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. bering

    So vandalism = democracy? That’s like saying that giving the police force (wikipedians) handcuffs (semi-protection) is the same as stomping out the right to free speech. Wouldn’t you agree that it’s not the tools that limit free speech but how they are used? Declaring Wikipedia dead seems a bit premature.

  2. Michael Stein

    Nicolas –

    gah – I can’t tell which cheek, if either, you have your tongue in.

    While the term semi-protected shows Wales et al cringing from what needed to be done, it does not seem like an extreme compromise at all. Requiring one to have an ID registered for 4 days before he can begin editing, and that vandals can be banned from the site, is not really a retreat from open editing. You can edit. I can edit. While allowing vandals is a retreat from building an encyclopedia of any reliability at all.

    BUT: The concept of Neutral Point of View is terrifying and I hate to see it rear its head. Does this mean I can’t edit the article on evolution because I believe it seems to be a valid theory? Who are the watchdogs of NPOV who will identify someone as a vandal? This is what needs to remain open if the wikipedia is to be, indeed, open.

  3. Thierry Milhé

    Nicholas, as a French…, your comments move away the very bad and sad perception I had about people in the US during these last years. I praise this renaissance of critical sense.

    Is Wikipedia going to be subscription (non free) services in the coming months… It looks so. How to make people work for free… A good lesson to all of us.


  4. Gianni


    I think you’re overdoing your contrarian behaviour and seriously risk coming through as an attention-craver.

    Your analysis is very destructive and offers no suggestion for improvement – moreover it does not make for interesting, witty or even provocative reading.

    No digg.

  5. Thomas Purves

    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.

  6. DougHolton

    You should see what wikipedia would look like if it didn’t have any community policing or vandal protection.

    The same way any country would look like if it had zero laws or policing. That doesn’t mean a country is necessarily undemocratic if it does have rules and enforcement.

    One can debate though whether Wikipedia administrators are a little too proactive in fighting vandals sometimes, such as with its blocking of the use of any anonymous service such as Tor. But of course there are other, more open content sites out there. Perhaps wikipedia should add a more open area, for people who want to share information anonymously or for issues that are inherently controversial virtually impossible to accurately describe with wikipedia’s ‘neutral point of view’ (NPOV) policy.

  7. Seth Finkelstein

    Regarding: “And the difference between Wikipedia and a conventionally edited publication is what exactly?”

    1) Zero payment to contributors (well, maybe that isn’t much of a difference, overall).

    2) A fascinating and elaborate belief-system that allows it to formally disclaim any responsibility for errors, in fact, to put the *critics* on the defensive.

    3) Notwithstanding 2), an ideological pitch that lets it informally claim high-quality results.

    All in all, that’s really quite interesting, from a certain viewpoint.

  8. Richard Schwartz

    I think it’s quite premature to call this the “death” of Wikipedia. Wales et al. can always change their minds. They can continue to explore options, like a reputation system for pages and for contributors.

    I can imagine a Wikipedia with “frozen” versions of articles — the versions that achieve the highest reputation (due to voting and/or due to the reputations of their contributors, weighted so that most recent contributors give the greatest contribution to the article’s reputation)– being made available first, or alongside the current version. What version is displayed initially could possibly be determined according to the preferences of the reader, so someone looking for the information most likely to be neutral, well-written and well-reviewed could get that first; and someone looking for the latest, relatively unfiltered information could get that first.

  9. Nick Carr

    Thanks for the quick comments. It looks like we’ve already moved out of the first stage of the grieving process, shock, into the second stage, denial. Anger comes next.


  10. Ron

    Instead of anger, I offer glee. Wikipedia is really no different than any of the other “communities” on the net. Sooner or later (usually sooner), a self-styled cabal of insiders takes over. Their means are insidious – inside knowledge, jargon, and above all, a smugly superior attitude to “the public”. Just ask a newbie-type question on any open-source newsgroup and see what kind of response you get.

    If the Wikipedia folks want to dictate who plays in what they believe is their sandbox, let them have it. I don’t think anybody buys the fiction they peddle anymore, whether it’s the content or about Wikipedia itself.

