The death of Wikipedia

This is part one of a two-part post. Part two, “Now let’s bury the myth,” is here.

Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that “anyone can edit,” was a nice experiment in the “democratization” of publishing, but it didn’t quite work out. Wikipedia is dead. It died the way the pure products of idealism always do, slowly and quietly and largely in secret, through the corrosive process of compromise.

There was a time when, indeed, pretty much anyone could edit pretty much anything on Wikipedia. But, as eWeek’s Steven Vaughan-Nichols recently observed, “Wikipedia hasn’t been a real ‘wiki’ where anyone can write and edit for quite a while now.” A few months ago, in the wake of controversies about the quality and reliability of the free encyclopedia’s content, the Wikipedian powers-that-be – its “administrators” – abandoned the work’s founding ideal of being the “ULTIMATE ‘open’ format” and tightened the restrictions on editing. In addition to banning some contributors from the site, the administrators adopted an “official policy” of what they called, in good Orwellian fashion, “semi-protection” to prevent “vandals” (also known as people) from messing with their open encyclopedia. Here’s how they explained the policy:

Semi-protection of a page prevents unregistered editors and editors with very new accounts from editing that page. “Very new” is currently defined as four days. A page can be temporarily semi-protected by an administrator in response to vandalism, or to stop banned users with dynamic IPs from editing pages.

Semi-protection should normally not be used as a purely pre-emptive measure against the threat or probability of vandalism before any such vandalism occurs, such as when certain pages suddenly become high profile due to current events or being linked from a high-traffic website. In the case of one or two static IP vandals hitting a page, blocking the vandals may be a better option than semi-protection. It is also not an appropriate solution to regular content disputes since it may restrict some editors and not others. However, certain pages with a history of vandalism and other problems may be semi-protected on a pre-emptive, continuous basis.

Ideals always expire in clotted, bureaucratic prose. It distances the killer from the killing.

The end came last Friday. That’s when Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, proposed “that we eliminate the requirement that semi-protected articles have to announce themselves as such to the general public.” The “general public,” you see, is now an entity separate and distinct from those who actually control the creation of Wikipedia. As Vaughan-Nichols says, “And the difference between Wikipedia and a conventionally edited publication is what exactly?”

Given that Wikipedia has been, and continues to be, the poster child for the brave new world of democratic, “citizen” media, where quality naturally “emerges” from the myriad contributions of a crowd, it’s worth quoting Wales’s epitaph for Wikipedia at length:

Semi-protection seems to be a great success in many cases. I think that it should be extended, but carefully, in a couple of key ways.

1. It seems that some very high profile articles like [[George W. Bush]] are destined to be semi-protected all the time or nearly all the time. I support continued occassional experimention by anyone who wants to take the responsibility of guarding it, but it seems likely to me that we will keep such articles semi-protected almost continuously. If that is true, then the template at the time is misleading and scary and distracting to readers. I propose that we eliminate the requirement that semi-protected articles have to announce themselves as such to the general public. They can be categorized as necessary, of course, so that editors who take an interest in making sure things are not excessively semi-protected can do so, but there seems to me to be little benefit in announcing it to the entire world in such a confusing fashion.

2. A great many minor bios of slightly well known but controversial individuals are subject to POV [point-of-view] pushing trolling, including vandalism, and it seems likely that in such cases, not enough people have these on their personal watchlists to police them as well as we would like. Semi-protection would at least eliminate the drive-by nonsense that we see so often.

The basic concept here is that semi-protection has proven to be a valuable tool, with very broad community support, which gives good editors more time to deal with serious issues because there is less random vandalism. Because the threshold to editing is still quite low for anyone who seriously wants to join the dialogue in an adult, NPOV [neutral point of view], responsible manner, I do not find any reason to hold back on some extended use of it.

Where once we had a commitment to open democracy, we now have a commitment to “making sure things are not excessively semi-protected.” Where once we had a commune, we now have a gated community, “policed” by “good editors.” So let’s pause and shed a tear for the old Wikipedia, the true Wikipedia. Rest in peace, dear child. You are now beyond the reach of vandals.

