The Wikirstaff Papers

I don't contribute to Wikipedia, but I remain fascinated by it. For the last couple of years, I have been thinking about the war between it and the Britannica, and though I know that Wikipedia will ultimately win, I always revel in the problems that keep bringing it to the websites of CNN and the Drudge Report.

Most recently, as many of you will know, Wikipedia, or one of its contributers, got a wee bit into the Bickerstaff business with respect to the comedian known as Sinbad. Someone altered the entry on the latter to reflect that he had died of a heart attack (view CNN's report on it here). A user quickly picked it up, forwarded the link, and quickly caused a wave of mourning for the recently undeceased.

Naturally, I thought of Jonathan Swift and The Bickerstaff Papers, in which Swift declares the death of the astrologer John Partridge, much to Partridge's dismay. The following is from The Tatler, No. 1, April 12 1709:
I have in another Place, and in a Paper by it self, sufficiently convinc'd this Man that he is dead, and if he has any Shame, I don't doubt but that by this Time he owns it to all his Acquaintance: For tho' the Legs and Arms, and whole Body, of that Man may still appear and perform their animal Functions; yet since, as I have elsewhere observ'd, his Art is gone, the Man is gone.
I should very much like to think that the nefarious editor of Sinbad's entry was up to something similar, though I doubt it. We hardly needed someone to resurrect Sinbad only to inform us of his passing. His character -- his art -- has been long enough in Fortune's mausoleum to render the Wikipedian obituary superfluous. I do like the idea, though, of Wikipedia as a site of this sort of discourse. Obviously it would ruin whatever integrity the site aspires to have, but as a source of information increasingly trafficked by more and more of the world, it seems an ideal location in which to recreate the sort of "universal" stir enjoyed by the papers of Steele and Addison.

Alas, 'tis not to be. Wikipedia, naturally, locked then entry for the moment in order to prevent another wonderful phenomena of the modern age. "Knowledge" -- which is or will become as synonymous with Wikipedia as it once was with the Britannica -- is subject to vandalism. That's a hell of a thing to be able to say. Not error, not lies, not misinformation, not even satire, if it was that, but vandalism. I'm not sure what the ramifications of this are, but I'm certain they're interesting.

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