Ted Kennedy and the Wikipedia Ripple

Foremost, my condolences to the family of Ted Kennedy, and to the citizens of the great state of Massachusetts, of which I can now be proud to count myself a member.

Kennedy’s death late last night comes almost immediately following Wikipedia’s announcement that it will begin locking the articles of living people subject to review by a panel of Wikipedia administrators, a policy aimed at preventing incidents like the vandalism of Kennedy’s own profile on January 20th after Wiki edits prematurely claimed that he had died following a collapse at the inauguration. The policy, which is already in place for every article on the German language version of the site, is intended to prevent the spurious fabrication of information that could prove “devastating to those individuals.” One might recall a less famous incident whereby 90s sitcom star Sinbad received calls from concerned family members who had read on the comedian’s Wikipedia page that he was dead – he wasn’t.

This too follows Wikipedia’s announcement of its 3 millionth article, a milestone that it took the site so long to reach following its 2 millionth that researchers (such as Ed Chi at the Palo Alto Research Center) have declared that the site has long since plateaued, stagnated. Wikipedia is like your crazy Uncle Jim, long since over the hill, but still pretending that disco is going to make a comeback.

That being said, although morbid, it might be possible to suggest that Wikipedia’s fullest opportunity for expansion still does come with the death of certain high profile individuals, and thus that founder Jimmy Wales’ newly installed policy is both counter-intuitive and actually downright harmful. The Times article cited above, as well as virtually every recent news reference to the site more generally, makes a point of mentioning just how many page views Michael Jackson’s Wiki page experienced in the hours immediately after his death (6 million in 24 hours, and 24 million more since then). Although reports of Wiki traffic following Kennedy’s death have obviously not yet been released, one too would imagine the figure to be staggering. Yet merely looking at the history update for Kennedy’s page tells an interesting enough story on its own – that events of this magnitude not only draw in readers, but generate new content.

The first report of Kennedy’s death came in at 05:19 on the site’s internal clock; since then, nearly 300 additional edits have been made, expanding on events from Kennedy’s early life, including reams of quotations from current politicians on the man’s legacy, and even creating additional, wholly new spin-off pages regarding Kennedy’s vacant seat and the host of individuals who might be considered for eventual nomination. Since I’ve been writing this, a dozen new edits have been made, many by people with only their IP addresses listed, or, that is, without active Wikipedia accounts. What this suggests is that those seeking news on Kennedy’s passing are likewise compelled to yet further contribute to the page, and by extension to the Wikipedia project as a whole. Very few of these posts are of the vandalism variety; just prior to his death, Kennedy’s religion was changed from Roman Catholicism to “the cult of Obama,” and yet since, even the man’s most ardent critics seem content to let him rest in peace.

Now imagine what might have transpired under Wikipedia’s new policy. As a living politician (and one who had recently been subject to erroneous reporting, no less), Kennedy’s profile would have been locked until a critical mass of news sources had corroborated his death. This means that the enormous influx of curious readers would have only landed on, say, the AP’s website, the New York Times‘, the Boston Globe‘s. In the same way that Twitter and Tumblr make it so ludicrously easy to register (even sans email) that every visitor would be foolish to not just go ahead and set up an account, Wikipedia’s imperative ought to be that every visitor feel compelled to make an edit of some kind. And yet with traffic rerouted to conventional news sites in the interim between Kennedy’s death and the unlocking of his page, all of that traffic, all of those potential insights and revisions, are lost.

Obviously Wikipedia is a compendium of knowledge, and not an exercise in journalism, but it still remains in the site’s interest to be the first spot on the web to announce breaking news. To distance ourselves from any immediate event, let’s say that I’m a Staten Island commuter and I see Sonny Corleone positively riddled with bullets while passing through a tollbooth. Since I’m not a credentialed member of the press, I can’t verily call up the New York Post to pass along the scoop. Doesn’t Wikipedia want me to come to them with this vital, if uncorroborated, information? Wouldn’t the Corleone family want me to do so as well, if only so that they can begin plotting their revenge? Wikipedia, in its infancy, seemed predicated on the democratizing thought that the insights of people like our hypothetical commuter are important, more than important, but the very way in which we’re meant to see the world.

It would be nice to feel that way again.


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