  11. Dom

    Hogwash. Like Ron posted, communities like the ones online tend to lapse towards centralized control. Wikipedia has at least some ability to identify systemic problems as with the “Countering Systemic Bias” project. Rather then bemoan that editors are rolling back changes about Britany Spears or whatever, take a look at the CSB project which identifies the systemic problem inherent in this community and take a little time to try to fight it. Truly expand Wikipedia so it remains democratic rather then a bunch of technocratic rich white guys that sit around complaining they are not the centre of the Universe.

  12. Jimmy Wales

    Wow, what a staggeringly bizarre argument.

    A simple fact which really puts all of this into context: at the present time, there are 154 articles in the English Wikipedia under semi-protection. 154 articles. Out of 1,151,768 articles. We would therefore need more than a 7-fold increase in the use of semi-protection before we would reach the point where less than 999 out of 1000 wikipedia articles can still be edited even without logging in. “We now have a gated community.” *laugh*

    Nicholas, I had always considered you a respectable critic. But this is just trolling, pure and simple. I expect that you will want to issue a correction and an apology.

  13. Nick Carr

    Oh, come on, Jimmy Wales. That 1,151,768 articles figure is balderdash, since it includes a mountain of goofy entries for, among other things, imaginary trailer parks and individual fantasy characters from video games and fictional soap operas mentioned in passing on episodes of Sex and the City. *laugh* My understanding – correct me if I’m wrong, please – is that the “semi-protected” entries are often among the most popular Wikipedia entries. What percentage of total page views do the semi-protected articles represent?

    By the way, I see 170 pages listed as semi-protected and another 79 listed as fully protected. (I didn’t even realize there was also “full protection.”)


  14. Geoff

    “the “semi-protected” entries are often among the most popular Wikipedia entries” popular as in most edited or most visited?

    It still seems a very small number of ‘protected’ articles and lets face it the approval process only involves waiting a few days hardly onerous?

    Oh and how does Wikipedia differ? Well I havent been invited to edit the Brittanica as yet….

  15. Jimmy Wales

    170 pages includes a number of pages which are not articles. Of course you did not know that there was such thing as full protection, because if you did, then you would realize what is wrong with the story you are trying to weave here.

    Your story line is, well, Wikipedia used to be open, but now slowly but surely they are closing things.

    But the truth is that semi-protection was a bold step toward openness, replacing our older practice of full protection in the vast majority of cases. The introduction of semi-protection, which you trumpet as a closing of Wikipedia, was actually a successful attempt to be more open, to reduce the need for full protection.

    And, it worked.

    What is being discussed now, in the thread you so egregiously misrepresent, is exactly what the user interface should look like, when an article is semi-protected.

    Your rhetoric, about Wikipedia now being “a gated community”, is now shown to be mistaken. Care to issue a retraction? I think any honest critic would have to admit that semi-protecting dramatically less than 1/10 of 1 percent of our work does not make a very compelling case for the thesis you have put forward… especially not with the full context of how we have moved radically away from full protection.

    I have asksed our developers to gather statistics for me on what proportion of the 10,000 most heavily edited articles are under semi-protection, I will let you know. It certainly is an interesting question, but having casually reviewed the list of what is semi-protected at the moment, it is safe to say that you will be disappointed in the result.

  16. ceejayoz

    I can’t say I agree with the post.

    Even the most democratic of nations require voter registration. You can sign up for a Wikipedia account in seconds, and the restriction on new accounts is over within a day or two.

    Here in New York, I’ve gotta be a resident for 90 days before I can vote. Two days is hardly a barrier to entry.

    The difference between Wikipedia and a conventionally edited publication is that you can’t walk to the publication’s offices and get automatically get hired as an editor on-the-spot. You can in Wikipedia.

  17. Alan

    Wikipedia provides one of the best, and one of the very few, high-quality information stores on the web. The idea that a bit of vandal-control or a 4-day edit-wait is restrictive makes me laugh. Try improving a Brittanica article. Wales deserves enormous credit. The neutral-POV rule is excellent. It’s something the news media lost years ago. Perhaps we have become a society of mindless critics, in which nothing can be admired unless it conforms to our every whim. I say let Nick start a brawl-o-pedia. It should be interesting to read. Once.

