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Lance Armstrong and the Wikipedia Edit Wars

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Over the last few days, it's fair to say that the internet has struggled to form any sort of real consensus around how to deal with Lance Armstrong's set-piece interview with Oprah.

Both sides of the "hypocritical cheat" vs "flawed scapegoat" argument have been lining up to opine and, in the process, busily loading up the SERPS with content but does any of it matter?

Whilst it's no longer true that today's headlines will wrap tomorrow's fish and chips there is still an element of transience to all time-specific (I hesitate to say news), content, and in five years' time, when inquisitive minds try to find out more about Lance Armstrong, will any of this outpouring of opinion still rank highly on search results? Probably not.

What will almost certainly still rank highly is his Wikipedia entry, which is why, over the last few days, it has been interesting to see how this has changed.

2013-01-24-LanceArmstrongWikipediaEdits.png

Go back as far as June 2010 (roughly 1000 days) and you find roughly 2000 edits (in total) to the Wikipedia entry. So, 2 edits per day on average, however, over the last few days there have been more than 160 changes made to the entry by almost as many Wikipedians.- and they are not trivial. For example there is a long running argument as whether or not Lance Armstrong ever won any Olympic medals at all, the logic being that a medal, once stripped from a competitor was technically never won.

Still seem trivial? Not in the eyes of history it isn't - remember the six wives of Henry VIII? Well if the "expungers" had edited Wikipedia back then there would only have been two recorded.

The re-writing of history is not solely constrained to the entry on Armstrong either. Check out the Tour-de-France entry, his name has been removed from the winners list, added and removed again more than 30 times in the last 3 days alone.

I find all this interesting for a number of reasons.

1 - It's clear that despite all the revelations, there is a genuine conflict of opinion. People genuinely don't know how to react to this one-time hero now so spectacularly fallen from grace. His apologists clearly feel that he's carrying the blame for a culture of doping, as one person put it to me "the entire peloton was doped up to the eyeballs at the time, having a better doping regime was just like having a better bike." There was even one revision (subsequently removed after about 5 minutes) that tried to include this by inserting "common to cycling at the time" after a passage about dugs accusations and by including links to several other drugs stories in the footnotes. On the other side the hard liners want Armstrong's cycling achievements entirely expunged from the record, his career reduced to that of an also-ran.

2 - I find it quite comforting that this is the new way that history is being written. The number of edits to Armstrong's entry is slowing down and it seems that the apologists and the hardliners are reaching some sort of uneasy consensus that chronicles both his rise to, and fall from grace. In the place of a model where one or two historians decide how Armstrong is remembered we have what looks to have been a pretty well informed debate resulting in what looks to have been a pretty equitable solution.

History, as Winston Churchill is often credited with saying, "is written by the victors". I doubt he had this kind of victory in mind.