Last month, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia announced a major change to its editing policy. From now on, any revisions to the pages of living people must be approved by editors before the updates will be published.
It’s a fundamental shift away from the wide-open, sometimes chaotic approach of allowing anyone to freely edit articles. And in spite of what the critics say, It’s about time.
On the surface, unfettered editorial access seems like a good idea. It provides a central location for the free exchange of information, a vast repository of knowledge that anyone can add to without the interference of some omnipotent corporate or political agenda.
In many ways, the concept has an appeal similar to citizen journalism. With more media outlets being consolidated under fewer owners, It’s important for a wide array of voices to be heard.
Nice thought, except that free-for-all editing makes a very large?and very mistaken?assumption: that the average person doesn’t have an agenda as deep and wide as any politician or corporation out there.
It’s not a trait we usually ascribe to the average person on the street. The popular imagery, especially in this age of corporate monopolies, is that the citizenry represents the untainted voice of truth. But Wikipedia (and the Internet in general) remind us otherwise.
Take, for instance, the growing problem of vandalism to Wikipedia entries. Maybe It’s the result of a personal grievance, or someone wanting to push an opposing viewpoint. Or maybe a misleading or malicious entry is simply the result of boredom. Either way, it boils down to the same thing. We all carry a set of beliefs and objectives, and most of us are blithely certain that ours are right. Or at least more right than the other guy’s.
So what’s wrong with throwing those opinions out there? Nothing, except when they’re presented as fact. And That’s where Wikipedia is right to insist on some editorial control. A blog is one thing; It’s clearly understood that It’s one person’s opinion. But the term ?encyclopedia? carries with it a measure of authority.
It also comes with a certain responsibility. There’s always the chance that certain facts will be highlighted and others left out, but blatantly misstating the facts can land a publisher in legal hot water. Consequences ensure at least a certain degree of accuracy. With anonymous online entries, though, people feel free to cite such ?facts? as Tony Blair’s middle name being ?Whoop-de-do.?
And with over 65 million people getting information from Wikipedia every month, those are the kinds of ?facts? we can do without.