This week Facebook is holding a developers’ conference, F8, in San Francisco, and they are using the occasion to announce some big changes. Now, Facebook is well known for being in a constant state of development, not just adding new features but also removing older ones that have become obsolete or undesirable. One of the big announcements is that Facebook is launching a feature called Community Pages — all of those TV shows, movies, books, bands and brands now have their own pages, kind of like the Fan Pages which have largely replaced Groups in recent years.*
This new feature has already been compared to Wikipedia, and with very good reason: Facebook has tried to answer the “empty room” problem by pre-populating the Community Pages with Wikipedia entries. Let’s turn to the 1996 David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest again for illustrative purposes — click the link following to visit the Facebook Community Page for Infinite Jest, or see below:
That one can now read Wikipedia on Facebook is quite a big deal. Wikipedia is already one of the world’s top 10 websites (between fifth and eighth, depending) and now its content is being made available on the world’s single-most visited website. Needless to say, the Wikimedia Foundation is quite happy to dispel any reporters’ suspicions that they are unhappy with this development.
But that’s just part of the story. Look up to the right-hand corner for another potentially very significant aspect of this — here, let me zoom in and draw a little red box for you:
That’s right — as the headline on this blog post already gave away — you can now edit Wikipedia directly through Facebook. Or to be more accurate, one can easily access Wikipedia’s editing page through Facebook. Amidst all of the recent discussion of Wikipedia’s alleged participatory decline (very much disputed by Wikimedia) this could be a good thing: Facebook has just created a brand new channel for absolutely anyone who is a member of Facebook (that’s more than 400 million worldwide) to edit Wikipedia. At the very least, it is likely to have more impact on Wikipedia than just its increased visibility on Facebook. Most of these editors are likely to be unregistered “IP editors” — meaning they are identified by their IP address, because they have no user account — and the question of whether IP editors are beneficial to Wikipedia is open to debate. Perhaps the present number of unregistered editors is just fine now, but a new influx of amateur editors (some of whom are surely vandals) could tip the balance. Time will tell.
Time will also bring us a key aspect of the Community Page feature, announced but not yet available:
That is the chance to edit / curate Community Pages themselves. In fact, right now each Community Page features Wikipedia in two tabs: Info and Wikipedia. While the Wikipedia tab appears set to mirror Wikipedia (and this is where the above-highlighted Edit button lives) the Info tab merely uses Wikipedia as a starting point. And this may end up mitigating the impact of Facebook’s direct line to Wikipedia edit pages: the option to edit Facebook will be more prominent, and one expects, less likely to be phased out in future development.
Facebook hasn’t offered many details, and I think they may be in for a nasty surprise. Wikipedia stays as clean as it does in part due to the tireless efforts of the volunteer Recent changes patrol (i.e. vandal patrol) but Facebook is unlikely to gather such a community of watchers. Instead they will have to rely upon individuals who are members of those Community Pages. Yeah, if anyone messes with Back to the Future (or Infinite Jest) I’ll kick their teeth in, but I’m not like most. I’m guessing Facebook hasn’t yet figured out how to make this work without it becoming anarchy — not only is the Wikipedia community a unique thing, the site’s policies and guidelines were not written overnight. Facebook should emulate Wikipedia where they can, and they should probably impose strict controls where they can’t, lest they become a repository for threats, libel and bitter acrimony. It may well become that in any case.