Flagged protection and patrolled revisions
Misleading media storm over flagged revisions
The planned flagged protection and patrolled revisions trial received widespread media coverage, with over 500 related items appearing in Google News. Unfortunately, it appears that almost none of the media outlets accurately described the proposal as approved earlier this year. The disconnect between the proposal and the differing schemes described in the media prompted discussion among perplexed Wikipedians.
- See this week's backgrounder on flagged protection for much more.
In March 2009, a poll to discuss Wikipedia:Flagged protection and patrolled revisions was held, resulting in 79.9% of discussants in approval. The proposal was for a two-month trial of a specific configuration of mw:Extension:FlaggedRevs, an extension of the site software. "Patrolled revisions" is meant to be the more widely used part of the proposal. It would allow reviewers to flag a particular revision of an article as "patrolled". However, viewers would still see the most recent revision, but would be offered the option of viewing the "patrolled revision" instead. The proposal also allows administrators to use "flagged protection" instead of normal protection in cases where protection is merited. Under flagged semi-protection, for example, an anonymous user would see the most recent revision flagged by a reviewer, while all other users would see the most recent revision.
Rather confusingly, the March proposal differs from Wikipedia:Flagged revisions, under which a January poll was held to carry out a variety of trials. That poll failed to reach the percentage that had previously been stated to comprise consensus, and sparked controversy when User:Jimbo Wales appealed to the Wikimedia Foundation to turn on the Flagged Revisions extension 'upon his personal recommendation.' While mw:Extension:FlaggedRevs is the software that allows both Flagged revisions and Flagged protection and patrolled revisions, only the software configuration approved in the poll for the latter was approved for use on English Wikipedia. While Wales had stated in early March, "I'm shopping a very premature proposal around to a few people, looking for broad consensus. News to come soon", it appears to have been superseded by the flagged protection and patrolled revisions proposal. The Signpost noted as the March poll came to close, "It is yet to be seen whether Jimmy Wales will present his own compromise proposal to apply some form of flagged revisions to such biographies, as he indicated he would before the current proposal gained momentum." No such proposal to apply flagged revisions to BLPs as a class was ever put before the community, and the approved proposal states explicitly: "On the issue of biographies of living people, discussions have demonstrated the need to improve monitoring of these articles, and that flagging systems could help us to do so. But there is no consensus to use an active implementation (in which new edits are not shown to readers unless made by or flagged by trusted users) for all biographies of living people or an arbitrary subset of them, preemptively."
Since the end of the poll, English Wikipedia has been waiting for the developers to modify the FlaggedRevs extension to allow it to function as specified in the proposal. The most recent news before the media frenzy was on 23 August 2009, when the Wikimedia Tech blog noted, "A few highlights from the last week... Test wikis with Flagged Revisions and ReaderFeedback configurations have been set up to shake down UI and workflow before we prepare to deploy these extensions on English Wikipedia in the coming weeks."
Initial coverage and discussion
Media coverage began on 24 August with a The New York Times article by Noam Cohen, who regularly writes on Wikipedia issues.[fr 1] The assertions made in this article were largely echoed verbatim by hundreds of media outlets. The article states,
Officials at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit in San Francisco that governs Wikipedia, say that within weeks, the English-language Wikipedia will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people.
The new feature, called "flagged revisions", will require that an experienced volunteer editor for Wikipedia sign off on any change made by the public before it can go live. Until the change is approved—or in Wikispeak, flagged—it will sit invisibly on Wikipedia’s servers, and visitors will be directed to the earlier version.
The change is part of a growing realization on the part of Wikipedia’s leaders that as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace-the-chaos culture into something more mature and dependable...
"We are no longer at the point that it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks", said Michael Snow, a lawyer in Seattle who is the chairman of the Wikimedia board. "There was a time probably when the community was more forgiving of things that were inaccurate or fudged in some fashion—whether simply misunderstood or an author had some ax to grind. There is less tolerance for that sort of problem now...
Foundation officials intend to put the system into effect first with articles about living people because those pieces are ripe for vandalism and because malicious information within them can be devastating to those individuals...
"It is a test", said Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia. "We will be interested to see all the questions raised. How long will it take for something to be approved? Will it take a couple of minutes, days, weeks?"
(Full disclosure: Michael Snow (User:Michael Snow) is the founding editor-in-chief of The Wikipedia Signpost.)
The first on-wiki discussion to pick up The New York Times story was at Wikipedia talk:Flagged revisions, where a commenter professed, "I saw that article and am confused; will this policy only affect pages that would previously have been semi-protected? Or all pages about living people?" Cenarium, who had helped organize the March poll, stated, "No, the media don't get things right as usual with wp. It'll be applied only for pages meeting the requirements for semi-protection, only a little more liberally for BLPs because there's a limited admin discretion. This is what the community approved : Wikipedia:Flagged protection and patrolled revisions, nothing else."
