No Longer A Free-For-All, Wikipedia Grows Up

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, was founded in 2001 with the idea that anyone could edit its entries in an attempt to promote general knowledge. Of course, that openness also led to a now-infamous prank falsely linking journalist John Seigenthaler to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Now Wikipedia is piloting a new feature called "flagged revisions" that will require any changes to an article made by the public about a living person or current organization be approved by an experienced editor.

"We are no longer at the point that it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks," said Michael Snow, chairman of the Wikipedia board, in a New York Times article. "There was a time probably when the community was more forgiving of things that were inaccurate or fudged in some fashion -- whether simply misunderstood or an author had some ax to grind. There is less tolerance for that sort of problem now."

The change, which has already been implemented in the German-language version of Wikipedia and will most likely be implemented soon in the U.S., is sure to create some sort of outcry, with people claiming that Wikipedia is departing from its original mission of being a data repository that anyone could join and update.

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Still, the move by Wikipedia is likely about the greater good as well as a signal that it is leaving its adolescence. While it may make for a funny joke to edit a relatively innocuous fact about a living person or current business, some of the vandalism that occurs can be far more damaging. U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd and actor/comedian Sinbad, for example, have both been the target of hoaxes claiming they had died.

That sort of change is not only harmful, it's also puerile. Ultimately, it serves no purpose but to turn an otherwise informative true piece of information about a person or company into a falsehood.