For about as long as Wikipedia has been around, Wikipedia editors have changed “is” to “was” at the speed of light to denote the death of a public figure.
Upon Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the world was quick to note the free encyclopedia’s up-to-the-minute coverage. “WIKIPEDIA DIDN’T WASTE ANY TIME,” someone tweeted. “Someone was in there watching her last breaths with a computer on wikipedia ready to just press enter,” another joked.
While that’s not what really went down, Wikipedia editors had long been preparing for this moment.
At 17:31 UTC (1:31 p.m. ET), the BBC announced that Queen Elizabeth had died. Immediately, edit conflicts on the “Elizabeth II” article ensued. The very first person to update the article about her death was User:Sydwhunte, whose edit came in at 17:32, just seconds after the first sources broke the news. Sydwhunte, an otherwise unremarkable editor whose 600 edits are mostly on pages about sports players, now has messages on their talk page from fans gushing with praise like “truly a feat, albeit a strange one” and “very impressive speed.” Sydwhunte was the winner, but the edit conflicts clearly show that hundreds of edits were coming in the minute her death was announced.
It’s not as simple as changing “is” to “was.” After Sydwhunte made the initial death edit, Elizabeth II’s article underwent more than 55 edits in the subsequent 15 minutes — adding sources, changing the tense, updating the infobox with the length of her reign, and updating her categories (she’s no longer in the category “living people,” for example).
Over on the article for now-King Charles III, there was a frenzy of title changes as editors waited for his regnal name to be announced. Charles' article changed titles five times while people waited for his official regnal name. It went from Charles, Prince of Wales, to Charles III, and then to Charles, King of the United Kingdom when editors noted that he hadn’t announced that he’d go by Charles III. But then when the BBC started using “Charles III,” the article’s title went back to Charles III… and then back to Charles, King of the United Kingdom, and then back to Charles III again.
Some of the post-mortem edits were premeditated. On the talk page for Elizabeth II’s article, where editors have behind-the-scenes discussions, there has been buzz for months about how to handle her death. Wikipedians talked about what photo to use — upon a public figure’s death, Wikipedia generally uses a good historical photo instead of a recent elderly photo — and whether to mention the former Commonwealth realms over which she ruled.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s article was spiking in pageviews. On September 8, her article got more than five times as many views as the second-most-viewed day since the metric started being measured in 2015. The latter was on April 9, 2021, when her husband Philip died. (The project Life After Death on Wikipedia from The Pudding highlights these astonishing pageview spikes on public figures’ Wikipedia articles when they pass away.)
The news had reverberations across Wikipedia as a whole: it appeared to double the total traffic per second on the entire website. And as the internet turned its eyes to Wikipedia, editors kicked it into gear — for free, maybe even for fun.
Editors’ speedy updates have long been memed and analyzed, and Dutch Wikipedian Hay Kranen coined the term “deaditors” to describe the Wikipedians who race to update the articles of dead public figures. In his informal study, Kranen found that “deaditors” were more likely to edit from cell phones and without an account. Despite all the chaos of current events editing, research suggests that both newcomers and long-time editors participate at higher rates during so-called “shocks.”
Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a news source, but because it’s written in real time, current events present a tricky dilemma — Wikipedia must maintain thorough sourcing from news sites, but it also must update its articles quickly in order to give its throngs of viewers the most up-to-date information possible.
On September 8, a new task force cropped up specifically for Operation London Bridge. Its official project page hit the internet just twenty minutes after Her Majesty’s death was announced, and it monitors the articles Elizabeth II, Death of Elizabeth II, Operation London Bridge, Reactions to the death of Elizabeth II, and Charles III.
The big question remains: why does anyone care enough to edit Wikipedia? And ultimately, there’s no one answer.
Coby Potischman, a Northwestern University sophomore who typed up an entire edit in Wikicode in advance so that he could paste it the moment the news dropped that Biden won the 2020 election, says he is very proud to have been the first to update the articles for both Biden and Harris. He did it for two reasons: first, he thought it would be cool to break the news to a massive audience. Second, “making a big change to an officeholder infobox is just generally satisfying to me,” he told Input.
The biggest body of accessible knowledge that the world has ever had is all thanks to nerds with computers who find general satisfaction from writing — and scrupulously maintaining — encyclopedia articles. God save the internet.