The council of elders that runs Wikipedia confirmed last week that, sometime soon, the unwashed masses will no longer be able to directly edit the profiles of famous living people. The proposed policy, first reported by the New York Times and later clarified by the Wikimedia Foundation, would require an ordained Wikipedia editor to approve changes before they become visible. This was widely reported as a stress fracture in Wikipedia's sacred anyone-can-edit architecture. Fast Company painted it as Wikipedia's coming of age. A commenter on Slashdot compared the move to "Lenin abolishing free elections."
Cooler heads were quick to cast the policy as a fairly minor revision to Wikipedia's existing defense mechanisms. Currently, anyone can edit most pages without even signing up for a username, in which case the IP address is logged with the changes. Pages that are prone to vandalism, like those for Jesus, George W. Bush, and episodes of iCarly, are protected so that greener users can't edit them. Still, the bar for access is not terribly high. To edit a protected page, you need to register a username, wait four days, and make at least 10 edits to unprotected pages. Wikipedia's new proposed policy, called "flagged protection," gets rid of this detox period and requires that unregistered users have their edits approved by a more seasoned Wikipedian. (The Wikimedia Foundation hasn't clearly defined how you get to be a reviewer who can approve edits.)
Wikipedia brass says that the site's new rules will apply only to pages for high-profile living people who are most likely to be harmed by misinformation. Unapproved edits will still be visible for users who sign in, though most Wikipedia browsers probably won't take that step.
No matter how you spin this new policy, there's no getting around that it gives more power and control to a small group of people. But if this were a big problem, Wikipedia would have flopped a long time ago. As I've argued before, the encyclopedia's success is largely due to the devoted efforts of a small number of obsessive editors, many of whom are quick to undo the work of trespassing newcomers. Rather than a signal Wikipedia's coming of age or a shift away from democracy, these new rules merely formalize, for certain pages, what's already happening on the site.
Take, for example, the extensive analysis of the Wikipedia ecosystem by Ed Chi and his colleagues at the Palo Alto Research Center. About half of all edits, they found, come from users who have made at least 100 changes to the site, and 20 percent of edits come from those who have made 1,000 or more changes. (See the graph here.) On the other end, Chi and company found that by the end of 2008, first-time users had a 25 percent chance of having their change to Wikipedia undone by someone else. (That doesn't include changes that are obvious vandalism.) That figure dropped to around 15 percent for the user's next eight edits. Users who've made more than 100 edits, meanwhile, have their fixes undone 1 percent of the time.