How Wikipedia covered Thatcher's death

Edit wars and Alex Salmond.

I heard about the news that Margaret Thatcher had died at 12:48 yesterday – on Twitter, naturally:

 

 

In a matter of seconds, four separate sources had tweeted the news, making it pretty unlikely to be a false alarm. And four minutes after that, the first Wikipedia editor went to work:

Revision as of 02:29, 4 April 2013
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, née Roberts (born 13 October 1925), is a British politician…

Revision as of 11:52, 8 April 2013.
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, née Roberts (born 13 October 1925), died April 8th, 2013, was a British politician…

Over the next hour, there were 76 separate edits, as users piled on to the breaking news. Unusually for Wikipedia, these came from across the site's userbase; there were a few hardcore editors jumping in to clean up the text, but as many of the changes were made by contributors with few edits to their name.

Revision as of 12:17, 8 April 2013
(removed "Oldest Living Former Prime Minister" honorific title)

But unlike the best of Wikipedia's responses to breaking news, Thatcher's page did not see an influx of first-time users. That's because it was "semi-protected", a limitation the site imposes on certain pages which are prone to vandalism. And the Margaret Thatcher page was certainly prone to vandalism.

Revision as of 00:42, 8 March 2008
(←Replaced page with 'SHE IS DEAD. DO WHAT YE WANT WITH YER SATAN.')

Semi-protection came in ten minutes after that edit, and has remained ever since. Which is probably for the best.

Revision as of 12:10, 8 April 2013
(→‎Honours: was, past tense)

The first hour of edits were largely clean-up. Tenses were changed, dates were added in, and a whole section on her death was introduced. But after that, the edit wars began.

A section headlined "Reactions to her death" was introduced at 12:22, but removed by 12:50, after an editor added the note "please do not add tributes from around the world. It is unnecessary and clutters the article."

Revision as of 12:50, 8 April 2013
(→‎Illness and death: we don't need a separate section for this, and we need to make sure this doesn't degenerate into a book of condolences)

That didn't stop people adding in the innumerable statements world leaders were making.

Revision as of 16:58, 8 April 2013 by Zcbeaton
(→‎Illness and death: Added response from Alex Salmond, statement from Glasgow City Council.)

Revision as of 17:00, 8 April 2013
(Undid revision by Zcbeaton: massively undue weight)

Particularly harsh was the removal of Bulgarian Premier Marin Raykov's statement, with the words "bullshit, poorly sourced, badly written"

In the end, Thatcher's death wasn't a time for Wikipedia to shine. The basic facts of the situation were established early on, and the only deeper piece of information – that she had died in bed in the Ritz hotel – had arrived within four hours (although it was shortly removed because it didn't have a source cited). The urge to grow the article didn't lead to a deeper haul of information, but just squabbling edit wars over which piece of irrelevant data to include next.

Revision as of 03:48, 9 April 2013
(→‎Political legacy: Added comments about the Scottish Parliament.)

But in its own quiet way, Wikipedia proved its worth yet again. Just a day after her death was announced, the article has a detailed section on her death and legacy; the edit wars are quieting down; and a new article, on the Death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher, has been created. What's left is left for the future.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear