Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Racism, Wikipedia, and Vampire Watermelons

Our discussion today about open source reminded me of an internet legend concerning the Wikipedia I recently came across. Inaccuracies and deliberate misinformation in the Wikipedia aren't limited to obviously contentious topics like George Bush and John Kerry. Consider the strange case of the Vampire Watermelon.

Apparently, the Vampire Watermelon is the creation of British comedic fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, but some of his fans thought it would be funny to add a Wikipedia article describing Vampire Watermelons as an actual legend of the Roma culture in the Balkans. A small but doggedly persistent group continually re-edits the entry to ensure that its true nature as a spoof is not revealed.

You can watch the back and forth on the history and talk pages for the entry. In particular, look at the edits by Heenan73 and Wetman, and notice how quickly the edits were discarded. Heenan73 has also set up a separate site discussing this issue.

I could see someone writing a spoof like this to demonstrate their perception of Wikipedia's lack of authority, but this group's goals don't seem quite so highminded. I also have difficulty believing it's some organized slur against the Roma.

Most likely it's just a juvenile prank, but it does bring up some questions about the authoritativeness of "open source" reference material. At least with computer software, there is an obvious measure of quality: Linux/Apache/etc. either works for your application or it doesn't. But phenomena like the Vampire Watermelon really make me question whether the open source model can be effective replacement for expert editors.


Blogger Jono said...

Spoofs are interesting in general. In traditional media it takes time and money to make a spoof that's going to reach many people.

Sometime ago I mentioned the 'Spaghetti harvest' aired on BBC's Panorama as an April fool (it's worth watching the brief clip from the link at the bottom) Clearly this took time, money and effort.

Yet with the 'copy' ability of computing, spam mail capability and the ability to post things more or less for free it becomes much easier to do a spoof that may be seen by many. Which in turn makes us have to think more carefully about the trustworthiness of the source. When the barriers to conributing and sharing are so low it opens it up to spam and spoofing.

2:33 AM  

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