  18. Matthew Brown

    Wikipedia doesn’t keep any count of page views, Nick, so that question is unanswerable. Being not supported by advertising, such figures aren’t as critical as they are to other sites. The sheer volume of data proved to be overwhelming, and since Wikipedia ‘hits’ may be answered by any of several different levels of caching before reaching the database, it makes it harder to count in any case.

    The semi-protected includes some of Wikipedia’s *most edited* pages, but that in itself doesn’t say much – just that those particular articles are common targets for vandalism. For example, the article on George W. Bush is (I believe) Wikipedia’s most edited article, simply because of countless attempts to deface it. Not necessarily because it’s anywhere near Wikipedia’s most read article.

    Dealing with the effects of popularity is Wikipedia’s biggest challenge, and how Wikipedia responds to it will be critical to the project’s future success, but semi-protection is an insignificant part of that issue. Registering an anonymous username (with no requirement even to give an email address) and having to wait four days is a very low bar to leap.

    Full protection, which prevents an article from being edited by most users, is rarely employed and almost never for long periods. Articles are fully protected to enforce ceasefires when conflicts become enflamed, and the users in question are then encouraged to discuss their differences and reach compromise. Once some progress is made in civility and compromise, the article is unprotected again. Pages may also be protected if they’re being subjected to a huge degree of vandalism, especially if it’s automated; again, this is for a short period. Some of Wikipedia’s site policy pages are also protected, as is the main page.

    Apart from those policy pages, it is explicitly not the intention to keep any article protected or semi-protected permanently (although I suspect George W. Bush’s article may have to remain semi-protected until when he leaves office, at least).

    -Matt (User:Morven on Wikipedia)

  19. Charles Matthews

    Pages are for ever being protected on Wikipedia to snap the threads of edit wars. And then unprotected. (I’m an English Wikipedia admin and arbitrator.) This is to give some kind of time-out, and to prevent disputes being a total time-sink. Semi-protection basically is the same reasoning, applied to the most common graffiti targets. The argument that even the smallest change in doctrinaire wiki theory breaks the whole project is garden-variety trolltalk. We have heard this for years, and it ain’t so.

    By the way, we like the offbeat articles: no Wikipedian sneers at them. But there is a ragged fringe mostly because trying to draw the exact line is also a timesink.

  20. maru

    “By the way, I see 170 pages listed as semi-protected and another 79 listed as fully protected. (I didn’t even realize there was also “full protection.”)”

    Are you really that dumb, Nick, or are you simply playing for points? *Semi*- protection implies some sort of stronger protection. Saying such a thing is as moronic as going to the supermarket, buying some semi-dark chocolate, and later remarking in astonishment, ‘I didn’t even realize there was “dark chocolate!”‘

    As for your statistics… Even if we semi-protected two articles a day every day for the next ten years, the percentage of semi-protected articles would *still* be going down.

    And the moment someone points that out, you immediately shift gears to instead work by page view- which is equally bogus. I’ve helped out on over a dozen articles which have been linked from the main pages of Slashdot and Fark (in other words, hundreds of thousands of page views), and you know what? We haven’t had to semi-protect any of them. The articles featured daily on the Main page receive a similar level of hits, and those are very rarely semi-protected (the current one, for example is not).

  21. Kingsley Joseph

    I agree, Nick, you’re trolling. For a minute, this seemed like Slashdot, where elaborate critiques are written without actually trying to use what you talk about. You seem to have walked in expecting an anarchy, found an ungated commune, and ended up characterizing it as gulag.

    Can *anyone* edit almost any article in the Wikipedia? The answer to that has always been yes. Requiring registration is a way to protect editors who share the same IP with vandals. Most of the new decisions have been about how much of the editorial process needs to be exposed to people who don’t care about it. If and when they do care to make an edit (even a poor one), they are welcomed by the community.

    I will agree that Wikipedia is the same as any other encyclopedia when anyone can email an article to Encarta and expect to see it published. prior to that, your comments about their being the same are unwarranted.

  22. Nick Carr

    Thanks for all the comments. It seems like we’ve definitely progressed to the anger stage now, even if it’s aimed at the messenger rather than the culprits. My interest here, in case it’s eluded anyone, is very simple: making sure that people know what Wikipedia really is and what Wikipedia really isn’t.

