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Don’t expect the Internet to let you die peacefully

By John Brodeur

On Feb. 9, in the wake of a National Tragedy—the Feb. 8 death of Anna Nicole Smith—National Public Radio ran a segment titled “How Wikipedia Breaks News, and Adjusts to It.” Take a breath and think on that first part: Wikipedia, which calls itself the “biggest multilingual free-content encyclopedia on the Internet”—and whose content is entirely user-generated and -edited—is somehow considered responsible for breaking news. Really.

Not to harp on the point, but there are innumerable news sources on the Web, most—OK, some—of which do a perfectly fine job of reporting the news. CNN, Yahoo!, or any of the network-news Web affiliates are typically reliable in their current-events coverage. And Wikipedia generally serves its own intended purpose, as a historical record and reference site. So why would anyone turn there for information on something that just happened?

Chalk it up to the need for speed. The Internet has, if nothing else, made us an impatient culture. People have a perpetual case of Too Much Information. So when the news of Smith’s collapse in a Florida hotel room began to circulate through traditional channels, everybody wanted to be the first to hear and/or share the news of her demise, fact-checking be damned.

Within minutes, perhaps seconds, of the announcement of her death, her Wikipedia entry listed the information, matter-of-factly enough. (According to Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder and chairman emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation, the news was first reported by CBS News, although Wikipedia apparently was the first Web outlet to publish.)

But what happened in the hours to come revealed one of the inherent problems with the behemoth bathroom wall that is the Internet: Anyone can say whatever they want and, depending on context, have it interpreted by others as fact.

In Smith’s case, Wiki savages went to town on Smith’s barely dead corpse, using the opportunity to take one last jab at the former Playmate/actress/diet-pill shill. Or, as Manhattan-based news-and-media-gossip Web site Gawker put it, “Her Wikipedia page went totally postal.” In some cases, it was described as graffiti; at most, it was plainly disrespectful, a blatant display of malice and disregard for the recently deceased.

Of course, seeing the phrase “On February 8, 2007, the bitch bought the farm” was a little bit funny. And lots of people have made the crack that “She died of overdose on trimspa.”

“She died of a drug overdose after collapsing in a Las Vegas casino,” read one early update. At no point has there been confirmation of a drug overdose, and the most inept super-sleuth would have realized that she passed in Hollywood, Florida—although it was at a Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, so the confusion is perhaps justifiable.


Come on, people, that’s just sloppy. There are numerous methods of resuscitation, but putting bees in someone’s mouth? No way. MySpace bulletins are more reliable.

British actor Ian Richardson died the following morning, Feb. 9. While his Wikipedia page did not appear to be, at any time, as rapidly and viciously defaced as that of the late Ms. Smith—nobody fucks with the Grey Poupon guy—the following disclaimer was prominently featured at the page’s header:

“This article is about a recently deceased person. Some information . . . may change rapidly as more facts become known. Please be aware that while vandalism is usually fixed quickly, it is particularly likely in such articles.”

How can a site that purports itself to be encyclopedic in any way allow such irresponsible reportage? Vandalism has no place in the news world. Surely there must be some amount of control over who can post and edit Wikipedia content—the whole shebang can’t simply be ruled over by a cadre of dickheads, can it?

As Wales told NPR’s Robert Siegel, “When an article gets a lot of news attention, a lot of new people come in and maybe think it’s funny to mess around with the article. So we’ll semi-protect it, so that only experienced editors can edit it for a while.”

That’s comforting. If it weren’t for this elaborate system of “experienced editors,” the Wiki universe could truly erupt into a free-for-all . . . a lot like it did on Feb. 8. So how the hell did that happen, anyway?

Wales goes on to reveal that such a lofty title (experienced editor) is given to “anyone who has had an account for more than four days. . . . If someone has been around for at least four days and not gotten blocked, they’re probably not a completely ridiculous person.”

Four whole days! Lurkers and aspiring newsies, take heed: If you want to be taken seriously as an “editor,” you best register your Wikipedia account now, lest you miss out on an opportunity to post wisecracks the next time a prominent public figure, uh, buys the farm.

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