In a small but fundamental change to Wikipedia, a tool which protects articles from malicious vandalism while simultaneously permitting good-faith edits has gone live on the English Wikipedia.When a page under ‘pending changes’ protection is edited by a new user or a user without an account, the edit does not go live until it has been reviewed by a more experienced editor.
Edits made to Wikipedia articles are normally visible immediately.
The new tool is in contrast to the typical means of page protection on the online encyclopaedia, which, in the case of a flurry of vandalism to an article, completely locks it from being edited at all by new users.
Pending changes is already used on the second largest Wikimedia Foundation project, the German Wikipedia, but unlike the English one, on which pending changes can be assigned to and removed from pages that are frequently subjected to unconstructive edits, it’s applied to all articles by default.
This is a significant and long-awaited development. Wikipedia cannot remain the resource that it is if its four million-plus articles – the product of enormous amounts of volunteer time – are fair game.
At last, the burden for dealing with problematic edits is being shifted away from good-faith editors constantly having to challenge them, and onto those who make drive-by and contentious edits, who may now find themselves arguing the case for why their changes should even appear, let alone remain once already published, as they otherwise would.
There is already plenty of evidence within the project that suggests this is the only way forward. More and more experienced editors are inserting FAQ sections in the discussion pages of articles to save themselves from constantly dealing with the same questions and disputes, and at the top of the dispute resolution ladder, the Arbitration Committee has a large list of sanctions for various articles and topics, which can be applied to editors who don’t follow the rules.
But some might argue it’s much too little, much too late. Wikipedia has regrettably served as an anonymous platform to libel people, one which appealed to Johann Hari when he used it to describe people he didn’t like as alcoholics, anti-Semites, or homophobes.
Pending changes would not only have made it much more difficult for such edits to get through, but might even have diminished the incentive to make them in the first place if they didn’t appear immediately after submission.
And then there’s the matter of simply getting things right. If pending changes was enabled on all articles, would Lord Justice Leveson have inadvertently labelled a 25 year old Californian student as a founder of The Independent newspaper?
The fact that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone is arguably both the site’s best and worst aspect: without it, it wouldn’t be what it is. But with September 2012 seeing the lowest monthly level of new editors since September 2005, a laissez-faire attitude to content is no longer sustainable. Sharing knowledge is a worthy and appealing undertaking; baby-sitting its potentially fleeting presence in a digital no-man’s land, not so much.