Wikipedia's come-one, come-all invitation to write and edit articles, and the surprisingly successful results, have captured the public imagination. But it is not the experiment in freewheeling collective creativity it might seem to be, because maintaining so much openness inevitably involves some tradeoffs.
At its core, Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts--one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.
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Those measures can put some entries outside of the "anyone can edit" realm. The list changes rapidly, but as of yesterday, the entries for Einstein and Ms. Aguilera were among 82 that administrators had "protected" from all editing, mostly because of repeated vandalism or disputes over what should be said. Another 179 entries--including those for George W. Bush, Islam and Adolf Hitler--were "semi-protected," open to editing only by people who had been registered at the site for at least four days.
While these measures may appear to undermine the site's democratic principles, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, notes that protection is usually temporary and affects a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million entries on the English-language site.
"Protection is a tool for quality control, but it hardly defines Wikipedia," Mr. Wales said. "What does define Wikipedia is the volunteer community and the open participation."
From the start, Mr. Wales gave the site a clear mission: to offer free knowledge to everybody on the planet. At the same time, he put in place a set of rules and policies that he continues to promote, like the need to present information with a neutral point of view.
The system seems to be working. Wikipedia is now the Web's third-most-popular news and information source, beating the sites of CNN and Yahoo News, according to Nielsen NetRatings.
The bulk of the writing and editing on Wikipedia is done by a geographically diffuse group of 1,000 or so regulars, many of whom are administrators on the site.
"A lot of people think of Wikipedia as being 10 million people, each adding one sentence," Mr. Wales said. "But really the vast majority of work is done by this small core community."
The administrators are all volunteers, most of them in their 20's. They are in constant communication--in real-time online chats, on "talk" pages connected to each entry and via Internet mailing lists. The volunteers share the job of watching for vandalism, or what Mr. Wales called "drive-by nonsense." Customized software--written by volunteers--also monitors changes to articles.
Mr. Wales calls vandalism to the encyclopedia "a minimal problem, a dull roar in the background." Yet early this year, amid heightened publicity about false information on the site, the community decided to introduce semi-protection of some articles. The four-day waiting period is meant to function something like the one imposed on gun buyers.
Once the assaults have died down, the semi-protected page is often reset to "anyone can edit" mode. An entry on Bill Gates was semi-protected for just a few days in January, but some entries, like the article on President Bush, stay that way indefinitely. Other semi-protected subjects as of yesterday were Opus Dei, Tony Blair and sex.
To some critics, protection policies make a mockery of the "anyone can edit" notion.
"As Wikipedia has tried to improve its quality, it's beginning to look more and more like an editorial structure," said Nicholas Carr, a technology writer who recently criticized Wikipedia on his blog. "To say that great work can be created by an army of amateurs with very little control is a distortion of what Wikipedia really is."
But Mr. Wales dismissed such criticism, saying there had always been protections and filters on the site.