikipedia to log on to the site and edit articles on elephants to indicate that their population had tripled in the last six months. Not long after, nearly 20 articles on the site had been accordingly vandalized and had to be locked. Colbert's account was also blocked. (more details)
I could probably hunt up various other examples of shenanigans and outright vandalism of more a more sinister kind if I liked, but this probably suffices. It is certainly enough to show why the founders and key players at Wikimedia Foundation would be thinking about moving towards a moderation model. Still, are these good enough reasons to fundamentally change the spirit that has gotten Wikipedia where it is today?
The original NYT article argues that given Wikipedia's significance and ubiquity it is critical that it be carefully moderated to avoid the kinds of issues I listed above. There is a genuine fear here that false information could quickly be spread with no oversight. Those obituaries quoting Jarre from Wikipedia certainly did not bother to do any significant source checking resulting in misinformation on Wikipedia suddenly being backed up by seemingly more powerful sources.
That's relatively compelling at first glance, but should Wikipedia necessarily be picking up the slack for decidedly lazy reporting? I don't think so, and to play devil's advocate, I think a restricted, moderated Wikipedia is flawed in some significant ways.
Firstly, Wikipedia was initially created as an experiment, if you will, to see what would result if you created a free encyclopedia run by volunteers that anyone, literally anyone, could edit. The result? The most popular source of information on the internet today. Whenever you google for something, the first results are nearly always from Wikipedia. That's a testament to the power of that initial experiment. In a way, it proves it worked.
Would moderating content change that? Yes, in some ways it will. Now the power to actually update the information will lie in the hands of an elite group of editors, specially selected. That creates a barrier to entry for some folks. It also means that all the power lies in these people's hands. Not to jump to conclusions, but imagine what this would mean if that group of editors had a particular political bend. The information making it onto the site may well turn out to be biased.
Is that a reasonable risk? What about all that potentially false information that gets out there when there isn't any moderation? Well, I for one want to lean towards the side of openness. What we forget about in the stories above is that they were eventually revealed, reported on and corrected. Potentially there are examples that were not, but what's wonderful about every Wikipedia article is that there is this often overlooked tab: "discussion". Here there's a running conversation on why certain edits were made and debates about whether something should be changed. It can get down to pointless minutia, but what's wonderful about it is we all have access to see those discussions. Add in a moderation level, and we have no idea what changes were proposed, which were rejected, and why.
There is actually another, mid-point solution. You can have openness + moderation, and I think this is a good direction to go. Envision this: a user submits an edit on an article. As soon as they click save, it's viewable to the whole Wikipedia viewing public, with one difference, it's visually denoted as being a pending, unverified change. As soon as the moderators have a chance - they can clear it for permanent inclusion, or reject it. Rejected edits should be saved and viewable and should always be shown with the reason for the rejection.
I fully understand the reason for wanting moderation. It's a natural progression for any online community as it grows to critical mass. Still, the openness of Wikipedia has always been a fundamental part of it's ethos and power. You don't have to give that up necessarily. In fact, you shouldn't have to give it up at all.