Once upon a time, there was a little journalist. He was a very innovative and clever guy. One evening, he thought about doing a little experiment to observe how accurately his colleges do their job. After some glasses of wine, he dared to manipulate an article in Wikipedia and waited to see what happens. Soon, the mechanism of the web started to work…
It was the 16. February 2009 when journalist Andreas Kopietz befouled the “sanctum of sapience”, Wikipedia. He had always fretted about unrealistic denotations of Berlin’s sights. According to him, nobody coming from Berlin would call the radio tower “Telespargel”, the congress center “schwangere Auster” or the glass dome of the Reichstag “Eierwärmer”. Some of those so-called “Berolinismen” could be nothing but inventions from journalists or tourismus agents, so Kopietz. Therefore, he himself invented a new Berolinismus: He changed the article in Wikipedia about the Karl-Marx-Alle in Berlin-Friedrichshain by writing that this street was formerly known as “Stalins Badezimmer” (Stalin’s bathroom) due to its characteristical ceramic tiles. Shortly after Kopietz published the article, a voluntary employee of Wikipedia checked his entry and determined it to be plausible.
And the “disaster” took its course…
In the following two years, several websites copied this information and used it for their own purpose. The first website was DBpedia.org followed by a company for bathroom decoration and several tourism websites e.g. visitberlin.de, strassen24 or cliewe.de. Moreover, the saying spread over to the Dutch website nederlanders-in-berlijn.de and was also cited in the homepage of the list of craftsmen.
Furthermore, the expression found his way to an academic level: The author of a main term paper dealing with socialist architecture uses the term. Additionally, this term paper was published as a book and can now be bought on Amazon. Even the big German magazine “Stern” used it. Even the control authorities weren’t able to locate the mistake: In 2010, the control entity wiki-watch (supported by the European University Vriadina in Frankfurt (Oder)) gave the wrong Wikipedia article four of five stars of trustworthiness and named it a “reliable source”.
Two years later…
After an article in the Berlin newspaper “Berliner Zeitung” (published on 1st May 2011) also used the expression, a reader writes a letter of complaint to the editorial department: He had been living in the Karl-Marx-Allee for years and has never heard of the saying. As the responsible one, Kopietz got a guilty conscience about the whole affair; he tried to delete the mistake on Wikipedia’s website. Unfortunately, an employee of Wikipedia undid the correction a few hours later as the expression could now be proved by various internet sources and books (like tourist guides).
This was the incentive for the journalist to reveal the truth: He wrote an article about his invention and what damage it did. Now, the article names this incidence under the subheading “Kurioses”
What others think about it
In several blogs and online journal articles dealing with this case, I found some interesting comments from readers: In the online forum “Golem”, one user thinks that the whole mission of the author presented a new form of vandalism: The author deliberately damaged Wikipedia’s contents and did not act ethical according to the code of conduct issued by the German press. Another user does not blame the journalist for his tiny fault by stating that nobody is perfect. In his opinion, little mistakes are the sacrifice for a free online encyclopedia with a quick availability. Another user says that it is important to always verify the reliability of something found on the web and to use rather specialized literature.
In my opinion, the case of the invented expression is important to consider when doing web research and when thinking about the impossibly fast spread of ideas via internet. This case should give the internet community a reality check and reveal that not everything that seems right must be true.