It’s tough to come up with something that has been declared either dead, broken or irrelevant as many times as Wikipedia.org (okay, the Bush presidency comes close, but that’s in a different category altogether). Nick Carr alone has probably rung the funeral bells for the open-source encyclopedia at least a half a dozen times by now. The latest death knell, however, comes from the Washington Post, where Frank Ahrens uses the death of disgraced Enron chairman Ken Lay as a hook to hang his column on.
There’s no question the activity on Wikipedia following Ken Lay’s death was fascinating to watch, and is worth writing about, as Reuters did. First, it said he died of “an apparent suicide,” then “an apparent heart attack or suicide” and then that it was “yet to be determined.” An entry was posted that said “the guilt of ruining so many lives finally [sic] led him to his suicide,” but it was quickly removed and replaced with “the cause was a ‘massive coronary’ heart attack.” Someone wrote about speculation that the coronary was “due to the amount of stress put on him by the Enron trial,” but that was removed too.
Ahrens tells us that this is a sign of Wikipedia’s greatest weakness, which is presumably the openness that allows anyone to edit an entry (although the rest of the column is somewhat muddled, so it’s hard to follow his point exactly). But I would agree with Kent Newsome that in fact the process functioned as it should — mistakes were entered, and were quickly corrected, just as they are in wire stories carried on news services such as… well, Reuters.com.
Anyone who has watched a newswire report on a breaking story take shape over the course of a day has seen much worse than Wikipedia went through, and newswires are staffed (presumably) by rigorously trained and experienced journalists. In other words: nice punch, Frank — but that straw man wasn’t really up to the challenge.