Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wikipedia to Create a Two-Tier Class System...

Long a bastion of the "wisdom of the crowds" ethos, Wikipedia has announced that it is reversing course. No longer will anyone be able to edit entries. Instead, all articles about people will have to be approved by "experienced" editors before they are published.

Imposing this new layer of editorial review changes the very nature of the website itself. There are dozens of other online encyclopedias and reference sites like Citizendium that all require similar editorial approval. What made Wikipedia unique was the fact that anyone could write entries. It was a democratized process where everyone had the same capabilities.

Now, with this announcement, Wikipedia is creating a two-tier class system. As the New York Times pointed out, "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".

Of course, the old system was flawed. Nobody knew if the authoritative entry they were reading was actually written by a 7th-grader, and goodness knows that enough high school and college students were citing Wikipedia in their research papers to drive their professors mad.

But that was also part of Wikipedia's charm.

Members of the WikiMedia Foundation are defending their decision by arguing that the site needs to become more "mature and dependable". Michael Snow has been quoted as saying that, "There was a time probably when the community was more forgiving of things that were inaccurate or fudged in some fashion — whether simply misunderstood or an author had some ax to grind. There is less tolerance for that sort of problem now."

It's quite obvious that the decision to add a layer of editorial review is designed to give the site more credibility. However, two points must be made: 1) It is going to be pretty easy to game the system and make oneself an "experienced" editor, thereby failing to eliminate the underlying problem of biased activists co-opting the site, and 2) still no teacher or professor in their right mind is going to allow Wikipedia to be used as an authoritative source, thus rendering the site not-credible anyway.

Indeed, this decision "crosses a psychological Rubicon". Its likely to have little practical impact on the content of Wikipedia's pages, yet there is a general sense of disappointment in cyberspace. The "open" ideology has suddenly shifted.

Why do we feel like something significant has been lost?


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