Technology

What to do on the web when you are dead

Cross in graveyard
Image caption Bill is not dead, nor is he a zombie

Bill Thompson is feeling much better after the premature announcement of his heart attack.

If you happened to visit my Wikipedia entry last weekend then you might be somewhat surprised to see this article, because you probably think I'm dead.

I don't think many people check me out on Wikipedia, but there may be a few of you out there, and I want to reassure you that I'm no less healthy than I was last Friday, still cycling at speed round the streets of Cambridge and looking forward to many more years of technology punditry, future dreaming and good coffee.

The reports of my death on Wikipedia were not merely, as Mark Twain famously put it, exaggerated - they were entirely fictional but plausible enough to be taken seriously by the average Wikipedia visitor.

At 13:42 on 18 June an anonymous visitor to the site clicked "Edit" on my biography and added the following line

Image caption Despite what Wikipedia says Bill has not had a heart attack

On the morning of 17th June 2010, Thompson collapsed following a [[Myocardial Infarction|heart attack]] at his home in [[Cambridge]]. He was rushed to [[Addenbrooke's Hospital]] for emergency care however doctors discovered further complications including [[Aortic Dissection|a tear in the arterial wall]] which ultimately proved irreparable. Thompson died at around 11.15am GMT

They also remembered to update the date on my biography to say 6 October 1960-17 June 2010, and then they headed off.

I didn't actually find out about it all until Tuesday afternoon, the 22nd, when I came out of a meeting and found a tweet from Charles Arthur, The Guardian's Technology Editor, enquiring after my health,

charlesarthur: @billt seen http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Thompson_(technology_writer) ? Read the first lineā€¦

Since I'd been active online since after the date of my "death" none of my Twitter friends took it seriously

darrenwaters @charlesarthur @billt is tweeting beyond grave. cool

tomabba @charlesarthur @billt dammit! I've got Bill booked for a talk in November. Do I a new speaker now...?

my favourite, after I told everyone I was OK, was

abeeken AAAGH!!!! @billt JUST CONFIRMED HE'S A ZOMBIE!!!

History lesson

The change had been made on Friday afternoon but I hadn't noticed it, and nor apparently had anyone who knows me.

On the Tuesday afternoon before Charles alerted me to the hoax, user FunkyCanute kindly changed my biography into the past tense, then realised that it was a fake and undid the changes, though they didn't apparently think to delete the actual paragraph itself, and I had to do that myself.

I realise that it's against Wikipedia policy for someone to edit their own entry, but as far as I'm concerned the one situation where it's permissible is to correct the mistaken impression that you're dead, since the fact that you're there to make the changes is the sort of external evidence that Wikipedia looks for.

And so far no zealous editor has decided that my breach of policy means that the death notice has to be restored until I turn up in person at Jimmy Wales' house to plead my case.

Wikipedia keeps full records of every change and who makes them, so it was easy to find that my death notice had been added by someone who wasn't a logged-in user - though they may have an account they weren't using - from a computer with the IP address 86.14.235.68.

A quick search reveals that this address is used by Virgin Media for the Cambridge customers, and if I had access to Virgin Media's internal network I could probably find out which subscriber was using that address on the afternoon in question, but I don't have such access.

So far that's the limit of my investigation. I might be able find out exactly who that address was allocated to at the appropriate time and figure out whether it was a friend, an enemy or a random drive-by edit designed to annoy or entertain people.

Perhaps someone read the many articles I've written about Wikipedia and decided I was an enemy of the people who needed to be executed without even the benefit of a show trial.

But I've decided I don't really want to know who did this or why and can't see that anything good would come of being aware that someone I know thought it was a good idea to do something that had the potential to cause many people I love and care for pain and distress.

It doesn't really matter to me since I'm unlikely to come across a fake Wikipedia entry on myself, read that I'm dead and promptly wink out of existence, Doctor Who style, so apart from a vague irritation that I now have to keep a watch on the page in future it hasn't affected me at all, but others might have read it and been worried.

Freedom always comes at a price, and the freedom to edit that has allowed Wikipedia to grow so large and become so central to our online experience means that people can change articles for many different reasons.

Perhap the person who edited my article really did think I'd been rushed to Addenbrooke's, and just got the wrong Bill. There are lots of us around, as musician Bill Thompson will testify, and the actor Bill Thompson who played Uncle Waldo in The Aristocats did indeed die of a heart attack in 1971.

There isn't anything that could be done to protect the online biography of a relatively obscure UK technology journalist from occasional vandalism that wouldn't harm the larger project or make it less likely that an average Wikipedia user would decide to make a single edit in order to correct an error in an article.

The great benefits that come from that freedom are so important that we have to allow that sometimes people will do wrong, foolish or hurtful things. I'd much rather have a Wikipedia that tells people I'm dead when I'm not than no Wikipedia at all.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.

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