March 20, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke - proud of his Wikipedia legacy or late to his own party?

Constantly_changing_pages Arthur C. Clarke passed away this week, and the activity on his Wikipedia page is something he would have been proud to see. All thanks and kudos to David Muir for the thinking that got me started on this blog post, which came from a chat we shared this week and his discovery of Clarke's death via Twitter.

What David noticed, and which has since astounded me, is the speed with which a holding message (pictured) advises readers of the page that information is likely to change quickly and be frequently updated for the next while, while the history of the page reads like a second-by-second data log. While alive, Clarke's wikipedia entry was edited at a rate of about three screens worth in six months (October to March). Since his death, edits have been occurring at a pace many times faster - nineteen screens worth in just two days.

This tells us a lot about sense of legacy, and about the unexpected nature of his death (newspaper journos with nothing better to do often get given obits to get back up-to-date in case something happens unexpectedly, hence the quick turnaround of most famous people in the inside pages).

But it also reveals how inaccurate and/or incomplete that page must have lain until his death. Just how much data has been landed there, edited, debated and finalised, all because, suddenly, there is more of an audience for the page than ever before, more of a prerogative to get it right once and for all? It's not filling me up with confidence on wikipedia entries unless, of course, the person I'm researching happens to be rather dead.

Of course, as John Naughton has pointed out, there can often be just as many inaccuracies post mortem as in life. Student researcher - and obit-writer - beware.


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> But it also reveals how inaccurate that page must have lain until his death.

How does that follow?

The page could have been perfectly accurate - but written as well as it could be, not as complete as it could be, etc.

Which, in fact, is more likely...

It also has a lot to do with the notion of celebrity, and reminds me of a passage in the William Boyd novel 'The New Confessions' where the narrator John Todd, a former director of silent movies, who has by 1972 fallen into obscurity stumbles on his entry in a movie encyclopaedia which starts John Todd (b. 1899 d. 1960?)!!!
Out of sight, out of mind!

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Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

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