Home > Uncategorized > The Speed and Accuracy of Wikipedia: A Family Story

The Speed and Accuracy of Wikipedia: A Family Story

Mom, did Uncle Oscar die?

In February 2008, I called my mother to inquire about the health of my great uncle Oscar Brodney, because Wikipedia told me he had passed away. Uncle Oscar was a Hollywood screenwriter. He wrote the screenplay for The Glenn Miller Story (for which he was nominated for an academy award), Abbott and Costello’s Mexican Hayride, Harvey, and many more.  In June 2007, I updated his Wikipedia page to say “Brodney still lives in Hollywood, California and celebrated his 100th birthday in February 2007.”  Actually, he was in Beverly Hills, California–as someone else quickly corrected. 

Editing Oscar’s page put it on my watchlist.  Wikipedia editors have a list of pages they’re interested in, so they can check changes.  Anything you edit is automatically added to your watchlist.  That’s one way quality is maintained.  On February 16th, 2008, I checked my watchlist and saw that someone had updated Oscar’s page.  It now said:

Brodney passed quietly in his sleep on February 12, 2008 in Playa del Rey, CA.

He did?  That was news to me.  So I called my mother. 

Me: Mom, did Uncle Oscar die?

Mom: I don’t think so, but let me call Betty.

My great aunt Betty is Oscar’s youngest sister.  Mom called Betty and asked if Oscar had died.  Betty said, “I don’t think so… But let me check my email.”  Betty checked her email, and sure enough there was a message waiting for her from a few days earlier saying her brother had passed away.  Oscar’s closest living relative learned of his death via my Wikipedia watchlist.

The edit to Oscar’s page was made the day after his death by an anonymous user –someone who didn’t even log in. It wasn’t made by a family member, as far as I’ve been able to determine.  The IP address of the anonymous user was apparently from Las Vegas, Nevada. Oscar lived in a nursing home for the last few months of his life, and the specific detail about the manner and place of death makes me wonder if the anonymous editor was someone who worked at the home or a friend of someone who worked there.  We’ll probably never know. (If you made that edit, please email me!  I’d love to know who you are and how you knew.)

However, the story doesn’t stop there.  No one placed an obituary for Oscar in Variety or other newspapers.  He was almost 101 years old, and most people who would have cared were long gone.  So a careful Wikipedia user undid the edit.  In accordance with Wikipedia’s policy on Biographies of Living Persons, declaring someone dead is serious business.  You can’t do it without proof.  I replied back on the article’s talk page (each Wikipedia article has a place for editors to discuss it) saying

I have confirmed that the information about Brodney’s death is correct from a primary source (his sister). Can we redo this?

Another editor replied back,

Per WP:OR and WP:BLP, we need an independent, third party reliable source to report a death. Is there a news article anywhere?

I couldn’t find a newspaper ad or public notice anywhere, so for months Oscar stayed undead–not dead on Wikipedia I mean.  Until in July a kind Wikipedia editor noticed that his name had appeared in the social security administration death records, and Oscar was finally allowed to officially rest in peace.

Two things strike me as remarkable about this story.  The first is the speed and power of Wikipedia’s social network.  My network of strong ties failed to get this news to me in a timely fashion. Wikipedia’s global network routed around that blockage through an anonymous person.

Second, Wikipedia’s commitment to verification is remarkable for its tenacity, in certain areas.  As I’ve written before, a high profile page (like that of a current world leader) is scrutinized in every detail. In less popular pages (like the page for Oscar Brodney), errors can creep in.  But even on a low profile page, editors are incredibly careful about certain things. And deaths are one of those things.  You don’t go around declaring people dead without proof.  And the editor who undid the change to Oscar’s page was right–how do we really know he has passed away?  We need proof.  And luckily another Wikipedia editor knew how to find acceptable proof when I did not. 

A “socio-technical system” is a combination of people, artifacts (in this case the MediaWiki software that Wikipedia runs on), and social practices.  And in this example, all those parts worked together in a remarkable way.  Oscar would have approved.

  1. May 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    I’m sorry to hear of your loss.

    • May 28, 2013 at 3:32 pm

      Thanks James. I think making it to 101 (well, six days short) is something to celebrate! He was a great guy.

  2. May 29, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Seems to me that this is a major flaw in Wikipedia policy. How can it let someone stay “undead” for 5 months?

    It’s bills itself as an encyclopedia “anyone can edit” but not everyone knows where to go for important information like that that isn’t a news article. In the Internet age, first-person accounts are one of the few last true “original sources” of information ordinary users potentially have access to.

    Anyway. I guess this is mostly just a user-friendliness complaint. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. d trackling
    June 28, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Things don’t automatically get put on your watch list. You have to elect to add them to your watchlist, by checking the star button at the top right of the page. You added his page to your watch list, so why be disingenuous/lie about it?

  4. R.F.
    April 30, 2014 at 12:55 am

    Hi. I was the one who edited the Wikipedia page when Oscar passed. I am one of his grandsons from Las Vegas, NV. You can e-mail me at pinnin_svhc@yahoo.com if you like.

  5. November 6, 2015 at 8:16 am

    It is my impression that still living celebrities may, essentially, be writing their own Wikipedia entries, in some cases. Take the case of Viggo Mortensen? The basic facts of his Wikipedia entry may be true but the adulatory style is so hagiographic that it seems whoever wrote it was either Viggo himself or someone out to promote Viggo as a renaissance genius. Since Wikipedia depends on donations, isn’t it possible that a still living celebrity who wishes to promote his brilliance could by dint of a big donation get to either write his own entry or to oversee its ghost-written form. Could someone who perhaps has more inside knowledge than I please answer the question?
    Dr Edward Stim in Tokyo

    • November 6, 2015 at 8:19 am

      You don’t need to donate money to edit a Wikipedia article–anyone can just do it. 🙂 it’s against the rules, but it does happen. The worst offenders are **members of the US Congress** who have been documented to have their paid staff update their Wikipedia articles.

  6. July 28, 2016 at 4:07 am

    Oddly enough, I’ve just found this. I had never searched Oscar’s name before. The Wikipedia page immediately popped up. I remember visiting Oscar and his wife in Beverly Hills with my parents. He had an Academy Award for Harvey (each of the screenwriters had one). It was behind the bar. Oscar, and my father who was also named Oscar, were first cousins. I certainly remember his brother Eddie’s Art Gallery in Boston, and his painting in the MA State House’s Hall of Flags. I have a vague childhood memory of meeting Betty. Oh, Oscar and his wife had a Toy Poodle at the time. I don’t remember meeting any other relatives other than my father’s parents and siblings and my first cousins. End of memories.

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