Among the critical errors are assertions that Wikipedia is closing off otherwise open editing with the new software, or confusions of various proposed implementations of the software. It's a cloud of doubt that does not help Wikipedia: there is more than enough fear, uncertainty and doubt around all things "flagged revisions", and that is unhealthy for community discussions on how to run the project. As such, this post will serve to point out key facts about flagged revisions and its history, and outline where the future might be headed.
The FlaggedRevs software
- FlaggedRevs is an extension to the MediaWiki software that runs Wikipedia.
- FlaggedRevs is highly configurable. Different settings in the software can produce vastly different systems of authentication, some even simultaneous.
- As the software, FlaggedRevs should not be confused with any given implementation of the software.
The planned implementation
- The planned implementation of FlaggedRevs on the English Wikipedia is a test. The test is expected to run for around two months, after which the community will evaluate its impact and debate longer-term plans.
- The planned implementation has two parts, "flagged protection" and "patrolled revisions".
- Flagged protection is a system not unlike Wikipedia's current page protection system. In the current system, pages can be "protected" or "semi-protected" by administrators, with the former restricting editing to administrators and the latter to "autoconfirmed" users (any user with at least ten edits whose account is at least four days old). With flagged protection, all users will be able to edit an article, but only certain users will be able to mark a version of the article as acceptable so that it appears as the main version of the article. Only articles that would otherwise be protected will end up "flag-protected".
- Patrolled revisions is a review feature. While it will apply to all articles, its primary effect will be to mark versions of an article as reviewed. This will help keep out vandalism, since it will be possible to easily check all the changes made since the last patrolled revision. It won't affect things otherwise.
- The current test was ratified in a poll held from 17 March 2009 through 1 April 2009; 324 users participated and 259, or approximately 80%, supported the implementation.
- The planned implementation should not be confused with the original suggested implementation, which is substantially different.
The original implementation
- This implementation of the software was the original design of the software.
- This implementation can be called "flagged revisions", but one must be careful not to confuse that phrase with other instances of the FlaggedRevs software.
- The German Wikipedia elected to use this implementation of the software, and continues to do so, having started in May 2008. Language versions of Wikipedia are largely independent and can use separate articles, policies, and software extensions.
- The original implementation would have effectively applied "flagged protection" to every article on the wiki. All edits would have to be manually reviewed by established editors before they appeared as the main version of the page.
- A test of the original implementation was proposed in a poll on the English Wikipedia, but failed to gain consensus, with only 59.6% support from 720 users. On Wikipedia, majority does not suffice; "consensus" for large numbers of users typically entails at least a 75% supermajority, though 80% or greater is preferred.
Availability of FlaggedRevs
The FlaggedRevs software has been available since at least 2007. Its controversial nature in the community has been the main bar to its implementation: the Wikimedia developers typically do not implement such major software changes without broad community support.
Nevertheless, the English Wikipedia presents a unique technical challenge because of its size, and so despite the success of the poll requesting the flagged protection & patrolled revisions implementation, FlaggedRevs is not available on the English Wikipedia yet. The specific details of the implementation also cause trouble, in both that they stretch the original design of the software and that FlaggedRevs is controversial enough that arguments may be had over the minutiae of any implementation.
In any event, a test implementation is up and available at http://flaggedrevs.labs.wikimedia.org/wiki/, and developers have indicated that the software will go live within the next few weeks.
Debating the original proposal
The original implementation of FlaggedRevs, as a measure whose actions are essentially restrictive, is very controversial within Wikipedia and, I get the impression, outside it as well. It has certain evident advantages:
- With flagged revisions, effective vandalism is virtually impossible, and in any event lacks all thrill when it will typically not be seen by any but the user that removes it.
- By extension, libel and other problems are similarly unlikely when manual review is required for all edits. Wikipedia's real-world responsibilities, e.g. to avoid negatively affecting the lives of those it describes, become more manageable.
- Flagged revisions offers unique opportunities for long-term review of changes to Wikipedia articles. While tools for examining the differences (or "diffs") between articles have long been a part of the core MediaWiki software, there are not yet tools for "flagging" revisions as having particular levels of quality.
- In large projects, it's hard to tell how much backlog of edits would be incurred, or how that backlog would be distributed. There's a significant concern that the backlog could be days or weeks long, much like the existing backlog for reviewing new pages.
- Flagged revisions represents a serious barrier to openness. The Wikipedia community not only prides itself on its openness, but is fueled by it: many new users become long-term members after discovering editing spontanously.
- Were disruptive elements to abuse the flagged revisions system by "flagging" inappropriate material, the damage would be greater than to a system agnostic of editorial approval.
There are a number of various groups on Wikipedia pushing either way, and though I do not wish to draw misleading borders, they tend to generally fall into valuing either prevention of vandalism and libel, or the openness of the site, higher than the other. Some would go as far as to suggest that all contributors be required to provide real-name authentication: others, like myself, worry that Wikipedia would lose its greatest strength were it to become less open.
Openness of the planned system
The planned system, flagged protection & patrolled revisions, represents a serious improvement, in my view, on the original flagged revisions proposal. It removes much of the restrictiveness of that system, at the expense, even, of the potential gains. Most of the restrictions are now only for features where users would already be restricted from editing, or to new features. The focus is on the process of review, rather than the process of editing.
In this planned system, flagged protection would likely help make Wikipedia more open. Where pages are currently protected so that certain groups of users are restricted completely from editing, it would surely be more open for them to be able to edit but require review of those edits. There exists a system of requesting edits on Wikipedia already: I imagine that this system could be superseded by a simpler method of requesting confirmation of edits to those pages. Flagged protection can replace older, cruder methods of protecting pages, and thus be more inclusive.
Patrolled revisions is a feature that will be restricted to established users, but that considered, it's important to note that it does not remove any permission from any user. It is merely a sensitive permission that, to prevent abuse, won't be given to all users. In the long term, it is my hope that patrolled revisions can serve as a sort of insurance for Wikipedia's reliability: people worried about viewing vandalism can view a reviewed version of an article to be sure to avoid it, while the current revision of the article remains completely open for editing.
The future of Wikipedia
FlaggedRevs as a software highlights much of Wikipedia's character: there is a constant balancing act going on between editorial oversight and openness, and it's always tempting to see what would happen were it pushed one way or another. On the one hand lies potential stagnancy through lack of contributions, and on the other lies stagnancy through a glut of mediocre content. Developing Wikipedia serves as a challenge that is also an experiment: no group of people has before managed such an ambitious project so openly, let alone had the success that Wikipedia has enjoyed. I, along with many others, worry that whatever is implemented will shape public opinion of Wikipedia, influence the size and shape of its contributor base, or be a platform for increasing (or decreasing) restrictions on Wikipedia's content. We can only hope that the future Wikipedia will continue to improve and succeed.