BBC News was the next major media outlet to pick up the story, up on the 25th, stating, "in a couple of weeks" "[t]he site will require that revisions to pages about living people and some organisations be approved by an editor." Mike Peel of Wikimedia UK (User:Mike Peel) was quoted: "For these articles, flagged protection will actually make them more open", and that BLPs are targeted as the "most high-profile pages with the highest probability of causing harm."[fr 2][fr 3]
This BBC article prompted a discussion on the Administrators' noticeboard, where some users criticized the fact that this news had not been announced to the community before the media. Gavia immer asserted, "It is not particularly helpful to get these announcements in the press, filtered through so many levels of abstraction that one is left guessing what the original announcement was." DuncanHill characterized the update on the Wikimedia Techblog, which was eventually pointed to, as "announced prominently in a place that no-one will notice".
In the AN discussion, Mike Peel noted,
I should explain that nothing I've said today is new—it's all been based on what information I've gathered from on-wiki, and also from the mailing lists. There was no announcement of any sort. I've also basically been fire-fighting - the press have been phoning the UK press phone, and I've been answering their questions to the best of my ability... I'd also add that the decision to trial flagged revisions is an en.wp decision by the community.
The Associated Press, while repeating the "all BLPs will be locked" storyline, also offered some context: "The same flagging process, for example, has been imposed on all entries in the German-language Wikipedia for more than a year. On the English site, too, high-profile pages that are likely to be defaced, such as Michael Jackson's, have been tightly restricted."[fr 4] Agence France-Presse repeated "stalling edits to English articles about living people", and interviewed Jay Walsh (User:JayWalsh), Foundation head of communications, who stated, "This doesn't undo Wikipedia's democratic spirit. People have a perception Wikipedia is straight forward; it's open and belongs to everybody. That is true and is not changing."[fr 5] Deutsche Welle expanded on AFP coverage by focusing on the German angle. Mediawiki developer Raimond Spekking (User:Raymond) was interviewed on the German experience of their configuration of FlaggedRevs:
"We ran a survey after the introduction and more than two thirds of people said they wanted us to continue with it."...
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."...
Spekking said such criticism [that the feature was not true to the wiki ethos] 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. [fr 6]
Tech blogs, often well informed about Wikipedia matters, appeared to have some difficulty breaking free of the given narrative, with CNET actually linking to Wikipedia:Flagged protection and patrolled revisions in its almost correct statement, "Unlike the originally proposed 'flagged revisions' changes, the 'flagged protection and patrolled revisions' modifications would only apply to BLP articles." CNET further quotes Andrew Lih (User:Fuzheado), author of The Wikipedia Revolution and co-host of the Wikipedia Weekly podcast, who provided one of the few analyses based on the actual approved proposal that your writer found:
I would say the (real news is that) rather than seeing this as a lockdown of general articles--which it isn't--this has been developed as an alternative to full protection and semi-protection. It is an 'opening up' of sorts of...articles than have had to be locked down for awhile. So rather than semi-protection--newbies and anonymous people cannot edit--and full protection--only admins--this allows for these 'problem' articles to be re-opened up for editing, but providing a checking, or 'flagging' system to allow those edits to be screened.
The intent (of the) proposal, and I have to think that people will be faithful to that original premise, is that BLP was the motivation, and that the list of currently protected and semi-protected articles is the starting point, and straying too far off that path will be discouraged.[fr 7][fr 8]
Immediately after the news broke, User:Nihiltres posted an extensive explanation of the proposal to his blog. Nihiltres asserted "these plans are being critically misinterpreted by the media" and "there is more than enough fear, uncertainty and doubt around all things 'flagged revisions', and that is unhealthy for community discussions on how to run the project."[fr 9] This post became a basis for more accurate coverage by ReadWriteWeb.[fr 10] ReadWriteWeb also picked up a Foundation blog post by Erik Moeller (User:Eloquence), Deputy Director of Wikimedia Foundation, who linked to both the flagged protection and patrolled revisions proposal and March poll, while stating, "we hope to be able to deploy Flagged Revisions in production use on the English Wikipedia within 2–3 months." He also initially stated that flagged protection would be implemented on all BLPs. While the post was soon updated to reflect the approved proposal, Nihiltres commented, "Bah. The media has been widely misreporting this story, and I see that even this, official channel is making mistakes on it. Does the FlaggedRevs software have some kind of curse on it to be forever misunderstood?"[fr 11][fr 12]
