Monday, 9 February 2009

From Web 2.0 to Web 1.9? The Curbing of Wikipedia

One of the great hallmarks of Web 2.0 was supposed to be the 'democratisation' of the internet. Gone were the days when those who designed a website conveyed information in a unidirectional manner. Whereas once the internet user accessed a site, read the information, and then moved on, the new era of the internet was hailed as one where sites became dynamic and the nature of content was limited only by the endeavour and creativity of visitors (now contributors too).

And to be fair, that's how things have gone to a large extent. Social media sites such as Bebo and Facebook are extremely popular and have enabled websites to become a primary personal and business communications medium. User-generated videos on YouTube can command millions of views. And the arguable King of Web 2.0, Wikipedia, is now the first stop for millions of internet users seeking to access information on all-manner of things. The online encyclopedia allows visitors to generate, alter and update entries on a virtually limitless basis.

However, chinks are beginning to appear in the utopian vision of an entirely fluid and open internet. The nature of Wikipedia has long left it open to abuse, with often hilarious (but nonetheless embarrassing for its creators) results. As a result, Wikipedia's founder Jimmy Wales is proposing to introduce a vetting system whereby changes to pages on the site will need approved before they go live. The plan to to choose individuals from a core of self-appointed Wikipedia aficionados and enable them to have the power to give the green (or red) light to alterations to pages on certain topics. The tipping point seems to have been claims on Teddy Kennedy's profile that he "suffered a seizure at a luncheon following the Barack Obama Presidential inauguration on January 20, 2009. He was removed in a wheelchair, and died shortly after." Kennedy, while gravely ill, is still very much in the land of the living.

To some extent, of course, there already is an element of vetting. The aforementioned cohort of Wikipedia addicts who trawl the site watching for alterations to pages often already take it upon themselves to revert changes that they don't agree with. This means that, given their dedication, those who take different views on content often 'lose' the argument given that they've better things to do with their time and couldn't be bothered getting into a game of editing ping-pong. So in effect, the shape of Wikipedia's content is already dictated to a large extent by those who devote themselves to tracking, and often reverting, changes on the site.

Nonetheless, Wales' plans take this to a new level. The sheer size of Wikipedia and the fact that its pages are still mostly completely open to alteration mean that it still has an organic quality to it. By introducing official vetting, the site will become in some ways a genetically modified version of itself. It's not quite the type of thing that would inspire a latter-day Orwell to pen a piece of doomsday literature, but there is a whiff of there being a distinct shift from all animals being equal to some being more equal than others. Perhaps the often self-righteous 'guardians' of Wikipedia will emit a porcine snort of delight.

So, were net users being unrealistic in their hopes from a completely open internet? After all, it's not like YouTube will allow all videos to remain on its servers- any that contravene its guidelines are soon deleted. The same goes for blog content hosted on Google's Blogger platform. Indeed, in an interview with yesterday's Sunday Times, Jimmy Wales said: "There is a core community who are extremely powerful but that is a good thing. One of the great misconceptions about us is this idea that Wikipedia is anti-elitist. That’s just wrong. We are actually extremely snobby... These core users really manage and enforce our standards. If it weren’t for them Wikipedia would be chock full of rubbish.”

Perhaps people have been thinking too far outside the realms of possibility. In a world where legal action is a very real threat, maybe it is too much to ask that sites such as Wikipedia hand carte blanche to all comers to dictate its content. Perhaps something of a 'carte gris' is more appropriate and realistic.

Where this Wikipedia story goes will be interesting to observe. Too much censorship and it will lose the very essence of its appeal. No regulation, and perhaps it risks losing its credibility as an information source. And of course there's the risk that if Wikipedia moves too far away from its original modus operandi, it will simply be replaced by a rival, as happened following the legal handcuffing of Napster earlier in the decade.

If nothing else, at least the vandals are often successful in eliciting a chuckle.

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