A Wiki-tribute from Williams

Tuesday, April 21
WILLIAMSTOWN — Late one Saturday night, a Williams College sophomore learned about a 47-year-old woman who is rapidly becoming famous after wowing audiences with a powerful, emotional performance on the reality TV show "Britain's Got Talent."

Believing that woman, Susan Boyle, would become an important figure, William Slack went to work creating a Wikipedia article about her.

The article was roughly two sentences and based on information from three newspapers. It was posted on the free online encyclopedia open to editing at 12:28 a.m. on April 12.

"I thought she was notable, and I thought she should have an article about her, and if someone wanted to add to it, they could," Slack said.

He said after reading an article about Boyle on Reddit, a social news Web site, he googled her name to find 60 articles had already been written about her only hours after a video clip of her performance began circulating on the Internet.

"I though, she is going to have an article written about her, and someone is going to have to start it, so I might as well start it," he said.

A debate broke out among Wikipedia users about eight hours after Slack's posting: Did Boyle have the notoriety to justify a Wikipedia entry? While some Wikipedia users called for the article to be kept, others called for its deletion.

"I didn't expect it to cause so much controversy. It was very unexpected," said Slack, 20, a political economy major.

As the week continued, and word and the seven-minute video clip of Boyle's audition on the show continued to be shared, people began adding to and editing Slack's two sentences.

In addition, Slack said, "As she got to be more famous, more people were saying 'keep the article.' "

Boyle performed "I Dreamed a Dream" from the musical "Les Miserables" in the first round of auditions for the British reality television show, which is similar to "American Idol."

Her performance earned her a standing ovation from the audience and praise from the three judges, who, along with the audience, were skeptical of Boyle and her homely appearance when she first came onstage and introduced herself.

"Her story has resonance in a way people don't think to expect," Slack said. "The universal quality of her story is fascinating."

According to Boyle's Wikipedia page, she is a British amateur singer and church volunteer who "came to public attention on April 11, 2009, when she appeared as a contestant on the third series of 'Britain's Got Talent.' Before she sang, both the audience and the judges appeared to express skepticism based on her unpolished appearance and awkwardness. The juxtaposition of the reception to her voice with the audience's first impression of her triggered global interest. Articles about her appeared in newspapers all over the world, while the numbers who watched her sing online set a record."

Slack said the video clip of Boyle's audition is a narrative. It shows a woman confronting her dream, and it has the elements of "good" and "evil," he said.

"That little moment when you watch her succeed, and succeed so fully above the judges, is striking," he said.

Since Slack posted the article on Wikipedia, it has been edited approximately 1,300 times — to the point that Boyle's name and a few words and short phrases are all that are left of the original article.

"There is notable and breaking-all-records notable, and she is breaks-all-records notable," he said.

Slack said prior to reading the article about Boyle, he hadn't signed into Wikipedia to edit any articles for about six months.

Slack's efforts did get him quoted in Sunday's Washington Post in an article about the popularity Boyle's story is generating over the Internet.

"I think it's the most random way to get quoted in The Washington Post, especially if you're a political economy major," he said.


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