Bill P. Godfrey et al

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Locking Wikipedia's stable door

Step right up folks, yet another blog post about Wikipedia.

Good thing about Wikipedia:It is a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.
Bad thing about Wikipedia:You get the idea.

If you come along to Wikipedia and make an edit, your version will then be the new primary version, shown to the world simply by the virtue that it is the latest. High quality stuff or sheer vandalism, the latest version is the one the world sees.

Yes, people do keep an eye on other people's edits and vandalism is fixed, usually by restoring a prior version which is, in the editor's opinion, "good". Thing is, in the time between the act of vandalism and the revertion, any visitors will still be shown the "bad" version.

I often dispair when I see frantic attempts to clean up after vandals, as I feel that a solution to this problem was found a long time ago. My trade is as a software engineer and one of the tools of my trade is the Version Control System. This, I feel, is exactly what Wikipedia could do with.

(Quick aside: A version control system keeps an archive of work done, allowing the user to go back to previous revisions and look over the changes that have been made.)

I'm sure some people will be saying at this point, that it has already got one. You can see it by clicking on the History button at the top of the page. Okay, what I meant to say is that it could do with a good (in my opinion) version control system.

I dislike Wikipedia's version control because it is linear. Behind the latest version is a history of prior versions all lined up in single file behind the latest. Complexities such as vandalism reversals, edit-wars (where two people keep reversing each other's changes) and edit-conflicts (where two people start editing at the same time) are all taken apart and pushed into the single file queue.

A good version control system (in my opinion again) has branches. Say I want to add a section to an existing article, but I know it will take a while to edit. It wouldn't be a good idea to show half-finished pieces of work to casual visitors, especially if it looks finished but is lacking essential clarifications. Yet if I instead edited my new section in private until its done, I would be cutting myself off from the mass collaborative dynamic that Wikipedia is so proud of.

I feel it would be far better if I could simply start a "branch" from the main history and edit there. Other people could see my branch and also make edits there. When (if) the new branch is ready, it could be merged back into the stable realm for everyone to see.

Wouldn't vandalism still be a problem? Well, Wikipedia's current strategy to stop persistent vandals is to ban them from editing. This is quite a blunt instrument. I've been banned myself, simply because I use an ISP which gives addresses out from a pool. Occasionly, my address is "tainted" because a vandal was using it before.

If everyone had the ability to make a branch from the main history, the ability to modify the stable realm could be restricted to smaller group, perhaps experts in the subject or even just trusted contributors. Everyone else could still make edits, but they would have to be approved before the casual viewer sees it. There would be nothing neccessarily stopping the casual reader from looking at the edits under development, but the first thing shown would be the good one.


Post a Comment

<< Home