Jimmy Wales On Wikipedia's New Editing Policy

Wikipedia has changed its editing policy. Now, articles about living people will require verification from an "experienced volunteer" editor before publication. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales explains why the online site is changing its rules.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Now to Wikipedia. Ever since the user-written online encyclopedia launched in 2001, there's been a fierce debate about the reliability of its information. At first, Wikipedia could be edited by anyone. Then it could be edited by anyone who was registered. And now articles about living people will require verification from an experienced volunteer. They'll have to edit it.

We'll talk about what this means for the landmark experiment in online collaboration. And we want to hear from you. Does this change the philosophy of Wikipedia? Are you happy with the change? The number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And as always, you can join the conversation at our Web site; go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining me now is Jimmy Wales. He is at the Wikimania conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He's the founder of the Wikipedia - Wikimedia Foundation, excuse me.

Welcome back to the program, Jimmy.

Mr. JIMMY WALES (Founder, Wikimedia Foundation): Hi, thanks for having me on.

SEABROOK: One thing that seems pertinent is that today Senator Edward Kennedy died, but his death was first reported, falsely, on Wikipedia on January 20th. Would these new regulations help with that kind of thing?

Mr. WALES: Yeah. But I think I should probably start off with some major editing to the introduction that you gave because…

SEABROOK: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALES: …the description you gave of the history of Wikipedia was basically all wrong. So…

SEABROOK: We're batting oh-for-two today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Go ahead.

Mr. WALES: So in the beginning, anybody could edit Wikipedia. And then anybody could edit Wikipedia. And as of tomorrow, anybody can edit Wikipedia. The idea that only registered users can edit, that's completely false. That's never been true.

SEABROOK: Okay.

Mr. WALES: And the purpose of what we're doing here is to open up editing to more articles rather than any kind of a locking down or closing down or more tight regulation. That's just completely not correct. What we're doing is - it's a new feature.

So traditionally what we do, as in the case of high risk articles, high risk biographies, when there's a problem, we're forced to protect the article or lock them. And there are thousands of articles like this.

SEABROOK: That you do not allow anyone to edit, in fact, right?

Mr. WALES: Some are full protected, which means, yes, no one is able to edit them. And that's usually for a very short period of time to deal with a huge quarrel or something. More typically, we will what we call semi-protect, which means you can't edit those articles unless you've had an account for at least four days. And again, we still try to do that temporarily. But for a handful of articles that's, you know, something that's gone on for years, something like…

SEABROOK: So for those you do have to be a registered user and…

Mr. WALES: For four days, yes.

SEABROOK: Okay.

Mr. WALES: For articles that are particularly high risk. And then finally we - what we're looking to do now is open those articles up and allow people to edit them even if they're not registered, even if they are, you know, completely brand new to the site. And we're going to take those edits and those will be reviewed by people who have been around for a little while before they go live on the site. So…

SEABROOK: So all edits?

Mr. WALES: No, just particular high risk articles. The - essentially the same articles. But we're also looking at using this a little more broadly than we were able to use protection for - particularly the community has a very keen interest in using it for biographies of living people. Because those are always a sensitive area.

SEABROOK: So for most biographies, are you saying that they will still be - you will still be able to edit most of them not being a registered user, anyone can do it?

Mr. WALES: Yes.

SEABROOK: This is a new way to deal with the ones that are more controversial.

Mr. WALES: Exactly. And then for those, for those - for the first time in a very long time, you will be able, as an unregistered user who's never been on the site before, to go and edit, for example, Barack Obama or George W. Bush. Those are articles that have traditionally been under semi-protection for, you know, more or less an indefinite period of time.

SEABROOK: You know, I remember this - one of the big splashes that this problem made a few years ago was when members of Congress - their staffers were changing the biography entries of the member of Congress that they worked for, to erase things like divorces and things that they didn't want in their biographies. And at that time you were just blocking computers from Capitol Hill from being able to make changes at all. Are you still blocking users at the same time?

Mr. WALES: Yeah. We'll still be doing that because that deals with a slightly different set of problems. I mean, normally if somebody comes and they do an edit that's not good, you know, somebody will try to make the best of it and hopefully we will contact the person and say, hey, you know, don't do that. And then blocking happens if there's persistent bad behavior over a period of time. So, yeah, that's definitely a tool that the community will continue to use as necessary.

SEABROOK: Now, let me ask you. Does it fundamentally change the philosophy of Wikipedia to have someone who is more reliable edit or approve the work of someone else when they're editing an entry?

Mr. WALES: You know, that's what we've always done. So you know, it's always been a matter of, you know, a core community who is monitoring the site, watching the site, and they have various tools at their disposal to be able to manage the flow of information coming into the site.

The idea here is to give them a new tool that is a little softer and a little more gentle than completely locking a page down because this something that people have said that they really want. You know, we had a poll on the site and it got something like 80 percent support from the users that this would be a useful tool.

SEABROOK: And how does one get to be an experienced editor, in quote, someone who gets to verify articles?

Mr. WALES: I think that is completely open-ended at this point. I'm not sure if - I know there was a discussion about it. I'm not sure what if anything has been particularly settled yet. Basically, the users will be able to hand out the permissions to people, and there are several different ways of doing that.

But the general idea is that it should be very easy to get to that level. We're not talking about there being 100 or 500. We're talking tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who have this ability.