CORRECTION: Jimmy Wales informs me that in fact there was never a time when “anyone could edit anything on Wikipedia,” as I originally wrote. “There have always been restrictions on editing,” he says. I guess I made the mistake, as others may have as well, of taking literally Wikipedia’s slogan that it is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” I apologize for my error. I have revised two sentences in the second paragraph to correct it.

95 thoughts on “The death of Wikipedia

  1. nothing

    I would just like to note that although you may be taking a dig at wikipedia these techniques are used to stop vandals and not to stifle free speech. I would also like to note that it was a bold move to post a story on your blog without properly researching the topic. If you want a totally, editable by anyone wiki you could easily do so. The problem with this is that it would be spammed beyond belief if it ever got as popular as the real wikipedia. Perhaps instead of complaining about how wikipedia is dead, because it refuses to take information from every person connected to it, you should focus on how the wiki system can superbly deal with spam and other garbage. This article is hilarious because basically all of your points are lost in the aftermath of response.

  2. The Cunctator

    I have no idea what Jimbo is talking about when he says that “restrictions on editing” have always existed and always been used. That simply wasn’t the case during the UseModWiki days.

  3. anon

    I have no professional relationship with Wikipedia. I’m a big fan of theirs.

    I have 2 serious issues with your blog entry about Wikipedia.

    Firstly, you say you took their slogan literally. I hope you don’t take every slogan offered by every corporation literally. You might need a seriously good lawyer if you do. Consider the following statement “Anyone can become President of the USA.” Does that imply to you that you can don your tux and head out to the White House as the President?

    Secondly, there has been vandalism on the website.Most of Wikipedia was freely editable. Anyone could post anything. And I have encountered some entries that were obviously made by people trying to create mischief… I’m happy that an extra layer of protection is being added so that serious users of Wikipedia can get a better quality product.

    P.S.: You seem to be a very angry person. Almost as if you hate Wales for inventing something that you believe were more fit to invent.

  4. Zephram Stark

    As a Darwinist system, Wikipedia will die when something more useful completely replaces it. At the largest site to use the Wiki engine, vandalism and responses to vandalism are reaching critical mass, but that only highlights ways that the Wiki engine could be improved upon. It doesn’t signify the death of the collective intelligence movement started by the Wiki. There is no going back to the old days of our language and history resources being created by a small group of “officials.”

    The Wiki engine was an incredible first step toward consensual mass editing, but its simplicity requires an artificial layer of administration with expanded or omnipotent powers. Discussions are underway to replace the Wiki engine with a more stable and natural editing environment. Even this won’t mark the death of Wikipedia, however, because the resource allows forks of its data. Wikipedia will always be known as the parent of modern encyclopedic resources, and Mr. Wales will be known as the man who first enabled this global movement, even though his comments above indicate that he still doesn’t know what he started.

  5. Philipp Lenssen

    Interesting discussion here and thanks for setting off something Nick. But when you say that the core ideal of Wikipedia — openness, democracy, etc. — is dead just because they have measurements against vandalism, then isn’t that conclusion a bit hyped? It almost seems like the only thing that died is your former perception of Wikipedia (“completely unprotected”), which you assume was almost everyone’s perception. Well, I never had the impression that Wikipedia was being completely open or giving in to vandalism. (There are “insiders” and “outsiders” in the system, and the fact that an outsider over time can become an insider doesn’t change that.)

    For example, you’re not supposed to edit articles which cover yourself, certainly a closed door (possibly necessary). They even had my domain name on their blacklist for a while — — meaning that no one was allowed to mention my articles on their site any more. But what this does is not really close any doors, but raise the barrier for involvement. In my case, I talked over the situation with a Wikipedian (an “insider” if you will) and after explaining the situation and the Wikipedian seeing my earlier constructive involvement in the site the ban was lifted. (In my case, the ban had something to do with me taking the notion of a Wiki sandbox to be “a place to write anything you want” literally, but that’s probably a different issue.)

