A friend recently and casually slipped the word "Ouroboros" into a conversation. Ah, yes, of course, the Ouroboros. The ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail and symbolizing cyclicality, unity, or infinity. Yes indeed. I know it well.
(Yeah, right. It is to laugh. I had certainly seen the figure but had no idea what it was called or more than a vague idea of what it stands for.)
But I just had an experience with Wikipedia that made me realize what a useful concept it is to keep in mind when surfing the web or, especially, when reading Wikipedia.
Recall that Joybubbles, often called the "granddaddy of phone phreaking," died about a year ago. When I heard this news I called his mother to check, hoping it was just a rumor. She was distraught and, through her tears, confirmed that it was so. She said the cause of death was a heart attack.
With heavy heart I pointed my browser at the Joybubbles article in Wikipedia and edited it to reflect the news. I added the line "Joybubbles died of a heart attack on August 7, 2008 in his home in Minneapolis."
A few days later, Steven, an old friend of Joybubbles and the executor of his estate, corrected the date of death in the Wikipedia article and noted that the cause of death had yet to be established by the medical examiner. Unfortunately, the misinformation about the heart attack had already made it to a few message boards. Eventually the cause of death got edited out of the Wikipedia article entirely; the entry simply noted that Joybubbles died at his home.
Fast forward to July 1, 2008 when a well-meaning Wikipedian edited the article to put the cause of death back in again. Heavily sourced per good Wikipedia practice, the new entry says:
Reference  is a quote from Steven in a New York Times obituary. Reference  is an unsourced statement on a random (if well written!) blog, whose author I'm guessing got it from one of the postings on the net or ... wait for it ... the original Wikipedia article!
(Hang on a sec, let me get my tail out of my mouth. Ahem. Ok, much better now.)
Anyway, to lay it to rest, here is Joybubble's actual death certificate, courtesy of Steven and the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office. The answer? "Natural causes" with "congestive heart failure" as a contributing condition.
P.S., Joybubbles would be annoyed that they treated his name as two words.
P.P.S., See also: blowback.