AROUND 12:30 p.m. PST on Feb. 8, the first word of Anna Nicole Smith's death began to float into public consciousness. Within minutes, cable news networks ground to a halt as anchors fumbled for profundity.
Within the next hours, newsrooms across America began a weeklong debate: "Is she a real celebrity?" and "Just because America is dying to know about her death, does that make it news?"
But while old media struggled to get its ducks in a row, online an unlikely news team snapped into action. Toiling in a million secluded cubbyholes, the anonymous, all-volunteer army of Wikipedia brought the fastest, most complete Anna Nicole coverage to the Internet.
Wikipedia, the 6-year-old, gang-edited, grass-roots online encyclopedia, is not primarily known as a breaking news organ, nor is it particularly celebrity-centric. But on the evidence of its Anna Nicole Smith performance, its new role should bring further concern to the old-media types struggling to find their way in the Internet age. Now it's not just the unedited, unsupervised loudmouths of the blogosphere who are dominating news cycles. The decidedly nerdy Wikipedites have flexed their muscle, and the media world has rippled.
The Wikipedia entry on "Wikipedia" explains itself rather neatly: "a multilingual, Web-based, free content encyclopedia project. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers; its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Web site." The site has become the primary research tool for people looking to fill in a few facts in an essay on the life of Geoffrey Chaucer or trying to remember the lyrics to the "Bonanza" theme song. But with its ravenous army of volunteer writer-editors jumping when news breaks, this online version of the clunky old encyclopedia has become one of the most nimble and versatile clearinghouses for breaking news around. In those crucial first minutes while old news outlets scrambled to track down sources on their cellphones, Smith's Wikipedia entry became a real-time evolving biography, noting the changes in the story minute by minute.
The mad scramble among the Wiki elves was awe-inspiring in its speed and accuracy. It also reflected the flaw in its pure democracy. Moment by moment, the entry reflected the ongoing battle between conscientious believers in this new medium and scurrilous Web sprites determined to throw stink bombs into the project. In the freewheeling democracy that is Wikipedia, the experts showed up, but so did the nuts and nihilists.
Until shortly after noon, Feb. 8 was a quiet day on Anna Nicole Smith's Wikipedia page. The model/spectacle's biography exhaustively documented her humble roots and rise from stripper to centerfold to billionaire by marriage. Only minor tweaks had been made to the page in early February -- one user supplied the complete list of Playboy special issues Smith had graced, while another clarified some verbiage about her last marriage.
All morning on Feb. 8, the page was quiet -- or, in Webese, static. Then, minutes after the death, an anonymous user whose Internet address traces back to a server in the Netherlands added one sentence: "In 2007, on February 8th, Smith collapsed at the Florida Hard Rock Casino, NBC News reported."
Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
THE page exploded with activity. Dozens of Wikiites then swarmed the page, updating and undoing each other's factoids, documenting the latest while others scrambled to undo the updates, issuing warnings like "She's not dead yet!" One ball in particular seemed to bounce back and forth -- the opening line of her bio, "Vickie Lynn Marshall (November 28, 1967)," where many fought to add a "- February 8, 2007" to the parenthetical.
Robbie Bremer, a volunteer editor of Wikipedia, explained in an e-mail what happens when news breaks:
"1) One user hears of the death by whatever means, adds in a death date, which might be reverted [restored to the original] as vandalism to begin with." That is to say that the initial death date addition is often mistaken for a prank and undone.
"2) Someone adds the recent death template (at the top) to let readers know of the situation. A warning posted on the site indicated that the biography was highly in flux and therefore readers should beware of vandalism and scurrilous commentary.
"3) Editors start editing, changing it into the past tense, checking it for errors, adding any possible template or infoboxes."
Although, technically, anyone can jump in and add to a post, editors such as Bremer are quick to undo errors and have the ability to ban those they identify as vandals and scurrilous posters.