For most of the world, the death of Queen Elizabeth II last week marked the end of an era. But for Wikipedia editors, his passing meant it was time to get to work.
Immediately after news of her death was announced, editors rushed to update the queen’s Wikipedia article to change the time, indicate the date of her death and reflect the length of her reign. The editing rush is just the most recent and highly publicized example of zealous Wikipedia editors making rapid changes following the death of a celebrity.
“Seconds after the news of Queen Elizabeth’s death, the story editing disputes for her literally increased,” said Annie Rauwerda, Wikipedia editor and creator of the popular Depths of Wikipedia Twitter account. . At the height of the editing chaos, more than 300 versions of the article were recorded simultaneously.
The first edition, which appeared 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 praised Sydwhunte for being the first to bring the news to the site. “Very impressive speed,” wrote user Nom Normal. “Really an achievement, albeit a strange one,” wrote user WikiJackal.
After the initial dash to add the Queen’s date of death, there was still some work to be done. There was a separate page being edited about death and state funerals. There was also some debate over which photo to use on Elizabeth’s page. Typically, biographical articles include a current photo of the subject until their death, after which it is replaced with a historical photo. Now they had to decide which one to use.
The title of the King Charles III article alone was also receiving a spike in edits. “He went from ‘Charles, Prince of Wales’ to ‘Charles III’ and ‘Charles, King of the United Kingdom,'” Rauwerda said. “Still, people are talking maybe they should change it.”
Wikipedia’s “deaths” are lightning fast
When Queen Elizabeth died, the response from Wikipedia editors was swift, but not unprecedented. Wikipedia editors are known for their speed.
“Netizens joked that Wikipedia editors were very quick to change ‘is’ to ‘was’ for years,” Rauwerda said. “People have said that Wikipedia editors are the ‘fastest past in the West’, or ‘X is fast but Wikipedia editors when someone dies are even faster.'”
“Wikipedia editors write history in real time,” she added. “And unlike a lot of publications, they can immediately come in, make a change… They can do it at lightning speed.”
Web developer and longtime Wikipedia editor Hay Kranen coined the term “deaditor” to refer to 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 thing that surprised me the most was the fact that all of these people were different,” he said. “I expected really experienced editors to do this, but it turned out that there were a lot of people, for example, editing from mobile phones.”
Richard Nevell, project manager at Wikimedia UK, said the speed of publishers to take action after news is partly driven by Wikipedia’s public service mission.
“Because Wikipedia is an open source platform, it means anyone can participate,” he said. “Dozens of different editors…they’ve seen this 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 displaying content directly from the site in many search results.
“We know millions of people are going to see these things and look for information amidst all the chaos,” he said. “That’s why, like with COVID and with the Ukrainian invasion and other global events like that, we also have a lot of people constantly monitoring to make sure things are accurate.”
Being the first to edit is a badge of honor
Testifying to Wikipedia’s popularity as a source of information after big events, Rauwerda said, the site crashed after the deaths of Michael Jackson, Prince and Kobe Bryant.
Also, for some Wikipedia editors, being the first to update a person’s biographical page after their death is a badge of honor.
“There’s a kind of prestige to being the person who maybe starts an article or adds information for the first time,” Nevell said.
Englehardt felt like the first person to update Stephen Hawking’s Wikipedia page after his death in 2018. “I was just scrolling through Twitter at the time, and 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 run, being able to say he was the first to make the edit isn’t important, but it’s still a “nice little sliver” for his “Wikipedia resume.”
“I mean, it’s good,” he added. “[It] helps you to continue on the site because we are all volunteers … we all write for our own pleasure or self-fulfillment.”
“It’s nice to have something to be proud of on Wikipedia.”