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Fastest 'was' in the West: Inside Wikipedia's race to cover the queen's death

After Queen Elizabeth II's death was announced, Wikipedia editors discussed which historical photo to use for her page.
After Queen Elizabeth II's death was announced, Wikipedia editors discussed which historical photo to use for her page.

For most of the world, the death of Queen Elizabeth II last week meant the end of an era. But for Wikipedia editors, her passing meant it was time to get to work.

Immediately after the announcement of her death, editors raced to update the queen's Wikipedia article to change the tense, indicate the date of her death and reflect the length of her reign. The scramble to edit is just the most recent high profile example of zealous Wikipedia editors making quick changes in the wake of a celebrity's passing.

"Seconds after the news came out that Queen Elizabeth had died, the edit conflicts on the article for her just absolutely spiked," said Annie Rauwerda, a Wikipedia editor and creator of the popular Twitter account Depths of Wikipedia. At the peak of the editing chaos, more than 300 versions of the article were being saved simultaneously.

The first edit, coming in shortly after the announcement by anonymous editor Sydwhunte, corrected the tense of the article to indicate that Elizabeth II "was" Queen of the United Kingdom.

Wikipedia editors congratulated Sydwhunte for being the first to bring the news to the site. "Very impressive speed," wrote user Normal Name. "Truly a feat, albeit a strange one," wrote user WikiJackal.

After the initial dash to add the queen's date of death, there was still more work to be done. There was a separate page being edited just about the death and state funeral. There was also debate over which photo to use on Elizabeth's page. Typically, biographical articles include a current photo of the subject until they die, after which it's replaced with a historical photo. Now they had to decide which to use.

The title for the article on King Charles III alone was also getting a spike in edits. "It went from 'Charles, Prince of Wales,' to 'Charles III' to 'Charles, King of the United Kingdom,'" Rauwerda said. "Still, people are talking about maybe they should change it."

Wikipedia's "deaditors" are lightning fast

When Queen Elizabeth died, the response from Wikipedia editors was quick — but not unprecedented. Wikipedia editors are known for their speed.

"People on the internet have joked about Wikipedia editors being super quick to change 'is' to 'was' for years," Rauwerda said. "People have said that Wikipedia editors are the 'fastest past tense in the West,' or that 'X is fast but Wikipedia editors when someone dies are even faster.'"

"Wikipedia editors are writing history in real time," she added. "And unlike a lot of publications, they can immediately go in, make a change ... They can do this at lightning speed."

Hay Kranen, a web developer and longtime Wikipedia editor, coined the term "deaditor" to refer to the editors who rush to update a deceased person's Wikipedia page. In a 2018 blog post, Kranen analyzed a sample of Wikipedia pages to find out who was making these edits.

"The one thing that surprised me most was the fact that all of those people were different," he said. "I was expecting that maybe it was like really experienced editors who did this, but it turned out there were lots of people, for example, editing from a mobile phone."

Richard Nevell, a project manager at Wikimedia UK, said that editors' quickness to jump into action after news breaks is partially motivated by the public service mission of Wikipedia.

"Because Wikipedia is an open source platform, that means anyone can take part," he said. "Dozens of different editors ... they've seen this news update and they want to help improve the Wikipedia article so that when readers come here, it's up to date."

Bruce Englehardt, a student and Wikipedia editor, agreed. Wikipedia is one of the most visited websites in the world, with search engines like Google showing content directly from the site in many search results.

"We know that millions of people are going to be seeing these things and looking for information amid all the chaos," he said. "It's why, like for COVID and for the Ukrainian invasion and other world events like that, we also have a lot of people that are constantly watching to make sure things are accurate."

Being first to edit is a badge of honor

As a testament to the popularity of Wikipedia as an information source after big events, Rauwerda said, the site crashed after the deaths of Michael Jackson, Prince and Kobe Bryant.

Additionally, to some Wikipedia editors, being the first to update a person's biographical page after their death is a badge of honor.

"There is kind of a bit of prestige around being the person who maybe starts an article or adds a piece of information for the first time," Nevell said.

Englehardt felt that way about being the first person to update Stephen Hawking's Wikipedia page after he died in 2018. "I was just scrolling Twitter at the time, and I saw a little notification from the UK Press Association," he said. "So I just quickly added that to the page. I was surprised to be the first one there because immediately afterwards it was just chaos."

Englehardt says that in the long term, being able to say he was the first to make the edit isn't important, but it's still a "nice little ribbon" for his "Wikipedia resume."

"I mean, it's nice," he added. "[It] helps you keep going on the site cause we're all volunteers ... we're all writing for our own enjoyment or our own fulfillment."

"It's nice to just have something to be proud of on Wikipedia."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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