Wikipedia and the Deadest Guy in the Room

Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post has an article today examining Wikipedia and using the running of the historiographers at Wikipedia following the death of Ken Lay as a object lesson.

The article cites the evolving Wikipedia content that mirrored the content of office conversations everywhere after the news of Lay’s death broke. The cause of death went from suicide to unknown to heart attack. There’s not a person out there, whether online at Wikipedia or curled up in a chair reading their Encyclopedia Britannica, who didn’t wonder if he’d killed himself when they first heard the news. Yes, it’s a little morbid to wonder about such things, but when you live the unspigoted life Lay did and then get convicted on an OJ-like stage, it comes with the territory.

Many people, including me, still think the timing of Lay’s death is a little curious, to say the least. But that’s not the point.

The fact is that as far as we know, he died of a heart attack.

Frank outlines the evolution of Lay’s Wikipedia entry in the hours after the news broke- as the cause of death went from suicide to unknown to heart attack. And he mentions some questionable additions made by the very people I wrote about before (in a post Commented upon by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales), who really should be reading encyclopedias and not writing them.

In the article, Frank writes:

“But here’s the dread fear with Wikipedia: It combines the global reach and authoritative bearing of an Internet encyclopedia with the worst elements of radicalized bloggers. You step into a blog, you know what you’re getting. But if you search an encyclopedia, it’s fair to expect something else. Actual facts, say. At its worst, Wikipedia is an active deception, a powerful piece of agitprop, not information.”

While I agree that the immediacy of Wikipedia will necessarily result in some inaccuracies from time to time, particularly with respect to highly controversial matters and breaking news, I would make two points about that.

First, Wikipedia is not Encyclopedia Britannica, and I don’t think it should be compared to a traditional encyclopedia. It is the flat earth alternative, the way blogs are supposed to be the flat earth alternative to the New York Times. They cover similar topics, but the process is different and so the product is different too. Rather than written by a bunch of alleged scholars to be sold to users, Wikipedia is written by users for users. I’m all for scholars, but Andrew Keen spends a lot of time telling us he’s a scholar, and I’d rather read first grade book reports than the arrogant drivel that emanates from his pen- big words or not.

Second, and more importantly, the Wikipedia system worked. Yes, the entry was wrong at first. That is the price you pay for not having to wait and year and pay a fortune to read about it in the next edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. But it was fixed- and quickly. The collective brains of the “amateurish citizens” as Keen calls us are greater than the brain of an entry-level scholar writing for profit.

Wikipedia isn’t perfect. But this time it worked. Just the way it is supposed to.