Harry Potter and the Half-Right Wikipedia

Being a person who cares about what happens to Harry Potter and his friends, I wanted to find some spoilers about the latest book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (HP&tHPB) before I tackled this rather lengthy piece of literature.

When the 5th book came out, a few fan sites helped prepare me emotionally for the death of a key figure in the story. I don’t like unhappy surprises or sad endings, so I wanted to check out HP&tHPB before I started reading.

First, I visited The Leaky Lounge, the discussion board for The Leaky Cauldron. I don’t know what is the matter with the e-mail system (probably overwhelmed), so I have not received my activation e-mail for my account. That limits my access, so I turned to Google.

I entered “harry potter book spoilers”, and to my disappointment, found that most of the Harry Potter sites had strict spoiler-free policies in place. How cruel is that? If I didn’t want to know spoilers, I would just stay away until I finished reading the book. I guess it is so that people in other countries (like Brazil and Israel who won’t receive the books until December ’05) won’t have the surprises spoiled for them.

Fortunately, the Wikipedia has become a wonderful source for timely information. It has been fascinating watching the progress of the article on HP&tHPB.

When I first loaded the page (around 7AM Pacific Time), details were fairly sketchy. Only chapters 1-9 had detailed information. Over the next few hours, chapters 1-17, 26, and 30 (the final chapter) were filled in.

It was interesting watching the changes to chapter 30. Originally, someone just posted who had died (yes, once again J.K. Rowling kills off a main character. If you want to know who, go read the Wikipedia article). Later, a series of details about the memorial service appeared, but seemed somewhat questionable. A little while later, that memorial information was removed (apparently it wasn’t very accurate). A few hours later, chapter 30 was posted with a detailed description that seemed to fit the tone of the rest of the book. That entry has remained in place.

It was the real-time, dynamic nature of the Wikipedia article that was so fascinating to watch. Early on, before all the details were filled in, some stupid people submitted bogus entries (e.g., “Harry [crude sexual reference] Herminone, feels guilty, hangs himself. The end.” and “Ron decides he hates Harry, kills him, and the seventh book will be all about Ron”). All of those entries disappeared quite quickly.

One of the things that is so amazing about the Wikipedia is how anyone, anywhere can update the articles. I have often wondered in the past what prevents bad information from infecting the Wikipedia like a disease. Today proved that even when people deliberately try to post misinformation, the Wikipedia can self-correct (thanks to all the people visiting and updating it) very nicely.

The Wikipedia classified the article as a “current event” (which is something that a regular encyclopedia could never track), and warned that information would likely change very rapidly.

I just checked at 5:30 PM Pacific Time, and every chapter has information filled in now. Just 25 hours after the book was released in the U.K. and 17 hours after it was released in California, a complete synopsis (well, mostly complete anyway) is now available online.

The Internet has forever changed the way that information is distributed, and it has shortened the time it takes to share that information to less than a day — less than a few hours for the most critical details. Even though people may attempt to deliberately skew the facts or plant false information, the real story eventually gets out.

This change is a far bigger story than Harry Potter (and really more exciting in a way).

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