The truth about Wikipedia's flagged revisions

The truth about Wikipedia's flagged revisions

According to blogs such as Citmedia and mainstream news outlets like CNN and the New York Times, Wikipedia will soon begin requiring that all changes to articles on living people be approved by an aristocracy of established editors before going live. The move has been criticized in almost all these stories. I was working on an article criticizing the move myself when I learned something interesting: the story is false. In this article, I will try to explain what is really happening.

Wikipedia's open policy to editing has allowed impressive growth and responsiveness. In fact, it has proven so responsive that information---of celebrity deaths, for example---is sometimes posted before it happens. The resulting bad publicity and lawsuits have led to a lot of discussion in the Wikipedia community about how to address the problem. The current confusion appears to stem from a New York Times article that conflates two of the approaches suggested by the community.

Two approaches

The first is called "flagged protection". When this feature is enabled for an article, edits are possible but they will not be visible to the general public until an established editor flags the article as free of vandalism. This approach---the one discussed in the media---has been around for quite a while. It was adopted by the German-language Wikipedia in 2008 and following some high profile vandalism in January 2009, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales strongly advocated its adoption on the English version.

The second approach is called "patrolled revisions". It uses the same flagging system as the first but the flags are informational only; edits go live immediately but visitors can see whether the article has been vetted or not.

Both of these are provided by installing an extension to the current Wikipedia software called "flagged revisions".

What really happened

The Wikipedia community agreed to a trial run which entails installing the software extension and combining the two above approaches. Currently, certain high profile articles are locked: no unregistered or new users can edit them. The trial will replace article locking with flagged protection. This will actually open Wikipedia further by allowing new and unregistered users to suggest changes where they could not before. The trial will also have patrolled revisions applied to articles on living people. The trial proposal document is titled "Flagged protection and patrolled revisions" which should not be confused with an earlier proposal entitled "Flagged revisions trial".

As I'm sure you've guessed by now, the whole misunderstanding was just a mistake based on confusing names.

This case provides an interesting example of how fast misinformation can spread. The New York Times article was published on August 24th. The next day it was cited in numerous blogs and within one more it was being discussed on CNN. It also highlights how quickly the media (old and new) move on to a new subject. The Wikimedia Foundation issued a clarification---which initially contained the same mistake itself---on the 26th and my research has only turned up a single blog post that cites it.

This phenomenon will continue to pose a problem in the future. Hopefully we can find a way to alleviate it.