A couple of years ago, a young man named Joe Murphy died from a rare and nasty form of cancer. I didn’t know Joe. Rather, I knew him only from the podcasts he co-hosted and I was a fan. During his illness and after his death, fans of his work made a wikipedia page for him. It was quickly nominated for deletion due to lack of appropriate citations for Joe’s noteworthy-ness. Fans rallied and added sources to the claims made in the article.
While researching this post, I did a quick check on Joe’s page and found that it had, in fact, been deleted:
“Article was nominated once for deletion in 2007 and kept with the assertion that material added during that AFD satisfied notability concerns, However, a review of that sourcing indicates that it does not. One is an obituary in his hometown paper, one is to an XM Radio page that no longer exists (Joe Murphy is not found in a search of the XM site), one confirms his nomination for a podcasting award (he did not win) and one is a band’s blog (not a reliable source). There do not appear to be independent reliable sources that are substantively about this person, rather there are many blogs and podcasts that offer tributes following his untimely passing. Wikipedia is not a memorial and the gentleman does not pass WP:N or WP:BIO. Otto4711 (talk) 13:37, 10 May 2009 (UTC)”
Clicking on the link “not a memorial” brings up the following:
“Memorials. Wikipedia is not the place to memorialize deceased friends, relatives, acquaintances, or others. Subjects of encyclopedia articles must satisfy Wikipedia’s notability requirements. Note that this policy does not apply outside of the main article space. Whilst using user space to create a memorial is generally not acceptable, limited exemption applies to the user space of established Wikipedians who have died. At a minimum it is expected that they were regular contributors, and that more than one tenured Wikipedian will have used the deceased user’s page (or an appropriate sub-page) to add comments in the event, and after verification of, their death.”
Ok. Fair enough. At the same time, it does seem like the barrier for entry for celebrity-hood is becoming transparently thin. The recent spate of celebrity deaths shows a distinct hierarchy of status, with Michael Jackson at the top and Billy Mays hitting close to the bottom, and yet there has been more than enough material written about both men to qualify for Wikipedia articles easily. The thing is, to take those two examples, Michael Jackson single handedly remade pop music and helped turn music videos into an art form. Billy Mays was a pitchman. He made commercials. (And please note that I am not disparaging Billy Mays at all, I’m merely using him as a recent example.) What Wikipedia’s “noteworthiness” really means is media appearances. Which seems terribly skewed away from people who are actually noteworthy towards people who are merely known to more people, publicly, than the rest of us.
Slate’s recent Culturefest (the Everybody’s Dead Edition, posted July 1, 2009) seems to be pondering related ideas. The three hosts spoke about the modern obituary and how the internet has changed the obituary pages. While they had a number of good points, throughout the whole episode, I found myself thinking about Joe Murphy and Wikipedia. I started to wonder why there was not a resource for the rest of us, why the “little people” should not be remembered as fondly, nor as publicly as celebrities, for whatever value of celebrity one happens to have.
Wikiobits says of itself: “Wiki Obits has a one simple goal: We live to provide a one-stop site where you can find obituaries and biography information for every person on earth – dead or alive – famous or not, celebrity or not.” A great idea, but at the moment it is a piece of basic Wiki software with very little customization. There is very little to distinguish it as a service or directory. As a test, I ran a search on Michael Jackson and got a table full of biographical data much like I would expect from raw number search engines like Wolfram Alpha and Google Squared rather than an article collection like Wikipedia.
Wikibios, on the other hand states right on the front page: “Our belief is simple: you don’t have to be a famous celebrity to have a life worth documenting. That’s why we created WikiBios, a place where your friends become the storytellers of your life.” Which is an idea I can get behind. The problem is, is that for now at least, the majority of pages I came across (using the random bio button) seem to be yet to have been filled in by the person’s friends and families. It also illustrates another problem which is that wikis are, by definition, editable by the public at large and, here on the internet, the public is not always as kind and friendly as it might be.
So, while I applaud the efforts, it’s still not what I want. Aside from the issues of getting and maintaining an audience share not to mention the kind of brand recognition that would make these viable, long term solutions, I’m not sure if this is an area that is not better served by LiveJournal or FaceBook or Google Profile. it seems that those three brands have the audience and name recognition to be able to add obituaries / memorials as a valid part of their service; I know there are instances of both LJ and FB users being memorialized on their own pages after death, yet even those are not perfect – they don’t give friends and relatives and fans the chance to both eulogize and research the deaths of their friends in that if you were not connected to that person before their death, you may not be able to access their page on the social networks.
What I mean is, a few years ago, I lost another friend. He was someone I had known well in high school, but had not seen in several years. Then, at my sister’s wedding, we reconnected. A few months later, I read the obituary in our hometown newspaper and there were still so many questions I had that have never been answered. And I have no where to turn. Rob was not anywhere media-ized enough to show up on Wikipedia, nor was he, to my knowledge, on LJ or FB. So where do I go to write about and talk about my friend? Where do I go to read what others have written? If he did, in fact, have an LJ or FB, once he was gone there was no way for me to be added to his friends list so that I could see what others were saying and doing, in short, without a wikipedia page how will anyone know he existed?
Perhaps Google will step into the breach. Perhaps LJ or FB or WikiObits or WikiBios will do something that let’s us all eulogize and memorialize those who were like us and of us and who were never on t.v. long enough to get a Wikipedia page of our very own.