Virtual Epitaph

People Are Not Always as Dead as They Appear; The Perils Of Research on Open-Source Information Databases

“I am dead,” she said as she hung up the receiver.

“What,” I asked in astonishment?

“I am dead,” she repeated. “And have been for 7 years.” At least according to the morning edition of Jutarnji List, Croatia’s largest circulation daily, she had died on Oct. 26, 2000. All day, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Friends where calling to say they had just read she was dead. Some called to make sure she wasn’t.

My mother, Jagoda Kaloper, had been one of the biggest movie stars in the former Yugoslavia. Today, she is also a renowned conceptual artist, painter and graphic designer.

And she is very much alive.

A few hours later, she received a text message from the journalist who had written the article, sending his sincere apologies.

It was not his fault, he claimed. He had gotten the information from Wikipedia.

He has been a big fan of her work, he assured my mother, which he has carefully followed throughout the years. Well, perhaps. Although one couldn’t help wondering how he had missed her last movie in 2004, or her more recent work as a graphic designer for a monthly magazine; or that last summer, she had opened her own gallery. Apart from that, if she had died, the Croatian movie-going public would surely have known. Especially journalists writing about culture.

Weirder still, this was not the first time my mother had “died.” A few years ago, somebody took the time to publish her biography in the IMDB (The Internet Movie Data Base) – including a false date of death. I wrote a letter to the administrators, they apologized and corrected the information.

But this time, it seemed that that someone was actually trying to bury my mother – at least virtually. So after I had the IMDB corrected, the article appeared in Wikipedia and linked it with other databases, including IMDB.

So although I corrected the Wikipedia entry as soon as my mother told me about it, all the other databases continued to carry the false information, which I have been unable to change.

I learned the new rule of the net: once dead, always dead.

So yes, Wikipedia is a great idea, the embodiment of democracy and freedom of information on the net. But freedom without verification can be deadly.

As for my mother, she has sued the newspapers. If nothing else, just to feel alive.

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