The Great Wikipedia Debate: Pledging Allegiance to the Flag

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I mean great as in, really big, as opposed to, say, absolutely terrific.

As avidly as I follow the many subtle and well-tempered arguments in Wikipedia’s Village Pump section (yes, that was cheap sarcasm), I missed the fact that a few days ago Wikipedia jefe Jim Wales proposed an experiment: requiring that changes to Wikipedia pages be approved by an editor. People are calling this policy Flagged Revisions. The proposal was prompted by a couple of inaccurate edits to pages about Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, reporting that they had died. Which they hadn”t. The edits were fixed pretty quickly — a matter of minutes — but still. (By the way, it’s not clear to me whether this proposal applies to what Wikipedians call “BLPs” — biographies of living persons — or whether it goes for all articles.)

Apparently the German version of Wikipedia has been trying this for a few months, and it’s going all right, though German Wikipedia is a smaller article base, and there have been significant delays in getting flagged revisions approved.

This would be a fundamental change to the way Wikipedia grows and changes. The whole magnificent edifice of Wikipedia is like one of those deepwater crabs that can only survive within a very fine temperature range. Wikipedia is the product of dynamic equilibrium, maintained by a careful balance between anarchy and the rule of law. Too much anarchy and vandals run rampant. Too much law, and you throttle off popular participation; plus there’s the little matter of the biases of whoever’s enforcing the laws. This would definitely push the slider bar towards the law end.

Is there an eternal principle of freedom at stake here? It’s hard to imagine the Wikipedia editors becoming some kind of fascist cadre, ruthlessly suppressing the truth that would set us all free, 1984-style. Maybe the real question is just a practical one, whether or not Wikipedia should be a source for breaking news. Personally I don’t use it for that stuff — that’s why we have CNN and the wire services and all that. To me Wikipedia is an incredibly useful but relatively static resource for research, that at the best of times requires extensive bolstering and confirmation by more thoroughly vetted sources. If revisions were delayed a couple of weeks, that wouldn’t bother me at all.

But that’s probably why I don’t hang out at the Village Pump. I’m not sufficiently alarmist. There was a poll on Wikipedia intended to evaluate public opinion about Flagged Revisions. The result: 60 to 40 in favor. Which is great. Now all we have to do is resolve the debate over whether or not the poll was fair.