Saturday, March 17, 2007

Wikipedia's (Sin)bad

Apparently, people got very excited when the Wikipedia article on Sinbad erroneously reported his death. As reported in the Washington Post's AP story, the story generated hundreds of calls, emails, and other condolences. I'd have made a few more news links, but I realized when looking to do so that it all seems to be just the one Associated Press story with a slightly different headline.

I thought Sinbad's reaction was interesting:

When asked if he was upset about the mix-up, Sinbad, whose real name is David Adkins, just laughed.

"It's gonna be more commonplace as the Internet opens up more and more. It's not that strange," the Los Angeles-based entertainer told the Associated Press in a phone interview.

Level-headed guy. Though I suppose being in the public eye for awhile more or less forces you to take on a sense of humor about these things, I appreciate the leeway he seems to be affording us. The next line in the article, though, caught my attention:
Sinbad, who is currently on the road doing stand up, said he hasn't received an apology from the Internet site.
I have a feeling he was prompted -- they probably asked him specifically if he had or hadn't. My initial reaction was to wonder if Wikipedians as a whole owed him an apology, but I think it's the least we could do. It'd be a bit of a stretch to say we're directly responsible for the mix-up, but if we the editors don't take responsibility for Wikipedia, who will? With that in mind, a belated apology to Mr Adkins -- I can't speak for everyone in the Wikipedia community, but I'll remember this incident, and will do my best to learn from it.

Judging from edit times, the fake death was up for about two hours before being removed; that's an awfully long interim period, and it managed to prompt this whole storm. I'm reminded of a post Kelly Martin made not too long ago, about article rot:
Rot gets in when an article is vandalized twice and the reverting patroller only reverts one of the vandalisms. This is relatively common, and is increasingly more of a problem as vandalism patrol has become even more of a "point and shoot" game for the people who play it: these people have such a sense of urgency combined with a lack of interest in actually reading the articles, that they often don't look to see if they've reverted to a vandalized version (or even look at what they've reverted at all).
And KM's right on that count, I think. I put in a lot of time on recent changes patrol, and I need to remind myself every so often that, while we're pretty good at what we do, we're not as good as we sometimes like to think. I didn't know anything about this affair until a very close friend linked me to a news report on Yahoo; sure, it's a big wiki, but when RC patrol slips up, I feel at least partially to blame.

It may be silly, but it keeps me motivated.

I think, ultimately, the best thing we can do in response to this sort of thing is to educate our readers. This sort of false report is all too common -- just the other day, I reverted the same sort of nonsense at Will Smith's article. So, people need to think critically about what they read, and we need to give them the tools to do so.

So, when you see any suspicious report on Wikipedia:
  1. Remind yourself that anyone can edit Wikipedia, and their changes will be visible immediately.
  2. Check for sourcing. Any report of that nature should be attributed to a reliable source.
  3. Check the history tab. This will show you a list of every change to the article, allowing you to quickly tell who changed what, when they changed it, and what they changed.
And please don't forget to make sure the celebrity's sudden death actually makes sense. For nearly half of the two-hour period mentioned above, the article reported that Sinbad had died on 14 March 2009 -- two years after today's date. That, at least, should throw up a few red flags.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Can you please just let me edit Wikipedia and be happy about it? Jokes are funny!