Tue 25 Aug 2009
The NY Times is reporting that the English language Wikipedia will soon moved to a "flagged revisions" system by which edits to articles about living people will have to be approved by a more experienced editor before they appear on the live site. This system has been tested for about a year on the German language Wikipedia. On that site, an "experienced editor" is someone who's crossed a threshold of number of successful edits. There were about 7,500 of them in the German case, and there are likely to be an order of magnitude more in the English Wikipedia.
The NY Times article notes that:
Although Wikipedia has prevented anonymous users from creating new articles for several years now, the new flagging system crosses a psychological Rubicon. It will divide Wikipedia’s contributors into two classes — experienced, trusted editors, and everyone else — altering Wikipedia’s implicit notion that everyone has an equal right to edit entries.
In reality, those classes have been present for some time now. As part of my dissertation research I've been interviewing less experienced Wikipedians about their perceptions of the site. One constant theme has been the perception of a class system in Wikipedia. Casual editors worry that their edits aren't good enough, and that they'll be rebuked by Wikipedia's upper-classes. They perceive a mystical group of higher-order contributors who make Wikipedia work. They believe that the barrier to entry is high and that they don't know enough about how the system works even to make small edits. Partly I think this is a function of the increasing complexity of the Wikipedia system. Partly it's because of Wikipedia's increasing stature – less experienced users feel the consequences of their actions, when so many millions read the site each day.
I also think classism is something that Wikipedia's heavy-editor community actively cultivates. The NY Times notes the work of Ed Chi at PARC. Ed and he colleagues have done some really interesting work. Among other things, they've noticed a trend towards resistance to new content. In a recent paper presented at GROUP, Tony Lam and his colleagues found that the rate of article deletions is growing, and that most articles are deleted shortly after they are created. Wikipedia has a core of frequent editors who zealously guard their territory, sometimes actively discouraging newcomers, and enforcing complicated and arcane policies in ways that can reduce new participation. The ideology of Wikipedia is a level playing field in which everyone has a voice, but the practice of it is often far from that ideal.
This latest move is troubling in that it seems to represent a lack of faith in crowdsourcing and the wisdom of crowds, in the model that made Wikipedia what it is today. This change will also remove another of the important social-psychological incentives that draw new people into the Wikipedia fold: the instant gratification that comes from seeing your work reflected on a Wikipedia page. There will certainly be many papers written on the before-after comparison, and I suspect we'll see significant changes in the dynamics of the site, at least for the pages that will see this change.