The Independent offered an in-depth feature analyzing the pros and cons of flagged edits, concluding, "Inevitably, imposing restrictions on the freedom with which contributors can edit pages will inhibit some from doing so. ... there's no need to think that millions of other contributors—who take care on updating entries relating to butterfly migrations, or theories of time travel, for example—would be in any way disincentivised. Theories suggesting this may be the beginning of the end of Wikipedia therefore seem premature."[fr 13] Meanwhile, CNN interviewed Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, who "cheered Wikipedia's decision, because without rules like those the site is testing, the encyclopedia would devolve 'into chaos,' she said. ... "It would basically be like a wall of graffiti in a bathroom... It's not going to be a very high level of discourse." CNN also interviewed Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb, who stated, "As things get more and more popular online, some of these [Wikipedia-style] experiments realize they need to temper some of their experimental nature and learn from more traditional forms because they're just not sustainable.... It makes me shed a little tear, too, because presumably it will lead to a slowdown of new content creation, and it does seem like a departure from the essential nature of Wikipedia."[fr 14]
The PopWatch blog of Entertainment Weekly briefly got serious to comment, "On a practical level, this is a good decision: Accuracy and accountability are good things, and Wikipedia—like any other source—can always use more. On an abstract level, though, there’s part of me that wonders if this runs counter to the entire premise Wikipedia: The whole point was that it was a bottom-up process, not a top-down one", before directing readers to stand-up comic B. J. Novak's "Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Bicycle" routine.[fr 15]
The Guardian wrote an extensive editorial asserting,
Any alterations will soon have to be approved by one of an elite group of power editors before they go live. It is a modest step and a sensible one, fighting electronic vandalism and the temptation some feel to turn biographies into libellous diatribes, and yet it marks a sort of coming of age for the site. ... But the founding aim of the site was that anyone could change anything at any time and that all voices were equal: "Be Bold", it still urges all its users. Now Wikipedians have discovered that the wisdom of crowds cannot prevent the idiocy of individuals.[fr 16]
Larry Sanger (User:Larry Sanger), a co-founder of Wikipedia and founder of Citizendium, was interviewed for the The Irish Times: "'It’s been one of the sorest points, how the site has played fast and loose with people’s reputations. ... It’s nice to see they’re doing more—but one has to ask if this will make much difference at all.' Sanger adds that while the changes would probably prevent casual vandalism of articles, 'it’s going to be fairly easy to get around these barriers if someone really wants to start a rumour' about a famous person."[fr 17]
PC World took issue with another site's assertion that "this announcement affirms the limitation of serious user generated content on the Web and reaffirms the necessity for professional or dedicated curators to ensure quality of information and lack of self-dealing or self-interested postings."[fr 18] PC World writer opined, "I feel as though this is a necessary step in taking a Web site from the playground to the stadium. Wikipedia should now be taken more seriously, rather than taken with a grain of salt."[fr 19]
Bonnie Erbe (User:Bigspringswillson) of U.S. News & World Report, who apparently was dissatisfied with her own BLP, states, "It means at the very least that I'm hardly alone in having dealt with Web-lurkers who take aspects of one's bio that are not major markers of one's accomplishments and turn them into signature events in that person's life", and proposes, "Now, please consider changing the rules a bit further, so living persons have complete control over what is posted on their bio pages."[fr 20] In contrast, Dana Blankenhorn of ZDNet, who states, "I had a personal run-in with a Wikibully. Someone who didn’t care for me tore my reputation on Wikipedia to shreds", also asserts, "Like the Internet itself, like open source itself, Wikipedia is growing up. This is something to be celebrated. Regardless of what happens to your personal page."[fr 21]
The Register, which has over the years carved out a niche in sardonic criticism of Wikipedia, ended their article on a cautionary note: "A warning to celebrities: under the new policy of moderating articles of living people, fledgling Wikifiddlers can still tamper with your article—only now they have kill you [sic] first."[fr 22] Meanwhile, the Mail Online broke new ground with its assertions, "Wikipedia has been forced to abandon its policy of allowing anyone to edit its pages. An army of 20,000 unpaid 'expert editors' will be drafted in to check all changes to articles on living people before the pages go online. The move is a response to the hijacking of the site by those with political or personal motives", though this writer lamentably failed to identify the sourcing for the new claims.
Some non-Foundation Wikipedians appeared:
Coverage became more accurate as the week progressed. Four days after the New York Times piece, Public Radio International's The World made no mention of BLPs, instead featuring a BBC-conducted interview of Wales, who appeared to be describing the approved flagged protection proposal. Describing the current cutoff for autoconfirmed users at four days, Wales stated he foresaw the number of editors whose edits would immediately go live and who could review other's edits as being in the tens or hundreds of thousands.[fr 25]
Wikimedian reactions and development
A poll has been started to reach consensus on the criteria for the new reviewer usergroup. While the flagged protection and patrolled revisions proposal was approved in general, the specifics of who would have reviewer rights was left for later discussion.
The media coverage prompted discussion at AN and Wikipedia talk:Flagged protection and patrolled revisions on how the Foundation could better inform the community of developments so they aren't informed by the external media. No consensus had been reached at the time this issue went to press.