RIP, Queen Elizabeth II. There are a lot of things to do in the digital realm when a monarch dies, and one of the first places people go when a famous person dies is Wikipedia. While some on the internet were glued to Twitter or the BBC, checking for news or watching the planes en route to Balmoral Castle, one group of dedicated Wikipedia editors sprang into action updating the late queen’s page in the minutes after Buckingham Palace announced the news.
Wikipedia editors who race to change the page of a person who died are playfully referred to as “deaditors.” Annie Rauwerda, the creator behind the well-known and beloved Depths of Wikipedia Twitter account, took a moment on Friday to explain to her followers what was happening on Queen Elizabeth’s Wikipedia page behind the scenes on the day of her death. For those who don’t know about the work done (for free) by the countless editors on Wikipedia, Rauwerda’s tale was riveting—an online soap opera in which users debated what picture to use, created additional articles on the death and subsequent reactions, and wondered what to call Charles.
According to Rauwerda, the late Queen’s page had been “pretty exciting” the whole day of her death. Editors were, for example, choosing a historical picture to update the Queen’s page in the case of her passing. As explained by Rauwerda, “once someone dies, wikipedia generally uses a good historical pic instead of a recent elderly pic.”
“This might be a tad early to discuss,” a Wikipedia editor wrote, as seen in the screenshot shared by Rauwerda, “but I think we can get ahead of the curve and discuss pictures that are appropriate to use in the infobox following the Queen’s death. There are quite a large number of photos on Commons and a bunch of these from different parts are included below.”
However, editors didn’t limit their work to the Queen’s Wikipedia page. A six-membered task force deemed “WikiProject London Bridge” appeared and began to create and maintain new articles, “Death of Elizabeth II”and “Reactions to the death of Elizabeth II.”
As told by Rauwerda, Wikipedia editors then began discussing whether they should merge the “reactions” article with the main “Death of Elizabeth II” article. They decided to keep the two separate.
“Reminder that everyone is doing this for free. they just think it’s fun and important,” Rauwerda tweeted.
And then there was Charles, the Queen’s son who has waited to become King for what seems like an eternity. “What name would he take as King?” the Wikipedia editors wondered. They changed his name in the Queen’s article—from “Charles, Princes of Wales” to “Charles III” to “Charles, King of the United Kingdom”—a number of times. (Charles settled on “Charles III.”)
There are more examples of the wild time Wikipedia editors had on Thursday, which Rauwerda shares in her now-viral Twitter thread. In a phone interview with Gizmodo, Rauwerda emphasized the diligent work of the Wikipedia editors working on the Queen’s page and their commitment to sourcing. Some of the contested edits, she pointed out, ended up being right. However, because they couldn’t be verified at that moment, Wikipedia editors reverted the changes.
“I think that does show like in a very high pressure situation, Wikipedia standards still produce relatively accurate results,” Rauwerda said. “To me, that’s really inspiring, to see the internet work together.”
Notably, editing Wikipedia pages during moments like these is different than what usually goes on, according to Rauwerda. You’re adding things, you’re removing things, and occasionally you’ll get feedback from the community, she said. That all changes during current events.
“[G]enerally, it feels like you are a bit of a lone island,” Rauwerda explained. “[But] when you’re editing current events, you’re met with this massive community of people who are watching the news at the same time you are, and you work with them to provide information on an encyclopedia that’s both well-sourced but also up to the minute.”
On Thursday, the Queen’s Wikipedia page received 8.3 million visits, the encyclopedia reported in its pageview analysis. That’s a huge jump compared to Wednesday, where it received 52,000 visits. When it comes to edits, the Queen’s page was edited 284 times on Thursday.
Besides learning more about the curiosities of the internet, I also loved how Rauwerda described what hardworking Wikipedia editors actually do (again, for free).
“Wikipedia editors do write history in real time,” she said.
Update 9/9/2022, 4:19 p.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional comment from Rauwerda. We have also added the number of visits to the late Queen’s Wikipedia page and the edits the page received.