On Friday afternoon, I joined a panel of guests on the nationally-syndicated KCRW talk show To the Point with Warren Olney. My co-panelists included: Andrew Lih, who may be familiar to readers of this blog either as a Wikipedia editor or as author of The Wikipedia Revolution; Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin, who has written about Wikipedia’s apparent decline in active editors; and Lee Siegel, invited as a critic of Wikipedia and its processes. (Listen to the whole episode here.)
The ostensible topic was the new experiment with Pending changes, described by The Telegraph here, although these paragraphs appeared in opposite order there:
“[V]andalism” has been a particular problem for the online encyclopedia in recent years. The pages of some prominent figures, including Senator Edward Kennedy, were maliciously and falsely edited to claim that the subject of the Wikipedia page had died, when in fact they were alive and well. Many Wikipedia pages dealing with controversial topics have also been repeatedly edited by users with a vested interest in promoting a particular view about the incident or event.
The new system, known as pending changes, means that users will be able to submit changes for previously locked or protected articles. These suggested amendments will then be reviewed by senior editors before the changes go live.
It’s important to note that the new system only applies to about 2,000 articles during this trial run, and does not apply to anyone who has had an active account for more than a few days (a fairly low barrier to “autoconfirmed” status, if you ask me). I wrote about this last summer, when it was first announced and still called “flagged revisions” and at that time I thought the reaction was
roughly divisible into four quadrants: those who mourn Wikipedia’s openness vs. those who will continue to question Wikipedia’s reliability, with those who are optimistic about the change vs. those who are not.
That is probably still operative, but with the program just rolling out in the past few days, there is a related yet more specific dynamic — a disagreement not about what will happen but what has already: do Pending changes make Wikipedia more open or more closed? An unscientific survey of recent headlines at least tells us which opinion is more pervasive:
- ReadWriteWeb: “Wikipedia to Loosen Controls Tonight”
- Slashdot: “Wikipedia To Unlock Frequently Vandalized Pages”
- Resource Shelf: “New “Pending Changes” System Test Begins on Wikipedia, Will Make It Easier for Users to Edit/Change Controversial Entries”
- Motherboard.tv: “‘Pending Changes’: A Looser Wikipedia”
- ComputerWorld: “Wikipedia confronts downside of ‘Net openness”
- BBC: “Wikipedia unlocks divisive pages for editing”
In this summary, at least, only ComputerWorld comes at it from the “more closed” standpoint. (Did you notice that a good amount of the coverage so far has been from the British press? Yeah, so did I.) In a blog post summarizing the radio segment, Lih gave his view:
[M]y view is that the characterization of “pending changes” is relative. Julia Angwin, who I think is a great tech journalist, is of the opinion it represents an overall more closing-off of Wikipedia, and the move is an affirmation of a more conventional process that created traditional encyclopedias. On the other hand, folks like Jimmy Wales have regarded this as opening up — instead of having articles locked completely using full-protection, or to limit editing to existing registered and “aged” users by semi-protection, pending changes gives a way for anyone and everyone to participate, even if those edits are not completely viewable until later. Relative to full protection, it’s more open. Relative to the Wild West wiki way, it’s more closed.
Meanwhile on Wikipedia, a small group of dedicated programmers has been working to make it possible, the discussion has quieted down over the past few days. Wikipedia, it seems, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
As for the show itself, Lih and Angwin handled most of this material, while I was enlisted to do battle with Siegel. And this was quite an opportunity, given Siegel’s notoriety for having sock-puppeted his own blog in 2006, but in the end I kept it focused on Wikipedia. I still said he lived in a fantasy world, and then he said I lived in a fantasy world. Even so, I still should’ve stuck the knife in. And I even gave myself the opportunity, bringing up comment sections on blogs at one point. The fact of the matter is, few people are as wrong-headed about the Internet’s influence on society as Siegel, whose professional curmudgeonry seems as much personal pique as considered commentary.
So I will use the experience to remember that politeness isn’t always the best policy, and leave you with these thoughts from Denny Green: