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Web's favourite RPG hits the headlines

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Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, made another rare public relations concession as he took to the cable news networks today. Once again, it's Wikipedia that's giving the web a bad name.

Wales says the venture will tighten up its rules, preventing anonymous users from creating articles. However anonymous edits to existing articles will still be permitted, and articles in the system that have been edited anonymously will remain. And accountability remains elusive: "editors" can still hide behind pseudonymous identities.

It's a public relations surrender to John Seigenthaler, a 78-year old former assistant to Robert Kennedy who published an article in USA Today last week describing how his Wikipedia page had been vandalized and the edits gone unnoticed for several months. The changes suggested he had been "suspected" in the assassinations of both RF and JF Kennedy, and also falsely stated that he had lived in the USSR for 13 years.

"We live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research, but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects," Seigenthaler told the New York Times.

He wasn't convinced by the concession. Wikipedia will either have to fix the problem or will lose whatever credibility it still has, he told AP's Dan Goodin.

But Seigenthaler is not the only high profile figure to discover Wikipedia's potential as a multi-user graffiti board.

Few Norwegians are now unfamiliar with the site, after it won a publicity bonanza this month thanks to coverage on TV and in the national press. Unfortunately, it wasn't the kind the Wikipedians might have wished for. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg found himself labelled a paedophile who had served prison time for his offenses. Both facts were false.

In Seigenthaler's case, the delay was long enough for the false allegations to be replicated widely. Wikipedia is a prime candidate for "site scraping", and dozens of sites, most of which are created by spammers, make use of its content.

Game on

There are many ways to think of Wikipedia. For its supporters, it's an "emergent" sign of "collective intelligence". But former Brittanica editor Robert McHenry has a more useful metaphor.

"It's got the public playing the encyclopedia game," he told us recently. "It's also like playing a game in the sense that playing it has no consequences. If something goes wrong, you just restart. No problem!"

In fact, we can extend the metaphor further, by looking at Wikipedia as a massively scalable, online role-playing game, or RPG. Players can assume fictional online identities - and many "editors" do just that. And drive-by shootings are common.

But the rules of the game are shifting, complex, and far from transparent.

A case in point. After Seigenthaler's article was tainted, Wikipedia defenders castigated him for not fixing his own entry. This merits an article in itself, and we'll leave aside questions of morally responsibility merely to note that the Byzantine complexities of defending an edit are enough to repel any sensible person from getting involved. As documentary maker Jason Scott describes here:

It's that there's a small set of content generators, a massive amount of wonks and twiddlers, and then a heaping amount of procedural whackjobs. And the mass of twiddlers and procedural whackjobs means that the content generators stop being so and have to become content defenders. Woe be that your take on things is off from the majority.

So what are the rules are about editing your own entry? The Wikipedia biography guidelines ("WP:BIO") list only criteria for inclusion. The Vanity Guidelines suggest the article should be "not overtly promotional."

Let's take three, contradictory examples.

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