Thursday, July 06, 2006

I found it on Wikipedia

The recent death of Kenneth Lay has served a number of different purposes. One, it has brought tragedy to a family that was already figuring out how to cope without their patriarch due to a potentially lengthy prison term. Two, it has prompted conspiracy theorists to crawl out of the woodwork to insist that Lay isn't actually dead, but that he faked everything in order to get out of serving any of his sentence. And three, it has pointed out one of the weaknesses in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.

Now, overall, Wikipedia can actually be a fairly positive thing, as the pooling together of global information, especially when it can be edited by the rest of the online community, should lead to better dissemination of that information. And yet, therein also lies the tragic flaw of the Wikipedia, as there is no actual body of editors or fact-checkers, and anyone can edit the entries therein by simply signing up for a free membership. An entry can be incorrect, fixed by a more reliable source, such as the creator or a close personal confidante, and then returned back to the incorrect form by someone certain that they have the facts right because that's "just the way they've heard it".

For example, Ken Lay's biography had, in less than one hour, seven different causes of death, ranging from the basic ("yet to be determined") to the farfetched ("The guilt of ruining so many lives finally [sic] led him to his suicide"), before it finally settled on citing KHOU-TV out of Houston for the information regarding a heart attack. Had it taken longer to come to an actual cause of death, we may have found Wikipedia entries talking about how Lay died battling aliens in a valiant attempt to save the world from further Enron scandals, all the while letting the Holy Grail slip through his fingers to rest eternally in the embrace of Mother Earth. Or that he'd strapped on some Acme rocket shoes and miscalculated his flightpath.

The free and willing spread of information is a good thing, and it's always positive to see as many different sources working together to get the words out in a highly informative way. That is where the Wikipedia shines. But, without more stringent editorship, or, at least, a willingness to search out authorities on the subjects, then the Wikipedia will never be more than what it currently is. A jumble of webpages, some good, some bad, united under a common theme of "I'm pretty sure it's this way."

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