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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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.