  6. Theresa Knott

    One thing that no one seems to have considered is just how editable an article like George Bush was before semiprotection.

    There were times when the article was vandalised so heavily that any real edit either caused an edit conflict with a vandal or was lost when a wikipedian reverted the article back to a previous version to undo vandalism. Either way the article was extremly difficult for people to really edit. Semiprotection prevents all “your mum” type vandalism and so makes the article more easy to edit by people who are genuinely interested in writing an encylopedia article

  7. Joshua Porter

    Here’s a question:

    Is something still open if anybody can do it but only after proving their worth? You seem to propose, Nick, that to be truly open anybody should be able to edit Wikipedia at any time no matter what.

    Wikipedia has always let *anybody* edit with an appropriate hurdle to jump before they do so. Is that open? Maybe.

    I recommend reading Derek Powazek’s Design for Community (it’s a book ;) ) for more insight into setting appropriate hurdles in communities. Appropriate meaning that you prove you give a damn, not that you have enough money to have someone else cut your lawn…

    I ask because I want Wikipedia to be open, but I sure as heck don’t want you touching the Wikipedia page on optimism, Nick. The page on pessimism?…it’s all yours. :)

  8. David Allen

    Nick, it never fails to astound me how you’ll go for the sensational, the controversial, the publicity-seeking headline — rather than an actual fact-based expose of the truth. I’m sure it helps books sales, speaking invitations and your continued notoriety, but it is painful to watch you continually waste your considerable intellect on taking grains of truth and overgeneralizing and sensationalizing them.

    So whether we’re talking about the commoditization of IT or Wikipedia or many other topics, the insight you bring to the party is getting lost in the fog of hucksterism and self-promotion.

  9. Andrew Dupont

    I don’t really understand the arguments you’re making, Nick.

    For Wikipedia to have value, its primary metric of self-evaluation must be how useful the site is to others, not the degree to which it is open to modification without restrictions.

    Obviously, the latter is a design goal, but it’s not the most important. Wikipedia, as I see it, tries to make itself a valuable resource that is as free as it can possibly be. What is the value in having an article on George W. Bush that is constantly in a vandalized state?

    If you’re arguing that the incremental addition of bureaucracy is harmful to Wikipedia in the long run, then that’s something else. Please don’t dress it up as some sort of “death of ideals,” and please don’t act like you’re the only one who “gets” it. Most of all, please don’t attribute the poor feedback you’re getting to denial, anger, or any other psychological phenomenon. It makes you seem like an arrogant bastard.

  10. Chris Wuestefeld

    I think that those who are defending Wikipedia in this debate are misunderstanding the criticism. I don’t see that Nick is saying that it’s bad or evil or anything like that.

    He’s saying that Wikipedia was formerly an icon for openness and egalitarian cooperation. But it has since developed to a point where it can’t be seen in this way. It has either become a different animal entirely, or proof that the ideology is not viable. Neither of these things necessarily contradict Wikipedia’s usefulness or “goodness”.

    Merely pointing out differences in terminology — administrators vs “The Foundation”, etc., does not disprove the argument. Rather, it confirms that the system is NOT egalitarian. Saying that the differences in the power of the users, or the quantity of articles affected, is small, does not change the truth of the argument. Either it’s open and egalitarian or it’s not — it can’t be a little bit pregnant.

    And defending it by showing parallels in existing political systems that have demonstrated their flaws in countless ways is laughable.

    I think that you can say that Nick’s argument has no practical application — in the real world it doesn’t matter. But you can’t discard it on ideological grounds.

  11. Vladimir A. Toman

    Mr. Carr,

    I never used Wickedpeedia. Was it ever alive?

    I’d guess that if the masses are drawn to it, it has very little accredited value, if any.

    There is a vast credible knowledge-information base across the W.W.W. that which is easily accessed.