SEABROOK: We have some questions for you. Let's go to Justin in Tulsa. Hi. Go ahead.

JUSTIN (Caller): Hi, there. My comment is - I'm a student here at the University of Tulsa. And so obviously Wikipedia is brought a lot when it comes to research in classes. And one thing is teachers and professors will often go against Wikipedia and say it's not verified. I have a problem with them trying this new technique because I feel like they're trying to make Wikipedia seem like a more verified source. And yet I still see it's so important (unintelligible) to research some primary sources and original documents. You feel like (unintelligible) all the research universities because now we're going to have more students going towards Wikipedia, feeling that, well, now they have someone checking it, so it must be right.

SEABROOK: Hmm. Thanks for your call, Justin. What do you say, Jimmy Wales?

Mr. WALES: Well, I think one of the things that we're really trying to do is correct a lot of the media misconceptions about this. It's very frustrating to open up the news and read all these headlines this morning that are completely wrong. But I don't think it makes a lot of sense to argue that, you know, as we take steps to make Wikipedia better and of higher quality that this is a problem because we can't jump all the way to perfection. I don't think that argument - I don't find that very persuasive. I think we should make Wikipedia as good as it possibly can be and that people should use it accordingly and realize its strengths and its weaknesses.

SEABROOK: Well, you're saying on the one hand that it's - this isn't that big of a change, that it's not that different. On the other hand, you're saying it's making Wikipedia better and of higher quality. So what exactly is it doing?

Mr. WALES: Well, I think what I'm saying is it's not a change to any fundamental philosophical principle of Wikipedia. It's, in fact, it's right consistent with all of the changes in the software that we've made along these lines. We went from - originally we only had full protection, which meant no one can edit, to semi-protection. And now we've found a way of doing something even gentler.

We've always been on this trend towards trying to maximize the openness of Wikipedia as a solution to problems and to really carve out protection to really match the problems exactly.

So even though it's not a fundamental philosophical change, I still think it is an important tool. I think it's going to be very valuable for preventing a lot of the kinds of problems that we're most concerned about, problems, you know, relating to somebody vandalizing an entry and then, you know, the general public sees it before someone gets a chance to solve it.

SEABROOK: Next up is Nancy in Menlo Park. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

NANCY (Caller): Hi.

SEABROOK: Go ahead.

NANCY: Well, I'd - I actually became an editor of an item fairly recently. My dad's boss for many years, a man named Oscar Meyer(ph), died last month. And I looked him up on Wikipedia just to see what it said, and it said that at 85, after his first wife died, Mr. Meyer had married a 21-year-old. And I happened to know the woman he married and she had kids my age, so I knew that wasn't right. And I kept thinking somebody would correct it, and nobody did, so eventually I logged in in order to correct it. But it sounds like this wouldn't be changed by this new one because nobody's going to be worried about that as a controversial site.

Mr. WALES: Yeah. I mean, it's possible that, you know, of course there will be errors that the community doesn't catch until somebody sees it and comes and lets us know - hey, there's an error on this page. So yeah, it won't necessarily make anything different about that sort of thing.

NANCY: Yeah. What scares me is that that seemed to me to be a totally malicious thing about a guy who was just truly a lovely man.

Mr. WALES: Yeah. I mean, this is the kind of thing that we're very concerned about. We really want to make sure that, you know, these kinds of things (unintelligible) in the event that we - as we begin using it, we're going to see how many biographies we want to protect like this. If we end up protecting all of them, then obviously someone will see that before it goes live. It's just not 100 percent clear yet how many revisions or how many articles the community can actively police and keep the response time fast and all that. So these are things, well, we're just going to have to experiment with.

SEABROOK: You know, it's interesting because it sounds like what you're worried about is not actually verifying entries. That's something you let these editors worry about. What you're worried about, Jimmy Wales, is keeping the process open?

Mr. WALES: Yeah. What I'm worried about is making sure that we give the community of people who's doing all that fact checking and doing all that editing the tools that they need to be able to do that in an effective way. So this is a new tool in they're bag of tools. Without those tools, obviously, it's a hopeless task. So yeah, that's kind of the way I view it.

SEABROOK: One last call. Let's go to Mike in Oakland. Hi, go ahead.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. I'm concerned about articles written by people that are partisan. For example, the mountain biking article is entirely pro-mountain biking. When I tried to inject a little truth into it, it's always removed by these so-called experts.

SEABROOK: I never knew there was such a political controversy about mountain biking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALES: One of the things I've learned is that everything is controversial, so this doesn't surprise me. So that's an interesting kind of example. I mean, I think one of the things that you, you know, that you really want to do in a situation like that is make citations to reliable sources. So I'm not sure exactly what type of information you might be wanting to include, but perhaps, you know, for example, maybe information about the level of injuries associated with it. Although it looks like there's quite a bit of information there. And if, you know, if you have a source that says, you know, actually, this is a quite risky activity, more risky than most people realize, you could quote that source or put it in the article. And I would say that's almost certain to survive.

If you simply go in and write that, and it seems like, well, you don't have a source, it's just your own opinion, that's a lot less likely to survive. One thing…

SEABROOK: Well, Jimmy Wales…

Mr. WALES: I'm sorry.

SEABROOK: …thank you very much joining us today. Jimmy Wales joined us from -by Skype from the Wikimania conference in Buenos Aires. He's the founder of the Wikimedia Foundation.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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