Minutes after Virginia earthquake, it was on Wikipedia

August 24, 2011

The Wikipedians needed just eight minutes to cooly consign the “2011 Virginia earthquake” to history — the elapsed time between the temblor and the first bulletin in the online encyclopedia.

How do they know that Tuesday’s event near Mineral, Va., was the earthquake of the year for the state? What if it is forgotten after a monstrous seismic disaster that flattens, say, Richmond in October?

Nevermind. The weirdly wonderful service that Wikipedia provides in times such as these is to transform breaking news directly into remembrance of things past. To read a Wikipedia entry in the midst of another celebrity crackup, political scandal or natural disaster is to have the eerie sensation of looking back on the present from the future.

Alvaro Duran, 27, is a typical Wikipedian, one of the 88,000 more-or-less regular volunteer contributors and editors.

Duran is beginning a master’s program in Great Books this week at St. John’s College in Annapolis. On Tuesday, he had just returned to his apartment in Towson, Md., after running errands when he felt the quake. One of his first instincts was not to stand in a doorway but to create an entry for the encyclopedia.

He typed: “The 2011 Virginia earthquake was a magnitude 5.8 earthquake with an epicenter near Mineral, Virginia.” He footnoted a link to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Duran’s one-sentence article went up at 2:03 p.m. The USGS timed the earthquake at 1:51. Within the next 20 minutes, 30 more Wikipedians chimed in, adding and subtracting sentences. By late Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of tweaks and fixes had been made to the article, which now printed out at 71 / 2 pages.

It had been viewed more than 80,000 times.

“Almost immediately, the article took off,” Dura writes in an e-mail. “I suppose the rest is history, though I did make a rather pompous comment on Facebook about being the article originator and, later, about my article appearing on Google News.”

Technically, Duran’s bulletin was not the first Wiki entry. At 1:59 p.m., another, anonymous, Wikipedian had revised the separate, existing article on Mineral to say, buried under commentary on history, geography and demographics, “At 1:50 [sic] p.m. on August 23, 2011 there was a 5.8 magnitude earthquake.”

Sometimes rumors and falsehoods crept into entries. A blame-the-North-Koreans speculation in the Mineral article was immediately purged by Wiki self-policing.

A few minutes before Duran’s article went up, someone else had started an article on what some called the “2011 Washington D.C.” earthquake. That was quickly submerged into Duran’s entry because the earthquake’s epicenter was in Virginia. So Duran gets the credit for launching the main earthquake entry.

“There’s the satisfaction in knowing you’ve left something valuable that will last for a while,” Duran says in a follow-up telephone interview.

Milo Auckerman, a Web designer outside Indianapolis, never felt a tremor. But as soon as he saw tweets and other references to the quake, he knew it would be big on Wikipedia. He’s the one who saw the rival Washington-focused entry and merged it into Duran’s.

“Everyone feels they can add to the collective sharing of knowledge, and it develops very quickly,” Auckerman says. “I saw where I could assist a little bit. Just a minute or two of my time could help lots of people.”

Living just about 30 miles from Mineral, in Spotsylvania County, frequent contributor Bill Warrick was too busy the day of the quake bracing for aftershocks and checking on family to join the communal Wiki history-making. He’s an instructional technology resource teacher at an elementary school.

On Wednesday, he started contributing edits to the article Duran had created. Warrick was particularly concerned that there wasn’t enough local information from Virginia. He added facts he found on the Web site of the local newspaper, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. He also reordered the list of affected states to put Virginia at the top.

“My wife sometimes looks at the time I spend,” says Warrick, the author of several Wiki articles and a contributing editor on many, many more. I tell her some people go play poker, some do quilting. I enjoy Wikipedia.”

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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