Wikipedia: The Platform Evolves

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Noam Cohen, writing in the NYTimes, reports that when Wikipedia’s volunteer editors gather in Buenos Aires for their annual Wikimania conference this week, a hot topic will be a new editing procedure:

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.

That right was never absolute, and the policy changes are an extension of earlier struggles between control and openness.

There is little doubt the debate will be passionate, but that’s exactly as it should be. Eight years into the incredible success of Wikipedia, long one of the 10 most popular sites on the Web, many of us still don’t understand it.

Wikipedia was and will always be one of the first sites to manifest the power of an emerging media modality. That is, as Clay Shirky says:

Media is moving from a source of information to a site of action. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly… those freedoms were treated separately. Because they were different things. To speak is not necessarily to publish and to publish is not to gather. Now we have a medium where all three of those freedoms are available in one place. And they’re broadly available.

Shirky’s no cyber-Utopian. He knows the dark side of technology and the damage bringing any and every like-minded group together can do:

This isn’t a side-effect of the Internet. This is an effect of the Internet… It’s not just an improvement to contemporary society. It’s a challenge to it. We’re going to have new negative effects as well as positive effects. The question is, how do we experiment enough that we know we’ve found what works.

One of the things we know that the Internet does is it lowers the cost of failure. Not the likelihood of failure. It enables us to fail more and to learn more. So the social imperative is to simply try a lot of things. We’ve got to figure out how to pull out the good stuff and how to react to the bad stuff.

With these changes, Wikipedia is reacting to the bad stuff. It’s experimenting. It’s time:

The new system comes as some recent studies have found Wikipedia is no longer as attractive to first-time or infrequent contributors as it once was.

Ed H. Chi of the Palo Alto Research Center in California, which specializes in research for commercial endeavors, recently completed a study of the millions of changes made to Wikipedia in a month. He concluded that the site’s growth (whether in new articles, new edits or new contributors) hit a plateau in 2007-8.

For some active Wikipedia editors, this was an expected development — after so many articles, naturally there are fewer topics to uncover, and those new topics are not necessarily of general interest.

But Mr. Chi also found that the changes made by more experienced editors were more likely to stay up on the site, whereas one-time editors had a much higher chance of having their edits reversed. He concluded that there was “growing resistance from the Wikipedia community to new content.”

To other observers, the new flagging system reflects Wikipedia’s necessary acceptance of the responsibility that comes with its vast influence.

“Wikipedia now has the ability to alter the world that it attempts to document,” said Joseph Reagle, an adjunct professor of communications at New York University and one of a half-dozen scholars to earn a Ph.D. in Wikipedia studies (itself a discussion topic at Wikimania).

The thousands of volunteer Wikipedian editors take their responsibility seriously. Flagged revisions may or may not work. What’s best about it is that the Wikipedia editorial community will watch and wonder about and debate it. And if it should not succeed, they will try and try again.

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