I’m an avid reader of the wonderful B3ta newsletter. The last edition had a section that contained ‘projects we’d like to see’, and one of them was:
WHO THE HELL UPDATES CELEB DEATHS ON WIKIPEDIA SO QUICKLY? Maybe do a data project where you check the edit history of celeb deaths for patterns.
I had been looking for a project to teach myself a bit of data wrangling, so this seemed interesting.
So, who are the people who update Wikipedia articles so quickly whenever a celebrity dies?
Who’s dead and famous?
The first question is: who died this year and also happens to be famous?
To answer that question, I consulted Wikidata. A swift query points out that some 6,700 people with an item on Wikidata died this year. But who was famous?
One way to measure ‘celebrity’ is by counting how many language editions of Wikipedia have an article on the subject. Running the query again with that addition provides some well-known names. At the top with 165 articles is Stephen Hawking. After that we find the recently deceased Anthony Bourdain (90 articles) and science-fiction author Ursula Le Guin (84 articles).
So, who edits those articles when a person dies?
After getting a list of celebrities we now can investigate who first edited their Wikipedia articles to indicate that they died. Unfortunately this takes some manual labour so I restricted myself to the first 26 names and the English Wikipedia for the edits.
For those 26 articles there were 26 different ‘deaditors’. And what was surprising: two-thirds of those edits were done by anonymous users.
‘Anonymous’ means that they edit without being logged in. Their edits are logged under their current IP address instead. Those edits tend to be a bit controversial, because the majority of vandalism on Wikipedia comes from anonymous edits. But those anonymous editors apparently are pretty fast when someone dies.
Another interesting observation: almost a third of those 26 edits were done from a mobile phone. I can assure you: editing Wikipedia from a smartphone is not very user-friendly. Most Wikipedia contributors use the desktop version.
Did those ‘deaditors’ write about their subjects earlier? Usually not. For one out of four of the articles, the ‘deaditors’ belong to the top 20 of users with the most edits of the article. They only appear in the top 5 in two cases.
I plotted the number of edits in the article by month. When observing those plots you notice that for Wikipedia, your death is the most important event in your life. In only 3 of the 26 edit histories there was a peak at a different moment. Some people have a constant flow of edits (e.g. Stephen Hawking). With others there’s a big difference between the ‘death peak’ and the other edits. Sometimes because death was unexpected (Dolores O’Riordan of Cranberries fame). Sometimes because little happened in the last years of their lives (Barbara Bush).
In a nutshell
When a celebrity dies, who edits their Wikipedia article so quickly? The answer seems to be: a highly diverse set of people, often anonymous, and surprisingly often from their smartphone.
Why they edit those articles is beyond the scope of this short article and limited research scope. But you could speculate that knowing you’re the first person pronouncing someone dead on such a visible site as Wikipedia might be interesting.