Why More Wikipedia Editing Restrictions Are Inevitable, and Some Comments on Flagged Revisions for Living People’s Biographies

By Eric Goldman

I have posted my latest article, “Wikipedia’s Labor Squeeze and its Consequences,” to SSRN. The article will be published in the Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law in the relatively near future. The article is still in draft form, and I gratefully welcome your comments. Please take a look.

The article traces its roots to my Dec. 2005 prediction that Wikipedia will fail in 5 years. I have continued to blog informally about Wikipedia since then, but I only decided to write a more formal academic defense of my prediction late last year. This article is that defense, but you’ll notice that I don’t refer to “failure” in the article. In my presentations and earlier drafts of this article, I found that predicting Wikipedia’s “failure” produced very emotional responses that overwhelmed consideration of my argument’s merits. I still think my 2005 predictions look pretty good (using my self-selected definition of “failure”), but I deliberately directed the article towards the “why” rather than the “when.”

As a result, the article explains why evolutionary changes in Wikipedia’s labor supply is forcing Wikipedia to change its basic architectural design of permissive user editability. Flagged revisions is a prime example of the ongoing architectural shift. With flagged revisions, every user has the technical capacity to edit a Wikipedia entry, but submitted revisions remain hidden from public view until a trusted editor approves them for publication. Accordingly, flagged revisions significantly changes the Wikipedia experience. It delays publication of most contributions, it buries some contributions without ever being published at all, and it creates a significant workload for editors. For example, the German Wikipedia deploys flagged revisions site-wide and publication delays are up to three weeks.

Yesterday, Wikipedia announced that it is deploying Flagged Revisions for biographies of living people. Wikipedia has been on red alert with biographies since the John Seigenthaler incident in September 2005, so it’s not surprising that Wikipedia will tighten the reins there first.

However, I think this change is just one more intermediate step in Wikipedia’s ongoing process of restricting user editability, and it is not the final restrictive step Wikipedia will take. For reasons I outline in the article, I expect Wikipedia eventually will deploy Flagged Revisions, or some other stringent form of editorial lock-down, across the entire site, not just for living people’s biographies. I explore some other possible alternatives in the paper, but I conclude that substantial restrictions to user editability are Wikipedia’s only viable long-term solution to preserve site credibility.

People who have reviewed the article have asked about the article’s relationship to Benkler’s Wealth of Networks and its related commentary. Those works have explored the phenomenon and implications of large-scale online volunteerism, including a convincing proof that people will contribute their labor to online collaborative enterprises without any direct financial compensation. However, I’ve seen less attention paid to the exact reasons why people volunteer for these projects. My article focuses on the “why” in some detail, but even then, I make some assumptions and guesses. Despite extensive academic research into the Wikipedia community, we still lack a complete and clear empirical picture of why people join the community and, perhaps just as important, why people leave. I offer up my theoretical considerations, but more empirical work remains to be done.

If you want more discussion on this topic, during the paper’s development, I gave a talk at University of Colorado Boulder that sparked some online responses:

* the talk itself (in the middle of the video)

* Ars Technica coverage

* ZDNet’s paraphrase of the Ars Technica post

* p2pnet

* Blorge

* Thinking Spaces

* Futureismic

The presentation led to an NPR Interview with more comments and a response from What Jeff Learned Today.