skip to Main Content

Who the hell updated Queen Elizabeth II’s Wikipedia page so quickly?

For about as long as Wikipedia has been around, Wikipedia editors have changed “is” to “was” at the speed of light to refer to the death of a public figure.

When Queen Elizabeth II died, the world was quick to notice the updated cover of the free encyclopedia. “WIKIPEDIA WASTED NO TIMEsomeone tweeted. “someone was there watching his last breaths with a computer on wikipedia ready to just hit enter,” another joked.

While that’s not it really fallen, Wikipedia editors had been preparing for this moment for a long time.

At 5:31 p.m. UTC (1:31 p.m. ET), the BBC announced that Queen Elizabeth had died. Immediately, editing disputes over the article “Elizabeth II” ensued. The very first person to update the article on his death was User:Sydwhunte, whose edit came at 5:32 p.m., just seconds after first sources broke the news. Sydwhunte, an otherwise unremarkable editor whose 600 edits are mostly on sports pages, now has posts on his fan talk page spouting praise as “truly an achievement, albeit strange” and “very speed impressive”. Sydwhunte was the winner, but the edit disputes make it clear that hundreds of edits were coming the minute her death was announced.

It’s not as simple as changing “is” to “was”. After Sydwhunte made the first death edit, the Elizabeth II article went through over 55 edits over the next 15 minutes – added sources, changed time, updated infobox with duration of her reign and update of her categories (she is no longer in the “living people” category, for example).

On the article of the current King Charles III, there was a frenzy of title changes as editors waited for his royal name to be announced. Charles’ article changed title five times while people waited for its official name. He rose from Charles, Prince of Wales, to Charles III, then to Charles, King of the United Kingdom when editors noted that he had not announced he would go by Charles III. But then when the BBC started using ‘Charles III’, the title of the article reverted to Charles III… then to Charles, King of the United Kingdom, then back to Charles III again.

I’ve been following updates closely since the news broke and have compiled everything in the thread above.

Some of the post-mortem changes were premeditated. On the Elizabeth II article’s talk page, where editors have behind-the-scenes discussions, there’s been a buzz for months about how to handle her death. Wikipedians talked about what photo to use – when a public figure dies, Wikipedia usually uses a good historical photo instead of a recent photo of an elderly person – and whether to mention the former Commonwealth realms over which she ruled.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s article was exploding in page views. On September 8, her post got more than five times as many views as the second-most-watched day since the metric began being measured in 2015. The latter was April 9, 2021, when her husband Philip died. (The Life After Death Project on Wikipedia of The sausage spotlights these incredible spikes in pageviews on Wikipedia articles of public figures when they pass away.)

The news had repercussions throughout Wikipedia: seemed to double total traffic per second across the entire website. And as the internet turned to Wikipedia, publishers kicked it into high gear – for free, maybe even for fun.

Quick editor updates are a long time same and analyzed, and Dutch Wikipedian Hay Kranen coined the term “deaditors” to describe Wikipedians who rush to update the articles of deceased public figures. In his informal study, Kranen found that the “dead” were more likely to edit from cellphones and without an account. Despite all the publishing chaos of current events, research suggests that both newcomers and longtime publishers are participating at higher rates during so-called “shocks.”

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a news source, but because it’s written in real time, news presents a tricky dilemma — Wikipedia needs to maintain a thorough sourcing from news sites, but it also needs to put updates its articles promptly in order to give its crowd of viewers the most up-to-date information possible.

On September 8, a new task force arose specifically for the London Bridge operation. Her official project page was posted on the internet just twenty minutes after news broke of Her Majesty’s death, and she is monitoring articles Elizabeth II, Death of Elizabeth II, Operation London Bridge, Reactions to the death of Elizabeth IIand Charles III.

The big question remains: why does anyone care enough to edit Wikipedia? And finally, there is no single answer.

Coby Potischman, a sophomore at Northwestern University who typed an entire edit into Wikicode ahead of time so he could paste it the moment news broke that Biden had won the 2020 election, says he’s very proud to have been the first to update the articles for Biden and Harris. He did it for two reasons: first, he thought it would be cool to break the news to a large audience. Second, “making a big change in a civil servant information box is usually satisfying to me,” he said. To input.

The largest body of accessible knowledge the world has ever had is due to nerds with computers who find general satisfaction in writing – and scrupulously maintaining – encyclopedia articles. God save the internet.

Back To Top