Inside the world of Wikipedia’s deaditors
Ever wondered how Wiki pages are updated so quickly when someone dies? It’s all thanks to a community of dedicated volunteers, who are so fast they even beat the BBC to announcing the Queen’s death.
Wikipedia is pretty sick, isn’t it? Imagine the world before you could do a quick “Wiki” search – life must have been inconvenient, dissatisfying, maybe even frustrating. Pub chats, quick curiosities, proving points to your flatmates halfway through a discussion, all left up in the air. Libraries are useful, but they’re just not at our fingertips. Nor are their books updated in practically real time.
At 5:30pm on September 8 2022, for instance, the Queen’s Wiki page had a huge increase in “edit conflicts”, the term given to an instance where two or more people edit the same page at the same time. In fact, there were hundreds of edit conflicts. Note the time. The BBC announced her death on the news at 6:30pm. This means Wiki’s “deaditors” were already scrambling to update her Wiki page an hour before the beeb. Now that’s quick.
“Deaditors”, you ask? Coined by a Wikipedia editor and web developer Hay Kranen, the term refers to the people responsible for making you go “woah, that was quick” when you check someone’s Wiki as soon as you’ve heard they’ve died. Every “is” has been turned into a “was” and the photo of the deceased will have been changed, too (a Wikipedia tradition, for some reason). The death of Queen Elizabeth II is a good recent example of this happening, but these diligent deaditors are always en garde to document history as it happens.
Wikipedia pages are all kept up to date by volunteers, and the operation is funded mainly through donations to Wikimedia Foundation Inc., the parent company for Wikipedia (surely you’ve seen the pop ups asking you to donate?). These volunteers are called Wikipedians, but there’s a few sub-categories within this community of online archiving.
Annie Rauwerda is a recent neuroscience graduate from the University of Michigan, who runs the Depths of Wiki social media accounts. Rauwerda tells me she’s more into “editing or creating pages for unconventional things that are less in the limelight. More boring, evergreen topics, as opposed to current affairs.” This form of Wikipedian doesn’t have a specific name just yet – perhaps we could call them nichepedians. But other types of wikipedians do have defined names. The editor categorisations are technically known as WikiFauna and there’s loads of ‘em: WikiOrcs, WikiKittens, WikiNinjas… we could go on.
When it comes to the deaditors, there’s also a special title given to the person who updates the deceased’s page first: WikiJackal. In the case of the Queen, the quickest of them all was an editor called Sydwhunte, whose edit was the first to be validated at 5:32pm. (The validation here refers to sorting stuff out on the back end of the site; people don’t necessarily check for facts before a change is made on Wikipedia, which does mean “vandalism” occurs from time to time.) Given the magnitude of the event, Sydwhunte’s been getting more kudos from the Wiki community than most, with other editors and users sending congratulatory messages.
Why do these volunteers dedicate so much time to updating pages? It’s fairly simple, really. “If you make small insightful edits, it’s possible that if you’re on a highly trafficked article, your work is going to be read by a ton of people,” says Rauwerda. Plus, we all like the buzz of being the first to do something, don’t we? It’s just like chipping into the Twitter discourse with a fresh, spicy take.
But on Wikipedia you tend to be anonymous, which makes the pursuit of editing its pages a more noble trade. “You don’t get glory. You don’t get recognition beyond a small community of media editors,” says Rauwerda. “You certainly don’t get money. But there are a lot of very smart, selfless people that spend a lot of time writing history in real time.”
One of these is Steven Pruitt, the most prolific (English language) Wikipedia editor of them all. Pruitt goes under the username Ser Amantio di Nicolao, which is borrowed from a minor character in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi. He’s made over five million edits to Wikipedia and created well over 30,000 articles, so you’ve almost certainly read his work at some point. Given how prolific his edits are, he’s also dipped across a few categories of wiki editor during the roughly twenty years in which he’s been a volunteer. A true Jack of all WikiFauna, in a Reddit AMA, Pruitt himself said, “Wikipedia’s a free community – it wouldn’t feel right asking for money to edit. It’s a hobby. One that has taken over my life a bit, but a hobby nonetheless.”
And yes, anyone can edit Wikipedia – that’s why we’re told not to rely on it too much for university assignments or whatever. But the people doing so are generally diligent and accurate, updating and creating pages out of the kindness of their hearts. Without them, you’d still be quietly seething after not being able to prove you were right about whatever sparked your last pub debate. Wikipedia, what a wonderful world.