My article [available here on the blog or here on the BBC] about Wikipedia and the plans by the German edition to put new editorial controls in place on their edition on the site seems to have been taken by some of those involved as an attack on the site and its philosophy, at least if the postings to the English-language mailing list WikiEN-l are typical. This is a shame, since I’m on their side and thought that what I’d written was supportive, although definitely not sycophantic. Unfortunately it seems that anything less than complete approval of whatever happens inside the Wikimedia Foundation is an act of treachery, so you’d better mark me down as an apostate and draft the fatwa…
It all started so reasonably. After my article appeared on the BBC site Joe Anderson posted a message, ‘WTF Have I Missed’, in which he said the piece had ‘got my concern. Editorial control on the Wikipedia? What exactly have I missed?’. This then prompted a sensible and interesting debate about what precisely was being proposed, until Kelly Martin, a long-time administrator, decided to intervene by posting:
You basically missed the fact that Bill Thompson is fond of talking out of his ass.
Mark’s description of what German is going to be testing is not accurate. Anonymous users will still be permitted to make all the edits they want. The system that German is going to be testing will simply limit the impact that anonymous EDITORS have on anonymous READERS by changing which version of an article is displayed by default.
And later Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, known to his friends as ‘Jimbo’, decided I was worthy of attention and posted
The journalist is typical of bad journalists. Running with only the slimmest of understanding, he pukes out his biases about how the world works with little concern for underlying facts.
Fortunately for us all, there are also good journalists.
Which hurt, perhaps because I’m very sympathetic and supportive of Wikipedia, and think that it’s a massively important project that needs as much support as it can get. Of course I also believe that it needs critical friends who will point out what is wrong, or potentially wrong, who will speak truth to this particular power (unlike those who are happy to write hagiography, it seems) and such things are, evidently, unacceptable.
Since my article was based on what I’d read about the plans – and since I’m not a Wikipedia insider this was necessarily incomplete – it was in part an attempt to explore the implications of what was being proposed. And it seems that the details are not exactly as I described them – but that’s fine, I’m happy to accept that I made a mistake and will correct it where I can.
So while I wrote that ‘Under the new approach page edits will no longer be immediately applied to pages but will instead have to be approved by an administrator before they become visible. Vandalism or changes which are not approved will not appear.’ It now seems that this doesn’t reflect the plan as it is currently envisaged. Amgine, who kindly responded to my email asking for more details, says that she understands that the plan is ‘to have a flag on one revision in the history of an article which is known to not be vandalised, and readers who are not logged in to the software would be shown this version first, with a link to the “work-in-progress” version at the top of the article.’ The most recently edited and potentially vandalised article may not appear, but it will be there and could be seen by users if they wish.
This is a more subtle and, I’d agree, defensible approach. However it does introduce a new layer of editorial control and so my final point, that ‘putting more and more steps between editing and publishing risks damaging that sense of engagement and, as a result, could rapidly diminish Wikipedia’s usefulness’, still holds. This particular change may not be the one that breaks the contract between contributors and the Wikipedia, but it is definitely a step towards an editorially controlled future, and I think I was justified in pointing this out, not least because it’s a future I want to avoid.
It’s a shame that Kelly Martin and Jimmy Wales couldn’t bother to try to engage with me or offer any feedback to my comments, preferring instead to present me to the large number of WikiEN-l readers as someone who ‘is fond of talking out of his ass’ and a bad journalist. I can take it – I wouldn’t be engaging in a public forum if I couldn’t – but I’m sure that there are a lot of people who would be intimidated by such comments, or by the direct and unsubstantiated criticism from a major figure, and who might think twice about offering even helpful criticism in future.
Fortunately I don’t care what Wales thinks of me. Last time we met, at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, he was happy to accept a drink from me at the Global Voices party, and keen to hear about the just-announced plans for the $100 laptop. He clearly liked the idea of putting Wikipedia on the laptop which I suggested to him at that party, and he seemed to like me. It seems that he didn’t know that I’d much rather write what I think than be friends with anyone.
After all, I’m a hack – it’s what we do.