If anyone still questions whether or not Twitter has dethroned mainstream media as the place for discovering about breaking news they need to look no further than the recent Michael Jackson death to be convinced otherwise. Like many people, I first heard about Michael Jackson’s death from Twitter.
When I first started to see the tweets hit the twittersphere the news had yet to hit mainstream media sources. So where did I turn to find more information and confirm the news? That’s right, on Wikipedia. The past couple years Wikipedia has become the first place I turn to when hearing breaking news on the web. While anyone can send out a tweet, editing a Wikipedia entry is a crowdsourced activity that is self-correcting very quickly.
The quickness to which Wikipedia entries are updated around breaking news and self-correct for vandalism is quite astonishing. I can think of no better example than in August of 2008 when US Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain announced Sarah Palin, an unknown governor from Alaska, as his running mate. Like almost everyone, I flocked to Wikipedia to figure out who she was. I knew that a lot of people were headed to the page like me so I decided to experiment. I refreshed the page about every 10 seconds and every time I did, the content of Palin’s entry was noticeably different. Occasionally, I would pick up on some vandalism but sure enough after the next browser refresh the remarks were gone.
Back in 2007, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, discussed the phenomenon of Wikipedia as a source for breaking news. He revealed that during a major breaking news event many editors flood to the site to contribute to the article in question. In order to combat vandalism, the post in question is given special restrictions to only allow “experienced editors” to contribute to the article. An “experienced editor” is defined as a Wikipedia user who has had an account for at least four days. Although this may seem like a low threshold, Wales noted that it is does a sufficient job in combatting vandalism on the site.
I would be interested to know if you share my habit of visiting Wikipedia during breaking news. As an experiment, try visiting an article the next time major news breaks. It’s quite amazing to see how fast and efficiently the Wikipedia army works together to edit the article.
For more information check out Wikipedia’s Biography Policy. It is the policy that governs how an individuals biography, including their death, is to be handled by editors.