Wikipedia: Black and White and Wrong All Over

What I know is not to rely on open source encyclopedias

Day one for the oft-described “first tech-savvy” president of the United States tested the mettle of the World Wide Web. Simultaneous streaming video over the Internet was reportedly at its highest ever, thanks to those of us who chose the comfort of the office over a front-row seat to history and the risk of hypothermia at Washington D.C.’s National Mall. 

In the end, the Web won the day. Not only did it endure all that heavy lifting, it mostly did so at the typical broadband pace we short-attention span types can tolerate, with a surprisingly few periods of lag time.

And how about the speed with which some rabbit-reflexed webmaster changed regimes on the official White House Web site? Per our Constitution, the old dot-gov recognized President Barack Obama’s  authority at straight-up noon. It happened so fast, the site reported things that hadn't even happened yet.

According to a 12:01 p.m. blog post by White House director of new media Macon Phillips, “A short time ago, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.” Yet the video timestamp reveals that President Obama didn’t place his hand off the bible until four minutes later, at 12:05 p.m.

Impressive, yes, but it hardly ranks an awesome-update mention compared to the blink-and-you’d-miss-it action on Wikipedia that same day. That’s right, the president’s Web Czar just couldn’t match the mad skillz of the jackass responsible for breaking the big fake news:  Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. is dead!

Of course, he totally isn’t, but that wasn’t the salient point for the Wiki-warrior. When given the choice between accuracy and dropping some dubious drama before anyone else had the chance, “First!” bragging rights won out.

So there you go, kids. Wikipedia is not a news source. Remember that next time you have a social studies or history report due. Except, well, sometimes it gets it right and breaks a real story. So it is a kind of a news source … sort of an incredibly unreliable news source that’s likely to bury its hinky lede — like, oh, let’s say the subject’s death — in the last paragraph.

Yes, that’s where the Sen. Kennedy’s untimely tidbit was found. The false information wasn’t blatant or bolded, just tagged at the end of the senator’s side box scorecard. Even rush-to-the-ready fabricators know a thing or two about subtlety, evidently. Not that it lessens the impact for the reader.

“Oh my God, Wikipedia already has it!” (My desk mate’s announcement upon checking the relevant entry soon after the news of Sen. Kennedy’s seizure broke.)

It was true. The addition’s presence, not the death intel.

I IM’d this bit of inaugural Internet culture to my boss on the other side of the country, in Redmond, Wa.

His response? We were mistaken. The page was devoid of deathly detail.

We refreshed. Boss was right. News was gone. We refreshed again. Boss was wrong. The inaccurate information was back. And so it went with each subsequent reload. Like some macabre hokey pokey, the Sen. Kennedy’s status swapped over and over until the entry was locked down to keep the citizen jackasses at bay.

The discussion area revealed that we were not alone in our Wiki-voyeurism:

“I apologize for informally posting here but Ted Kennedy isn't dead,” wrote the insistent, first poster. “Why dose (sic) it say that he is dead when he isn't? HE'S NOT DEAD. CHECK YOUR INFO. WOW. You, my friend, are a pure mor*n.”

It was action time in the sooner-or-later-self-policed community, as a second contributor chimed in: “Editors, please lock this page for further edits until something definite is known about Senator Kennedy. The ghouls are already descending on this page to celebrate Kennedy's collapse and prematurely declaring him dead. It's not only childishly hateful, but horrendously inaccurate.”

Another civic-minded poster wrote: “Thank you for removing the Jan. 20th Date of Death. You beat me to it.”

The quick moving Wikipedia avatar’s response: “You're welcome. (I also changed "was" to "is".)”

Got to love that kind of equal dedication to content and grammar in the midst of the Wikipedia vandalism war we’d we all stumbled upon.

But we didn’t really stumble upon it. Apparently, mankind has evolved in such a way that checking Wikipedia whenever news of an uncertain origin or ending hits is now a reflex imprinted in our reptile brains.

That “FIRST!” guy who initially changed the profile, the Wikipedia avatar who corrected the entry and everyone who caught the false information — we heard something bad and that’s where we went. Apparently, Wikipedia is now the Public Storage space for our universal subconscious. It houses prized possessions and a fare share of worthless junk, too.

That said, I totally heart Wikipedia. We all do. Sure, it’s reliably unreliable at times, but that’s part of its not-so-newsy charm — we’re in charge of separated the faux from the facts.

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