Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fleeting Permanence of Knowledge on the Web

What an appropriate topic today.

Considering the work I had done yesterday on the list of links for Northern Virginia history resources disappeared along with work I had done days earlier, even without a obvious keystroke, I am too familiar with this concept.

But it was reinforced this evening when looking at the Wikipedia article for IndyCar driver, Dan Wheldon. Wheldon was killed today in a wreck and like thousands of others eager to learn more about him, I Googled him to find out more about the crash and his career. I took note of the Wikipedia entry with the cautionary note: "This article is about a person who has recently died. Some information, such as that pertaining to the circumstances of the person's death and surrounding events, may change as more facts become known."

Amazing how quickly Wikipedia contributors will post info on a famous or infamouse person's death! This was something I paid particular attention to last spring when the death of actor Jeff Conaway was imminent. Conaway had a documented history of substance abuse and was on life support so his actual death was not a surprise and yet following the dozens of changes to his Wikipedia article in the week before his death was sadly fascinating. So bizarre to watch the apparent throwdown among Wikipedia contributors to see who would get his actual death information correct!

Fleeting but correctable.

Thinking back to the times when I would need to get a correction in a newspaper and people would remind me that no one ever reads the corrections. While that might largely be true, at least the facts would get printed in hard copy, there for the permanent record. This consideration remains with me when I consult historical newspaper sources for information and I remind myself to check the issues following a specific news item, just to see if anything had changed. I have found cases of critically ill and injured people who were reported to be dead but actually survived and subsequent clarifications appeared in the paper. But this was more than one hundred years ago. And what about those erroneous reports that were never corrected?

What was the excuse or rush with Jeff Conaway? What was the rush to call the 2000 Presidential election? Tim Russert's clipboard. Wishy-washy headlines. Wrong headlines. Dewey Defeats Truman.

What about the Sago miners? I'm still waiting to hear how that got botched.

I value instant access to information and still I question all information, evaluating and balancing information and the sources of information. Where did it come from? What do I know about the source? What is the source's motive for sharing the information? In a year or twenty years from now, will this information be perceived as accurate?

So Jeff Conaway, Dan Wheldon, Tim Russert and twelve Sago miners are still dead. Web entries, articles newspapers and other sources for information still get clarified, corrected, updated and deleted.

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