Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2005-07-11/London bombings article

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Bombings article tracks breaking news with record editing pace

By Kaldari and Michael Snow, 11 July 2005

In the wake of the London bombings on July 7, the Wikipedia article on the subject received record attention from both editors and readers. It also drew considerable media coverage from Wikipedia's reputation as a source for detailed information about breaking news. The article's popularity was such that it received more than a hundred edits every hour for the first day, and was still getting over a hundred edits daily at the end of the week.

Only an hour and a half after the bombings occurred, at 09:18 (UTC) (Note: UTC is one hour behind British Summer Time; the first bombs were at 08:50 BST, or 07:50 UTC), Morwen created the initial article about the event. She reported that she actually knew about the explosions some time earlier from colleagues at work, but true to the principle that Wikipedia only includes information that has been reported elsewhere first, she waited until she could confirm it from initial media reports. Wikinews had its article started at 08:28 (UTC) (using at first BBC radio reports then newswire articles), barely more than half an hour after the first bombs exploded, with the news being the front page headline moments later.

In the next 24 hours after Morwen created the Wikipedia article, over 800 editors contributed 2,857 edits, which as best as can be determined is a Wikipedia record. The previous record was set two months ago in April, when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope. The pace slowed considerably after the first day, but even on Sunday the article received 189 edits.

The extremely high rate of editing on the article caused frustration for many editors. During the most intense periods, it was difficult to make even minor edits without running into edit conflicts. Another problem was that large sections of the article would occasionally be duplicated, an issue that periodically comes up when the MediaWiki software has trouble processing edit conflicts while someone is editing a section. In one case, the duplication problem resulted in nearly half an hour of edits having to be reverted. Aside from technical issues, vandalism, spamming, and bad-faith edits to add bogus information were also frequent problems, leading to at least 16 people being blocked from editing the article. Once editing slowed down to a reasonable pace, most of these problems were either no longer an issue or easily manageable.

Page moves show how information comes out

One interesting aspect of the article's history is how it tracks the way in which information about the bombings became available. This can particularly be seen in the title being used for the article, which changed repeatedly during the first few hours, something that is now easier to track since MediaWiki 1.5 keeps a record of page moves.

The first title of the article was "London Underground power surge incident", as this was the explanation initially reported before the fact of the bombs became known. At 09:32 (UTC), Morwen moved the page to "London Underground explosions", as rumors about explosive devices gave the first indication that the power surge explanation was false. Once reports of the bus bombing appeared, Alphax moved the article to "London transport explosions" at 09:44 (UTC), given that the explosions were no longer limited to the Underground. At 09:52 (UTC), Harro5 moved the page once more, giving it a date as "2005 London transport explosions", thus distinguishing it more clearly from similar historical incidents.

The title of "2005 London transport explosions" then remained in place for several hours, and the vast majority of outside sites linked to the article in this form. As speculation increasingly focused on bombs, Pigsonthewing finally moved the article to "July 7, 2005 London bombing" at 12:32 (UTC). Over the next half hour, several more people moved the article, tweaking the date format and ultimately settling on the plural to indicate the multiple incidents.

The current form, "7 July 2005 London bombings", is not necessarily the final word either, and the possibility of coming up with a less awkward title has already been raised on the talk page. It was pointed out, however, that the ultimate title of the article depends on how the general public comes to refer to these events, something that will become more clear with the passage of time.

Outside sources point to Wikipedia

The flurry of media coverage surrounding the bombings caused a huge influx of visitors to the article. As of July 9, the London bombings article had received more than 250,000 page views, making it the most popular article in the history of Wikipedia. Unlike many previous flurries, however, the Wikimedia grid showed no signs of stress. This can be attributed to more web servers and improved network configuration. In addition to the heavily trafficked English article, there are currently versions of the article in 24 other languages.

 
The Adam Stacey photograph

When reporting on the response to the bombings among the public and the press, media sources also frequently discussed activity among online communities. While reporters often focused on Flickr and its collection of images related to the bombings, Wikipedia also received considerable attention. One widely mentioned story was how a photograph, taken by Adam Stacey on the Underground and quickly posted to moblog.co.uk under a Creative Commons license, ended up on Wikipedia and ultimately circulated to many major media organizations.

Numerous bloggers commented on the rapid development of the London bombings article. Nik Cubrilovic wrote "It is amazing how quickly a page detailing every aspect of the attack forms together on Wikipedia - they have more information than any of the major news providers." Ross Mayfield suggested using Wikipedia Animate to watch the article "evolve with thousands of edits into collective understanding". A more critical comment came from Tollie Williams who wrote that a "plethora of information was very quickly posted but sometimes inaccurately or without attribution of sources." On the day of the bombings, the Wikipedia article ranked as the third most prominently mentioned link in the blogosphere according to BlogPulse.com.

Several mainstream media sources also commented on Wikipedia's coverage of the event. Newsweek proclaimed "It is no longer newspapers, as the old maxim goes, that write the first draft of history." The Scotsman used an instance of vandalism in the article as an example of a weakness of "citizen news". Despite this criticism, the article termed Wikipedia as "usually excellent". The Wikipedia article was also used as a reference by many news sources, including the New York Times and Newsday.