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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pending Changes finally released on Wikipedia

Yesterday night, Wikipedia released a momentous change to its software that has never before been experimented on the English version of the free online encyclopedia: pending changes. The new feature, which in its full usage is actually called flagged revisions, allows unregistered editors to edit articles previously protected from editing. Let me explain. In the previous system, if a controversial article, such as George Bush, has been subject to extensive vandalism, where unregistered users insert libelous content into the article, then the article would be "protected". This means that unless that user registers a username on Wikipedia, and then waits a defined amount of time, they will be disallowed from editing that article. Many Wikipedia editors have seen this treatment as a big turn-off for new editors, and have looked for a way to be more inviting and welcoming.

With pending changes, if an article is under pending changes protection, anybody, including unregistered users, can make changes to the article as usual, but the changes are not made public. That is, if an anonymous user comes in and edits the article, it will save, but the world will not yet be able to see it. In the next step, a reviewer (the new user right introduced by this software extension) comes along and accepts the pending change. Only then can the edit become public. It is essentially the exact same thing as protection except instead of totally rejecting anonymous edits, they just have to be reviewed before going live. This new feature is currently in a two-month trial, and is limited to 2000 articles in order to see how the feature plays out.

Up until now, I have portrayed this feature as a wonderful improvement to Wikipedia that everybody should be cheering about (or at least that's how it sounded like I portrayed it). It's actually quite the opposite. While in theory this seems like a great idea, allowing users to still edit articles while maintaining Wikipedia's integrity, an important question arises: who are these reviewers? As with any online communities, if you hand out power, such as reviewing rights, in the wrong way, cliques of editors develop, and it becomes impossible to introduce new points of view into an established article. Luckily, the feature is only in a trial phase, so worst comes to worst it will be disabled in two months. But if it becomes permanent, I would have serious concerns over the integrity of Wikipedia's articles, especially when it comes to the neutral point of view that is supposed to be expected from all of its articles.

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