Category Archives: vandalism

wikipedia-britannica debate

The Wall Street Journal the other day hosted an email debate between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Encyclopedia Britannica editor-in-chief Dale Hoiberg. Irreconcilible differences, not surprisingly, were in evidence. Wales_Jimmy_gst09072006111650.jpg Hoiberg_Dale_gst09072006111650.jpg But one thing that was mentioned, which I had somehow missed recently, was a new governance experiment just embarked upon by the German Wikipedia that could dramatically reduce vandalism, though some say at serious cost to Wikipedia’s openness. In the new system, live pages will no longer be instantaneously editable except by users who have been registered on the site for a certain (as yet unspecified) length of time, “and who, therefore, [have] passed a threshold of trustworthiness” (CNET). All edits will still be logged, but they won’t be reflected on the live page until that version has been approved as “non-vandalized” by more senior administrators. One upshot of the new German policy is that Wikipedia’s front page, which has long been completely closed to instantaneous editing, has effectively been reopened, at least for these “trusted” users.
In general, I believe that these sorts of governance measures are a sign not of a creeping conservatism, but of the growing maturity of Wikipedia. But it’s a slippery slope. In the WSJ debate, Wales repeatedly assails the elitism of Britannica’s closed editorial model. But over time, Wikipedia could easily find itself drifting in that direction, with a steadily hardening core of overseers exerting ever tighter control. Of course, even if every single edit were moderated, it would still be quite a different animal from Britannica, but Wales and his council of Wikimedians shouldn’t stray too far from what made Wikipedia work in the first place, and from what makes it so interesting.
In a way, the exchange of barbs in the Wales-Hoiberg debate conceals a strange magnetic pull between their respective endeavors. Though increasingly seen as the dinosaur, Britannica has made small but not insignificant moves toward openess and currency on its website (Hoiberg describes some of these changes in the exchange), while Wikipedia is to a certain extent trying to domesticate itself in order to attain the holy grail of respectability that Britannica has long held. Think what you will about Britannica’s long-term prospects, but it’s a mistake to see this as a clear-cut story of violent succession, of Wikipedia steamrolling Britannica into obsolescence. It’s more interesting to observe the subtle ways in which the two encyclopedias cause each other to evolve.
Wales certainly has a vision of openness, but he also wants to publish the world’s best encyclopedia, and this includes releasing something that more closely resembles a Britannica. Back in 2003, Wales proposed the idea of culling Wikipedia’s best articles to produce a sort of canonical version, a Wikipedia 1.0, that could be distributed on discs and printed out across the world. Versions 1.1, 1.2, 2.0 etc. would eventually follow. This is a perfectly good idea, but it shouldn’t be confused with the goals of the live site. I’m not saying that the “non-vandalized” measure was constructed specifically to prepare Wikipedia for a more “authoritative” print edition, but the trains of thought seem to have crossed. Marking versions of articles as non-vandalized, or distinguishing them in other ways, is a good thing to explore, but not at the expense of openness at the top layer. It’s that openness, crazy as it may still seem, that has lured millions into this weird and wonderful collective labor.

the comissar vanishes

this photograph has been modified.
The Lowell Sun reports that staff members of Representative Marty Meehan (Democrat, Massachusetts) have been found editing the representatives Wikipedia entry. As has been noted in a number of places (see, for example, this Slashdot discussion), Meehan’s staff edited out references to his campaign promise to leave the House after eight years, among other things, and considerably brightened the picture of Meehan painted by his biography there.

Meehan’s staff editing the Wikipedia doesn’t appear to be illegal, as far as I can tell, even if they’re trying to distort his record. It does thrust some issues about how Wikipedia works into the spotlight – much as Beppe Grillo did in Italy last week. Sunlight disinfects; this has brought up the problem of political vandalism stemming from Washington, and Wikipedia has taken the step of banning the editing of Wikipedia by all IP address from Congress while they try to figure out what to do about it: see the discussion here.

This is the sort of problem that was bound to come up with Wikipedia: it will be interesting to see how they attempt to surmount it. In a broad sense, trying to forcibly stop political vandalism is as much of a political statement as anything anyone in the Capitol could write. Something in me recoils from the idea of the Wikipedia banning people from editing it, even if they are politicians. The most useful contribution of the Wikipedia isn’t their networked search for a neutral portrait of truth, for this will always be flawed; it’s the idea that the truth is inherently in flux. Just as we should approach the mass media with an incredulous eye, we should approach Wikipedia with an incredulous eye. With Wikipedia, however, we know that we need to – and this is an advance.