Wikipedia may be about to get a little less wacky.
Jimmy Wales, head honcho and co-founder of the online encyclopedia anyone can edit, proposed last week to change the Web site's entire operating concept so that, well, not just anyone can edit it.
What prompted this change of heart? The fact that Wikipedia briefly killed off both Sen. Ted Kennedy and his longtime colleague Sen. Robert Byrd after they collapsed at President Obama's inauguration luncheon last weekend.
The Wikipedia entries on both senators stated they'd died shortly after being taken out of the room. The errors were caught and taken down after about five minutes, but they were up long enough for the Washington Post, among other media outlets, to notice.
"This nonsense would have been 100% prevented by Flagged Revisions," writes Wales on a Wikipedia discussion forum. "It could also have been prevented by protection or semi-protection, but this is a prime example of why we don't want to protect or semi-protect articles — this was a breaking news story and we want people to be able to participate (so protection is out) and even to participate in good faith for the first time ever (so semi-protection is out)."
Flagged Revisions is a system tool to make some Wikipedia pages subject to editorial scrutiny — any edits made would have to be cleared by a trusted high-level user before they could go live.
The German-language Wikipedia site already does this, but the lag time between edit and approval can be as long as three weeks.
"Our version should show very minimal delays (less than 1 week, hopefully a lot less) because we will only be using it on a subset of articles," writes Wales, "the boundaries of which can be adjusted over time to manage the backlog."
Wikipedia already "protects" certain pages — for example, almost anything on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — using a similar method so that passionate users don't skew them toward favoring a point of view.
But Wales may be right to treat breaking-news stories differently. Wikipedia provided amazingly comprehensive and up-to-minute entries on the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007 and the Mumbai terrorist attacks this past November as the events were still taking place.
Given the often contentious debate on Wikipedia user forums, Wales' suggestion was surprisingly well received, with the most salient argument against it being simply that it would create too much work. (Almost all high-level Wikipedia editors work without pay.)
For now, it's not clear when Flagged Revisions policy would go into effect, and Wales insists it would be only a test.
But it's a sign that the world's largest encyclopedia and one of the Web's most utopian concepts may have come down a bit closer to Earth.