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The Wikipedia War Over Obama's Inauguration

Stuart A. Reid is an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs

Shortly before 11:00 a.m. EST on Tuesday, President-elect Barack Obama's motorcade sped along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, headed towards the Capitol. But Wikipedia couldn't wait. At 15:58 UTC--that's Coordinated Universal Time--the user FSUNolez06 (notable contributions: "2006 Florida State Seminoles football team," "2007 Florida State Seminoles football team," "2008 Florida State Seminoles football team") edited Obama's Wikipedia entry, changing "is the President-elect of the United States" to "is the President of the United States."

The error remained for two minutes, after which FSUNolez06 reverted the edit. For now, crisis averted. Explaining that "it ... makes no diffrence [sic]," at 16:16 UTC, Lucy-marie ("Accession of Turkey to the European Union," "Treaty of Lisbon") made the same edit. According to Wikipedia, Obama was no longer a mere president-elect.

The reaction to the premature titling was swift. Inigmatus ("Hydroponics," "President's Advisory Panel for Federal Tax Reform") came to the rescue ten minutes after Lucy-marie's mistake, justifying his edit: "not yet president. please wait until after 12 noon EST." Fourteen minutes earlier, he had scolded the overly eager on George W. Bush's page ("his term isn't over yet, and he has not yet been succeeded").

At 16:30 UTC, "to prevent premature declarations of presidency," Messedrocker ("Renal failure, "List of bioinformatics journals," "2008 Summer Olympics national flag bearers") changed the protection level for Obama's page. By now, Obama had arrived safely at Capitol Hill, and the former presidents were taking their seats. The viewing gallery was abuzz. So was the discussion page of the Obama article. Alexius08 ("Diet Coke and Mentos eruption," "Ernest Shackleton") had requested the page be reverted to "President-elect." But Hero of Time 87 ("Joe Biden," "Roland Burris") would have none of it. "You've got too much time on your hands if you are going to make a stink about 20 minutes."

"Twenty minutes, anything can happen," replied Jojhutton ("2008 San Diego Chargers season"). "Lets [sic] get it right, not wrong."

At 12:05 EST, Chief Justice John Roberts and Obama stumbled through the oath. But under the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it was at noon, during the performance of Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero, when Obama officially became president. Two minutes after noon EST, the anonymous user ("Polytheism," "Atlanta Falcons"), with an IP address from the University of Georgia, declared Obama president. Not so fast. "ACTUALLY he wasn't president at noon, because he wasn't sworn in," wrote another anonymous user at 17:08 UTC. "Obama was President at 12:00:00pm EST, irregardless of whether he said the oath," argued rootology ("Five-second rule," "Salma Hayek").

And so began a great debate, with quotations from the Constitution, declarations that the passing time had made the question irrelevant, and at least one theory that Biden had actually been president for a few minutes. But within a few hours, the noon/oath debate became pass