In the days since Queen Elizabeth II died on Sept. 8, her Wikipedia page has been updated over 558 times. The first edit made — marked on the page’s revision history section as happening at 3:40 p.m. UTC — came immediately after the first few reputable sources confirmed the Queen’s death.
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The first Wikipedia editor to update her death goes by the username Sydwhunte. According to another editor on Sydwhunte’s page, Sydwhunte managed to update the date of death within a minute of the Royal Family tweeting the announcement.
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“From one Wikipedian to another I have to congratulate you on being the first past tense edit to Queen Elizabeth II,” user Normal Name said. “Very impressive speed.”
“Truly a feat, albeit a strange one,” user XyNq wrote, “a notable sighting of a WikiJackal.”
The Wikipedia community is made up of volunteers who genuinely just love editing and improving the platform’s articles. There is no final editor — in fact, Wikipedia has a whole page dedicated to reminding readers that it’s not a reliable source. The majority of Wikipedia editors are anonymous and the process of editing pages is supposed to be collaborative.
There are tiers of editors, depending on their specialties within the Wikipedia space. A WikiJackal or a “deaditor” is someone who is the first editor to change a prominent person or celebrity’s article to say that they’re dead.
Annie Rauwerda, the person behind the popular Twitter account, @depthsofwiki, noted in a thread that Dutch Wikipedian Hay Kranen is behind the name “deaditor.” In a blog post written by Kranen that Rauwerda shared, Kranen found that when a celebrity dies, more often than not a “highly diverse set of people, often anonymous” are responsible for the first edits — “surprisingly often from their smartphone.”
Kranen speculates that even though the Wikipedia editing user experience isn’t as great on a phone screen versus a computer, typically these editors will jump into action immediately after getting a mobile news alert.
“Wikipedia is, for better or for worse, the de-facto collection of human knowledge, and the people who edit it are contributing to the story of humanity,” Rauwerda told In The Know. “The editor base isn’t huge, but there’s a core group of people who care enough about accessible information to volunteer their time.”
While Wikipedia is self-aware enough to know that being a community-run source of information can’t be considered flawless, the platform is still an easily accessible resource with editors who genuinely want to make all information readily available and free.
@depthsofwiki is dedicated to sharing unusual Wikipedia articles and facts with her 635,000 followers. She also helps edit some of the articles in her free time.
“When I improve an article, I don’t really care about getting personal recognition,” she explained. It’s usually just a matter of me getting annoyed that something isn’t covered well and then wanting to fix it.”
Rauwerda shared a great breakdown of what happened immediately after news broke about the Queen. She noted that within 15 minutes after the first change, over 55 edits were made to the page — including changing verbs to past tense. Rauwerda noted that two hours before the official announcement, another Wikipedia editor had already drafted the page for “Death of Elizabeth II.”
Spikes in Wikipedia traffic directly correlate to the news of a significant person dying. In the 48 hours after singer Prince died in 2016, his Wikipedia page had over 11 million pageviews.
Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 is known to the Wikipedia community known as a “cache stampede.” Referred to as “The Michael Jackson Effect,” when the singer died, his article on Wikipedia smashed records for visitors — over 1 million people visited during an hour. The traffic caused overloads on the site and caused it to crash.
According to Rauwerda, the Queen’s death increased traffic to 929,000 views per minute but did not crash the site.
For some figures, it can take weeks for the traffic to their Wikipedia pages returns to normal. When Tom Petty died in 2017, it took seven weeks for his page’s views to return to pre-death numbers.
The editors who work on these pages that are spiking in traffic do not get recognition. Their names are not listed as bylines like in traditional news media and no one solitary editor is responsible for all of the work that goes into one article.
“Most committed editors aren’t doing this hobby for glory,” Rauwerda noted.
The process is not for the faint of heart either — Rauwerda added that aspiring editors should consider working on “relatively low-stakes topics” instead of diving in on breaking news edits.
“If you’re diving into a rapidly-unfolding news events and you don’t understand Wikipedia style, you might end up creating more hassle than help,” she explained, recommending new editors to start out with editing “article phrasing, adding citations and cleaning up outdated information.”
But there is no set process or series of tasks to complete in order to earn WikiJackal status. The Wikipedia community does not answer to any one person.
“There are different levels and privileges that Wikipedia editors can earn, but there is no ‘lead editor of Wikipedia’ who gets [the] final say,” she said. “Wikipedia’s content decisions are pretty democratic compared to most other places on the internet.”
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