The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia is planning to follow the lead of its German arm and introduce a feature aimed at stamping out virtual vandalism on the English pages of its site.
The move, which signifies the biggest change made to the public-participation encyclopaedia since its inception in 2001, will require all edits to entries on living persons to be approved by authorized editors.
When it first launched, Wikipedia granted anyone and everyone the same unfettered right to add to or amend an entry on the Web-based encyclopaedia, a principle of openness that helped make the site one of the ten most popular on the entire Web.
But a number of incidences of online vandalism have forced Wikipedia to take slightly greater control of the reins.
Article amendments made by anonymous users with no editing track record will be flagged for revision. This means that when readers open a freshly altered entry they will be given the choice of looking at the old and the new version, but will be made aware that the latter is awaiting review by an official editor.
Shutting out vandals
Wikipedia spokesman Jay Walsh told the AFP news agency that the time delay between flagging and editor viewing could itself act as a deterrent to vandals seeking to malign and defame high-profile public figures.
Graffiti is as much an online as a real world problem
"Basic factors suggest that most people who have ill intent are looking for rapid satisfaction," Walsh said. "They come in and they want to be jerks; just like vandalism or graffiti in the real world. The new feature removes that immediacy."
Walsh said volunteers are currently putting the software through its paces before it becomes an official part of the English-language Wikipedia profile.
Yet for all its newness to articles in English, the German language site has been test-driving the software for the past year.
Raimond Spekking, software developer for the online encyclopaedia said Wikipedia Deutschland introduced the feature to satisfy the demands of the German-language readership.
"We didn't want visitors to the site to be reading vandalized articles," Spekking told Deutsche Welle. "We wanted to show them they were protected."
Keeping it clean
German language editors have their work cut out for them
And the German-speaking Wiki community responded to the outcome well. "We ran a survey after the introduction and more than two thirds of people said they wanted us to continue with it."
So continue they have. There are currently almost 7,500 editors working on the reviewing process, and although it is voluntary work, becoming a member of the team requires a certain amount of commitment.
"Users who make at least 300 edits in 60 days automatically qualify to become editors," Spekking explained. "Or if they cannot manage that, they can make an application and do just 200 edits in 60 days."
And unlike the proposed changes to articles in English, the German site does not restrict the business of flagging and reviewing to entries about living people, but applies it across the board.
The idea there is not only to minimize the risk of potential damage to big names but to lessen the likelihood that obscenities or falsehoods of any description make their way to the public under the Wikipedia name.
But opponents to the planned new editing feature say that very name has another responsibility, and that is to remain true to its democratic roots.
Wikipedia still open
Barack Obama's Wikipedia article is currently "locked"
Spekking said such criticism was rife among German-speaking users around the time Wikipedia Deutschland launched its revision software, but he says there really is nothing to get worked up about.
"Articles can still be edited by anybody," he said, adding that the practice actually means it is possible to 'unlock' pages which have been closed to edits from the public on the grounds that they are at particularly high risk of vandalism.
And from this point of view, proponents argue, the proposed changes actually open the site further.
"People have a perception that Wikipedia is straight forward, it's open and belongs to everyone," said Jay Walsh. "That is true and it is not changing."
Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Kate Bowen