Wikipedia 'Deaditors': The People Who Let The World Know When Famous People Die

Millions turn to Wikipedia to confirm the death of a celeb and in some cases the website crashes. But who is behind the speedy edits? 10 daily tracked down the guy who documented Michael Jackson and Princes' deaths.

Conor Crawford is a 30-year-old from Missouri -- kind of smack bang in the middle of the United States.

The bookshop worker is pretty taken aback when he hears from 10 daily, unsure of how he has become the central figure in a story about two musical icons of the 21st century.

He's almost forgotten about the events of June 25, 2009 -- the day the King of Pop died. At the time, then 21 years old, he was an avid volunteer editor on Wikipedia.

Crawford: "I never knew how much  of an impact I happened to have make" IMAGE: supplied.

"I do remember the very frantic activity on Michael Jackson's Wikipedia page. It is funny to look back on, knowing that that very day was possibly a turning point in music history, but also social media, especially here in the United States."

Crawford was the first to turn to the free online encyclopedia to update details of Jackon's cardiac arrest and hospitalisation. Under the username Conman33 -- and with a handful of other editors -- they documented music history.

"That was a day that most people in our generation can still remember. I am a major fan of music, and I had always respected what he did musically, as well as changing American society itself," he told 10 daily.

Michael Jackson's Wikipedia edits history. IMAGE: supplied

A writer at the time, Crawford said he waited until two reputable news sources reported the death before quickly updating Wikipedia.

"I wouldn't say it was a competition among who would be first to add that to his story, but maybe we felt it was maybe us as a world coping with the fact that he died so suddenly," he said.

More than 200,000 editors contribute to Wikipedia every month. Yet a decade long study of the website, published in 2017, found that nearly all of Wikipedia is written by just one percent of its editors.

“This idea that they are shaping what the world knows gives them a sense of individual accomplishment,” Sorin Adam Matei, a professor in Purdue University’s Brian Lamb School of Communication, said at the time.

Prince died in 2016. IMAGE: Getty Images

Crawford was probably in that one percent. He was also involved in Prince's page edit, when the legendary artist died in April 2016.

"If I remember correctly -- when Prince died two years ago I  must have had Wikipedia opened up that very afternoon," Crawford said.

"By then I was a trusted editor on the website. I must have immediately published the news that I heard immediately from NBC News when it was reported on the broadcast."

A 'trusted editor' is someone who has made numerous edits on the page. In Crawford's case, he has made more than 11,000 individual contributions.

Globally, people viewed Prince’s Wikipedia articles, available in over 50 languages, about 14 million times in the 24 hours after his death.

Wikipedia’s page view statistics show that the site is the first stop for many when actors and entertainers pass away.

Prince’s article was viewed 810 views per second. Such numbers are not unheard of after celebrity deaths -- when Whitney Houston passed away in 2013 the numbers were similar.

Someone added music legend Aretha Franklin to Wikipedia's 'deaths of 2018' a mere 11 minutes after her publicist announced she had died from pancreatic cancer.

In December 2016, David Bowie received almost seven million views in the day after he died -- over 185 times the number he had the day before.

Between the views and edit rate, the 2014 article on Robin Williams was accessed so frequently that some readers encountered a rare error indicating the page had failed to load because “too many users are trying to view this page.”

Wikipedia crashed when Robin Williams died 11 August 2014.

"In addition to the high traffic levels, so many people were trying to update the English-language article that the rate of edit conflicts -- an error received when another edit is saved while another is being made -- spiked at 15 per minute. That’s around five times the normal figure," a spokesperson for the Wikipedia Foundation told 10 daily.

Dutch digital researcher Hay Kranen analysed the page edits of more than two dozen high-profile people.

"One way to measure ‘celebrity’ is by counting how many language editions of Wikipedia have an article on the subject," he said of his June 2018 study.

He dubbed these swift editors who deliver bad news 'deaditors'  -- and wanted to find out more about them.

"The answer seems to be a highly diverse set of people, often anonymous, and surprisingly often from their smartphone," Kranen said. 

READ MORE: Aretha Franklin's Final Public Performance

For those 26 articles, there were 26 different deaditors. Kranen's small study's findings are contrary to the belief that just one percent of Wikipedia superusers edit most of the content.

Netherlands-based digital research Hay Kranen spoke with 10 daily.

"Of the sample of 26 that I had for my research, 58 percent were edited on the same day as their death, 30 percent per cent took a day, and only 3 percent took two days or longer," Kranen told 10 daily.

Kranen said he was surprised to find that two-thirds of those edits were made by anonymous users.

'Anonymous’ means that they edit without being logged in. Their edits are logged under their current IP address instead.

And the editors were also pretty swift when someone died.

Given it's a volunteer run information glut, things don't always go to plan on Wikipedia.

Fake deaths do get reported.

In March 2007 actor-comedian Sinbad got a call from his daughter making sure he was OK after his Wikipedia page reported he had died of a heart attack.

The Wikipedia Foundation said, "All edits made on Wikipedia are consistently reviewed by volunteer editors, and volunteers have a variety of tools, resources, and bots at their disposal to address negative behavior, vandalism, and other edits that do not meet Wikipedia’s standards."

Wikipedia editors can also add a level of protection to the article, usually temporary, to limit public editing.

For example, pages such as Donald Trump's are classified as 'extended confirmed protected' -- which means only editors with at least 30 days tenure and have made a minimum 500 edits are allowed to make changes.

Crawford -- the man behind the death edits for Michael Jackson and Prince -- said in the "era of fake news" Wikipedia needs to be more stringent.

"This is an era of news in America where unfortunately, we are divided, and not many 'sources' are needed for reporting," he said.

Reflecting on Michael Jackson's death he said he remembers doing thorough checks.

"It was 2009, and back then, if Americans heard something so devastating or shocking on the news [as] being confirmed, we would absolutely know it were true," Crawford said.

Featured image: Getty.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au