Wikipedia’s New Editorial Line of Defense

It appears that Wikipedia’s reputation as the Internet’s open source encyclopedia — where any and all can contribute — may itself be in need of some editing.

Media reports quote a spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation, which manages the user-generated site, as saying that the English-language version will soon start experimenting with designated editors to check for errors, vandalism and opinions sneaking their way into entries involving public figures still living. The new feature is already active on the German-language site; entries sit in private sections of the site’s servers until they pass the editing process, then they are posted to the public.

The role of editor will be filled by volunteers. While they will need to have some experience in the ways of Wikipedia, there’s no information available yet as to how much experience is required and other qualifications needed for the position. A LinuxInsider request for comment from the Wikimedia Foundation was not received by press time.

No date has been set yet for when the editing feature will be available on the English language version of Wikipedia, which so far boasts 3 million articles and more than 75,000 active users. The site claims it is visited 65 million times a month worldwide, and its entries place high on many Google Search results pages.

The Need for Credibility

It is precisely for that reason that Wikipedia needs to start using some new institutional safeguards, according David Domke, professor and chair at the University of Washington’s Department of Communications. “For anybody under the age of 25 to 30, it is considered the truth,” Domke told LinuxInsider. “I know for all my students it is THE source, so we have to disabuse them of that all the time. But maybe we don’t five years from now.”

That will depend on how well the site begins to edit its entries. Despite already having a system that “flags” questionable entries (“citation needed” is a common phrase found on Wikipedia) and a lock-out process for pages of high-profile persons like President Obama, some vandalism and inaccuracies still happen. Earlier this year, entries for U.S. Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd carried false death notices. A false quote attributed to recently deceased composer Maurice Jarre also made its way into an entry.

“I think Wikipedia got way bigger than anybody ever expected,” Domke said. “I think the folks who run it realized that they’ve got a cultural responsibility that it needs to honor. I think they recognize that if they want to play that role, not only for individuals but for institutions, they need to have institutional safeguards in place if they want to be taken seriously.”

The Danger of Open Source Backlash

The average user won’t complain about the changes, according to Kathy Gill, a senior lecturer who teaches graduate courses in the University of Washington’s Digital Media Program. However, “the open source community is incredibly idealistic, so yes, there will be a backlash — there always is,” she said.

A lot is riding, however, on how heavy-handed the editing process will turn out to be — and who is doing the editing. “The idea that anyone can edit will continue to prevail as long as the information that is edited is factual and not slandered,” Gill told LinuxInsider. “Wikipedia is a meritocracy, and my guess is that what you’re going to see is not necessarily people who have been with Wikipedia from the beginning, but people who have made contributions over time.”

That also means the volunteer editors may not have a background in journalism. “Editing here isn’t quite the same role as it would be with a newspaper or a book. It’s more of a curating position rather than rewriting words,” Gill said.

For Gill, the news indicates a benchmark in Wikipedia’s impact on the media universe — and a statement about some aspects of the human condition. “When I read about it yesterday, my first response was sadness because of what it says about human nature. Vandalizing a person’s bio is similar to writing graffiti on a building. I also think it’s an acknowledgment of the importance that the Web site has attained in culture as people turn to it as a source of information.”

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