    As I said in my original post, Wikipedia has long been the poster child for a new, non-hierarchical, “democratic” form of technology-enabled content production, a tangible expression of the so-called “wisdom of the crowd.” Whether or not that characterization was a distortion from the start – and I assume it was (Jimmy Wales has informed me that there have always been restrictions on editing) – is, frankly, beside my point; as I think I made pretty clear, the death I’m referring to is the death of the ideal that Wikipedia has come to represent. That ideal has become a truism endlessly repeated. This quote from a Guardian article (which I found on the Wikipedia site) captures the essence of the idealized view: “EBay does something no other network has done: it treats the social network as the supply-chain and by building systems of communications and reputation management into the network, turns a group of individuals into an organised, structured and wildly economically viable marketplace. The same can be said at an emergent level about open-source knowledge projects such as the Wikipedia encyclopedia.” This ideal is a lie, and its falseness has become clearer as Wikipedia has continued to impose a more formal, more rules-based, more hierarchical editorial structure on itself. I think it’s pretty obvious what Jimmy Wales means when he talks about “policing” content and refers to “semi-protection” as “a valuable tool … which gives good editors more time to deal with serious issues because there is less random vandalism.” What he’s saying is that, to be a quality encyclopedia, Wikipedia needs a formal, fairly traditional (even if volunteer) editorial structure. The wisdom of the crowd just doesn’t get you far enough.

    The idealized Wikipedia is officially dead. It died last week. Now, you may say, “But having more formal editorial structures, and putting restrictions on our ‘anybody can edit’ promise, and redlining certain articles, and drawing distinctions between “good editors” and everyone else, and establishing mechanisms that allow content to be ‘policed’ more effectively, will allow us to create a better product.” To which I would reply: Exactly so. And if through my post and your comments, we’ve made that a little clearer, then I have fulfilled my goal.

    Damn, I hate to have to be so literal. But perhaps this will help us move from anger to the next stage of grief, bargaining. From there it’s not such a long way to acceptance.

  23. Laurence

    I agree completely with your article, and more precisely with : “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.”

    That is one of the main problems : what is a vandal, according to Wikipedia’s policy ? I think sincerely that they call “vandal” any editor they want to ban, for any reason… for example, because the “vandal’s” point of view on the subject of an article is not the one they decided the article had to present.

    Personally I do not believe any more in the Neutrality of Point Of View on Wikipedia since I have tried to take part to an article about the Bogdanov affair : there has been a edit war, we had to appear before the Arbcom, and the arbitrators banned all contributors who had taken part to the revert war… then they “saved” two of them : two detractors of the Bogdanovs, who had written only negative stuff in the article, and who had insulted them violently on the discussion page of the article ! So the Arbcom decided that people who defended the subjects of the articles were “vandals”, and that their two main detractors were “good” Wikipedians. Of course the article has become almost 100% negative against the Bogdanovs, and nobody can do anything about it : all people who tried to defend them habe been banned ! Of course, now the article is semi-protected, and the administrators ban directly any new contributor, if he has not edited other articles on Wikipedia before the “Bogdanov affair”.

    I think sincerely that this article has been vandalised by… the Arbcom itself, who decided on the orientation of the article by choosing its editors depending on their opinion, contradicting one of the main principles of Wikipedia.

    I wrote an article about this affair (in French) : “Wikipedia et l’affaire Bogdanov : “encyclopédie libre” ou dictature virtuelle ?“, which means : “Wikipedia and Bogdanov affair : “free encyclopedia” or virtual dictatorship ?”

  24. Bob Aman

    Screw direct democracy. Democracy in its purest forms have only rarely been used since the ancient Athenian prototype because they are generally impractical. When you’re dealing with a sufficiently large group of people — which Wikipedia is — you can’t operate an idealized democracy without greatly diminishing the effectiveness of the thing governed. That’s held true throughout history, and it has held true for software so far.

    I highly recommend that you read Shirky’s essay on social software before you go on ranting about how Wikipedia has died, because it seems to me that, if anything, they’re actually building tools that will better enable the community to thrive.

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