Wikipedia's new editing policy isn't the end of the encyclopedia's democratic age.

Inside the Internet.
Sept. 2 2009 12:02 PM

Masters of the Wikiverse

Wikipedia's new editing policy isn't the end of the encyclopedia's democratic age. It's business as usual.

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This wiki-oligarchy presents its own sort of dangers. The movers and shakers of Wikipedia are largely hidden from public view and unaccountable for editorial decisions. It is fairly easy for one person to establish sovereignty over a less-trafficked page through sheer persistence and a solid command of the site's Byzantine rules for resolving disputes. For example, consider the curious case of sports writer Rick Reilly's affinity for tooth jokes, which my colleague Josh Levin chronicled last December. Levin's story made it into  Reilly's Wikipedia page, where it was removed by a user who turned out to be Reilly's PR representative. The page's edit history tells the rest of the story: Someone reinserted a reference to the tooth article, someone else removed it again, someone else added it back, and finally a user named Dayewalker, who has made well more than 1,000 edits on Wikipedia, weighed in: "[H]umorous personal analysis of his style from a dental perspective is undue, and unsuitable for an encyclopedia. Please discuss on talk page and try and gain consensus." No one took up the fight, and Reilly's page remains free of Levin's critique.

Wikipedia is surely full of these little omissions, some of which have a lot more teeth than Rick Reilly's taste in figurative language. The hegemony of the devoted guardians of Wikipedia, the vast majority of whom have the best of intentions, is the price we pay for a site with such breadth and startling accuracy. Wikipedia isn't the Web's largest, most popular reference work because it adheres to the ideals of Web 2.0. It's become so pervasive because it's free, turns up high in Google searches, is easy to parse, has entries on just about everything, and, most importantly, is almost always right. (Where else can you turn for a convenient list of which characters get killed in every episode of The Sopranos?) As long as this remains true, people will continue reading it.

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While it's not quite right to say that the move to flagged revisions is a sign that Wikipedia is coming of age, it is true that the encyclopedia is maturing. At this point, the site is no longer growing at exponential rates. The PARC research team found that edits to the site have plateaued in the last 18 months, having peaked around January 2007. While Wikipedia is certainly still growing, it appears that a larger percentage of the work is devoted to maintaining its current quality—something the flagged revision policy aims to make easier.

My guess is that you wouldn't notice the difference in Wikipedia even if the site restricts editing on a huge number of pages. There would be fewer embarrassing or harmful wiki-scandals, like when the site briefly reported on the day of President Obama's inauguration that Sens. Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd had both died. (Both had health problems that day but survived.) Sure, the site would lose a little responsiveness, though probably not much. Stats from the German Wikipedia, where this policy is already widely in place, suggest that most edits are approved or denied quickly, with a median lag of about six-and-a-half hours. Covering breaking news has never been Wikipedia's strong suit, anyway. That's why we have newspapers—for now.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.