Pending changes

June 15th, 2010 by

So, in under an hour, flagged revisions will go live on the English Wikipedia. Wait – flagged protection. No, that’s it, pending changes. It seems to change its name once a week at the moment – my small victory was getting rid of the word “revisions” in its current form. (We take our lasting moments when we can)

What is it? Surprisingly little, all told, for all the ink that has been spilled. I feel the need to write something simply because of all the misinformation I’ve seen floating around over the last week or so…

It’s a tool which will see a small number of pages – at the moment, hard-limited to a cap of 2,000, and in practice not more than a few dozen for the first few days – placed under a new form of editing protection. They’ll be either pages which were already protected or already liable for protection under the general rules for that – high levels of vandalism, repeated fights over content, or just ludicrously tempting targets.

(A quick recap – pages subject to protection are either “full protected” – only users with administrator privileges, about 1,500 people, can edit them – or “semi protected” – most logged-in users can edit them, but new users or passing contributors can’t.)

The new system works by allowing anyone to edit, but adding a simple form of pre-screening – at any given moment, the version of the article displayed to readers will not always be the same as the most recent version of the article. Any qualified user will be able to look at the edits and flag the most recent as “acceptable” – “not terrible” might be a more pragmatic standard, I suppose – making it the version displayed by default, until a few more edits down the line a new one is approved, etc. The aim is that there will be a few thousand of such qualified “reviewers”, certainly enough to scale to the likely task.

It’s important to remember that all edits are sequential and not parallel; it’s not a matter of allowing several versions of an article to develop and then picking one, but rather an edit not approved will still be incorporated into subsequent edits, unless it’s independently edited back out.

The net result will primarily be to

  • a) make these pages more open to editing, not less; whilst
  • b) reducing the amount of vandalism and malicious content visible to readers

a) comes from allowing anyone to edit, rather than turning them away by locking the page; b) comes from adding the post-edit sanity-check screening.

The counterarguments are that it will:

  • a) act as a form of censorship;
  • b) increase the workload for “reviewing” editors;
  • c) reduce the involvement of casual users

I honestly don’t think any of these are likely to be the case unless the implementation is fouled up. Let’s look at the simplest one first: c). The system will allow people to contribute – in a limited way – where previously they could not contribute at all. It’s possible that the existence of limited or conditional contributions will prove to be something of a deterrent over “normal” contributions, but will it really be a deterrent over a complete pre-emptive rejection? We have some evidence from the rollout of a much broader version of this on the German wikipedia that implementing it did decrease the proportion of edits by IPs – people other than logged-in users – but it’s clearly part of an overall long-term trend:

b) implies that by having these edits, people will have to spend time looking at them and deciding whether to validate or reject. But we have that already – every edit that is made, in theory, gets glanced over by someone who decides whether or not to remove it. The problem is that whilst removal is obvious, there is no way to say “I have looked at this edit and choose to validate it”; every valid-but-potentially-dubious edit will thus be looked at by a number of people who – effectively – have no way of signalling to each other that the work’s been done. Allowing it to be marked as “acceptable” thus should tend to reduce the overall effort – the first person needs to make slightly more effort than they would otherwise have done, but ten others are saved assessing it.

a) is the most complicated. To a degree, this is a pretty visceral thing; I’ve debated this two or three times over the past few days and never seen anyone alter their position (either way) on it. But fundamentally, it’s a variant on c) – more people get to edit, there is more chance of more voices being heard. Yes, people can be “screened” by not having their edits prominently shown to passing readers – but if their edits were viewed as undesirable for whatever reason, under the old system they would have been reverted pretty quickly anyway. A page that is put under protection should not be there in order to ensure that one perspective is presented and another legitimate perspective is locked out; if that is the case, the fundamental problem lies with the decision to protect, not the mechanism used to protect. I’m firmly of the opinion that “conventional” protection is a mechanism with fundamentally more potential for censorship and suppression than this approach.

On the whole, I’m pretty positive about it. It’s not a panacea; it won’t solve everything, and it probably won’t have an overwhelmingly drastic effect on the areas it’s dealing with. But it will make some things better, it probably won’t have noticeable knock-on effects, and… well, we never pretended the old way was perfect. Why be afraid to experiment?

(For those of you wanting to read more: the help page; the official announcement; and a 2009 article on the long history of the proposal.)

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