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When a famous person dies, articles are written, tweets are tweeted, and Wikipedia is updated.

It’s a big deal.

Life After Death on Wikipedia

What pageviews tell us about how famous people are remembered after they die.

But just how big? To put it in perspective, let’s look at living icon Beyoncé. Here are her (English-language) Wikipedia pageviews between March and May of 2016, in 48-hour intervals.

On April 24, Beyoncé dropped Lemonade and the internet went wild. Her pageviews increased tenfold from about 30 thousand to nearly 300 thousand.

And now let’s take a look at Prince, starting with the period leading up to his death.

In the 48 hours after Prince’s death was reported, he accumulated over 11 million pageviews on Wikipedia. The news of his death was reflected in the traffic.

More than 1,300 notable people died in the past three years, according to Wikipedia. Here are 84 who got over half a million pageviews in the first 48 hours after their deaths.

Although no one grabbed our attention quite like Prince, the spike in pageviews after a celebrity’s death can often overshadow that of other major events, even a presidential inauguration.

While not perfect, Wikipedia traffic serves as a solid proxy for the ebb and flow of a celebrity’s cultural relevance. It makes sense that household names like Prince and Stephen Hawking get the most traffic immediately following their death. The bigger the star (or tragedy), the more they are searched.

After Anthony Bourdain died, it seemed like everybody (myself included) couldn’t talk about anything else. It was sad and unexpected.

I could rattle off a dozen other recent deaths that seemed to eclipse the rest of the news cycle. But which celebrities’ pageviews grew abnormally high? Let’s look at the percent increase in pageviews compared to a typical day.

Name Avg. 48 hr. views
before death
Views 48 hrs.
after death
Increase (%)

The first 48 hours only tell us part of the story. We develop special relationships and often identify with celebrities. This is why Bourdain’s death had such an impact on me. Watching his show, I traveled the world alongside him for countless hours.

And now I rewatch him more than ever. How long celebrities remain on our radar provides a different perspective on the impact of their death. Here are the number of weeks after death until pageviews returned to normal.

    A return to normal traffic was considered when the pageviews fell within two standard deviations of the median of the pageviews before the date of death. TBD means they have yet to return to normal.

    Weeks until normal traffic

    But not everybody’s pageviews return to normal. At the time of publishing, Bourdain’s traffic remains steadily and significantly higher.

    There are plenty of possible reasons for this; perhaps the person was relatively unknown before, and their death increased their visibility. Or maybe there was a renewed interest in their life’s work. Let’s look at the one-week moving average of the percent increase in pageviews compared to the pre-death average.

    legend

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    Only including people with data for at least 120 days after their death.

    There are many ways to process death. For me, quantifying the public reaction offers a different way to look at these often unexpected, tragic events.

    Data & Methods

    Data for this story were collected and processed using the Wikipedia API. The yearly aggregation of notable deaths (e.g., 2018) was the starting point. The full source and reproducible scripts are available on Github. The development of the entire project was streamed from start to finish. Check it out on YouTube.

    The period of collection was from July 1, 2015–August 1, 2018, from English Wikipedia. Only people with at least 30 days of padding from the edge of this range, who hit 500k adjusted pageviews the 48 hours after their death, and who had a median 48-hour adjusted pageviews of 500+ before death were considered. All pageviews were adjusted to represent traffic on an average day during this period to allow for fair comparison across days.

    A return to “normal” traffic was considered when the pageviews fell within two standard deviations of the median before the date of death.

    Get in touch with me on twitter @codenberg or by email at russell@pudding.cool.

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