It all started when someone decided to have fun with a Wikipedia entry. Nothing new, right? It happens all the time. But this entry happened to be about Stephanie Herseth, the lone member of the US House of Representatives from South Dakota.
The wiki-hacker claimed Herseth was pro-life (she's not), pregnant (she's not) and engaged to her campaign manager (she's not). The false information was taken down quickly, but not before it got a little more interesting.
Herseth is in a (very non-competitive) race for re-election this fall and her opponent's campaign manager couldn't leave the Wikipedia reference alone. He emailed it to several political bloggers...one of which happened to be the blog of the Rapid City Journal...who posted the full text of the email on the blog...and then defended their decision to do so.
As local political blogger Pat Powers noted, whoever put the false information on Wikipedia didn't do Republicans any favors. Neither did her opponent's campaign manager because now the discussion is about his email, rather than what they want to discuss. Not surprisingly the Herseth campaign has sensed the momentum in their favor on this issue and is calling for the campaign manager to be fired.
There are three important new media lessons here for anyone who cares to learn them. First, the Wisdom of Crowds is real and represents a new kind of information and fact exploration process. In the old days (only a few years ago) someone would research a story for days, weeks, months, even years before publishing the definitive account in a newspaper, magazine or book. If you wanted to respond to that account, you had to do the same thing yourself and it was very difficult to correct a story once it was published.
Today, the quest for the facts starts out in the open with a blog post or a Wikipedia entry. Everyone can read that information and respond to it. Eventually, the truth is discovered, as it was in this case, through the participation of a large group of people, like a virtual party. That's why Wikipedia is always among the most-searched topics on the net. That's also what makes blogging so difficult for most people to understand. Any one post may not be completely accurate, but is rather part of the process of getting at the accurate account. Sure, there will always be those who abuse the system, as there were in this case, but those people are typically found out and appropriately flogged.
Second, the Internet is not nearly as anonymous as you think. If I were you, I would avoid emailing anything you don't want the entire world to see. Bad email pitches can find themselves on the Bad Pitch Blog or posted on another blog that (at last count) had 80 comments. And by the way, your computer has a little thing called an "IP address" that leaves a convenient trail for people to follow. As we learned from the Cluetrain Manifesto and Adam Curry, there are no secrets, only information you don't yet have.
Third, you have to participate in the online conversation. If you don't, the party will start without you and how many of the millions of people online do you think care about your reputation? That's what I thought.