    There is no need for wickedpeedia what-so-ever. It’s a waste of time and resources.

    In reading through the comments, here, I noticed the dangers of entities such as wickedpeedia.

    Kind Regards,
    Vladimir A. Toman

  12. breath

    The original wiki has been online for over a decade with this exact policy. Or do you have some other definition of “wiki”?

    Ward Cunningham’s wiki has weaker access restrictions than Wikipedia, but it still has them. See

    A summary: every time you edit a page, you have to pass a captcha. In certain cases, you can’t edit the page unless someone ‘in the know’ tells you the secret password.

    I think at a certain point you start spliiting hairs on the definition of “everyone” and “everything”.

  13. Erik

    Wales is not telling the truth. Wikipedia instituted immutable pages as a result of a single vandal who was nicknamed “fartboy” because he liked to post things like “LARRY SANGER IS A FART.” and link to an article on farting or whatever. He kept replacing the front page with bizarre nonsense like “WELCOME TO THE [CARROTS] HOMEPAGE ON THE WORLDWIDEWEB, YOU CAN EAT THEM IN [SWITZERLAND] OR IN [JAIL]” in giant text, etc etc. A determination was made that in the interest of protecting the public image of Wikipedia, the front page (and ONLY the front page) would be made immutable and only editable by Larry Sanger. Before this any page was editable to any degree. After this for a _very_ long time, the first page was the only immutable page.

    So I don’t know where he gets off that there were always restrictions. That’s not true at all.

  14. Wikipedian

    Semi-protection was used to prevent me from relinquishing my username. Since the only reason I wanted to relinquish my username was that a particular user has been using my fixed identity as a target for vigorous harassment (and admins have done nothing to abate this problem), the semi-protection of the page forces me to choose between enduring the harassment (which now includes threats to my privacy) or editing the article. This is a very easy way for the people who “game” Wikipedia to win an editorial dispute and drive people who don’t have the time to deal with ongoing harassment off the system.

  15. doug

    ah and speaking of trolling, consider the headline and lead paragraph of this very article… a pretty effective one it is too. got me to click through.

    Yup. Me too.

  16. Earle Martin


    Ward Cunningham’s wiki has weaker access restrictions than Wikipedia, but it still has them.

    Full disclosure: I’m part of the admin team on that site. The measures you describe are applied when we occasionally get people who think it’s fun to go on a rampage messing around with pages, and are generally lifted after a short period of time (when whoever it is has gotten tired and gone away). They’re also switched on permanently to a very small number of individuals who have abused the site on a long-term basis – a couple of whom who, in 2005, were the reason this system was implemented in the first place. Before that, there had been no access controls of any kind at all for a decade.

    There’s no distinction between one regular user and the other, which is as it should be.

    I think at a certain point you start splitting hairs on the definition of “everyone” and “everything”.

    Yeah, quite.

  17. Rob

    Wow, this is a really awful troll. Someone who evidently doesn’t use Wikipedia and doesn’t keep up with its changes makes predictions and prognostications about it? Hello, John Dvorak!

  18. Phil Redmon

    Orwell said “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    Does the same not hold true for the general populace?

    Wouldn’t the Wikipedia elite be stretched a little thin having to undo every wise-asses “amendments” to polarizing public figures?

    What a bunch of cryin’ over unspilt milk.

    P.S. Vladimir Toman: Yeah, we get it. WIckedpeedia. Are you one of those guys who says “Taco Hell” every single time?

  19. Dystopos

    It is plain to me that the death you report, that of an ideal, is your own creation and bears little resemblence to any actual project, living or dead. Unlike Mr Wales I see no need for a retraction, but I do welcome your clarification that what you are talking about is a perception of Wikipedian ideals and not Wikipedia’s actual ideals (much less the encyclopedia’s actual quality or usefulness).

    Straw men are created for the purpose of flamboyent destruction.

  20. ryan joyce

    Orwell said “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    I thought it was Lord Acton.

    According to wikipedia, it was George W. Bush.

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