How a Secret Team of Know-It-Alls Keeps the 'Game of Thrones' Wiki Up to Date
As soon as an episode of Game of Thrones ends, Thomas Anderson springs into action. Like most Thrones watchers do after an hour of dragon and White Walker carnage comes to a close, the the 18-year-old logs onto Twitter and Reddit to see how other fans are reacting, what theories are being swapped, and which memes will soon take over the internet. But for Anderson, who goes by the name ReddyRedCP on the Game of Thrones wiki, it's also time to get to work.
"I hop online mere minutes after the episode," he tells me via email. "While discussing it with friends and jogging in my memory what just went down, especially when it gets huge -- it bolts me up! So, I'll be updating within the hour and probably 'finish' within a couple days, barring my work and study, but, like I said, the process never ends."
While Anderson didn't start watching the enormously popular HBO series until the end of 2013, during a stretch when he was bedridden with the flu, he was quickly drawn in by the show's dense mix of fantasy and history, particularly the way the complex backstories often informed the current actions of specific characters. (Naturally, he has many favorites, but maintains a soft spot for the tortured Kingslayer, Ser Jaime Lannister.) As a relative GoT newbie, the show's heavily layered mythology sent him hunting for crash courses on the history of Westeros, which led him to the Game of Thrones wiki, one of the many user-generated fan communities owned by the company Wikia, the for-profit hosting service spearheaded by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales in 2004 under the name Wikicities. (In 2016, the site rebranded as FANDOM.) Soon enough, Anderson was hooked.
Like academics or professional basketball players, wiki writers often have areas of concentration or special skills. Anderson likes to focus on updating character articles after a given episode, tracking the ongoing adventures of a major figure like Jon Snow or a more marginal players like the burned-by-a-dragon Dickon Tarly. He typically watches each episode live without interruptions, and then rushes to his phone or computer after the show, where he'll edit from memory. If he needs to draw on a specific detail -- like who exactly were the casualties of the "wight hunt" in "Beyond the Wall," the sixth episode of Season 7 -- he'll open HBO Go on his laptop and skip ahead to a specific scene to re-watch it and fully absorb it. He describes this as the "most fun" part of his wiki duties.
"I'm meticulous where it concerns the details," he writes. "The smallest little mistake I notice will drive me crazy. I'm thinking that I've got to fix this, almost as if it's an obligation of sorts."
But it’s not an obligation: Anderson is an unpaid, volunteer writer. In the parlance of FANDOM, which now oversees the vast info-page empire, he’s a “contributor." More importantly: He's part of a massive global army of roaming, zealous contributors. Back when FANDOM first launched, the company's COO Walker Jacobs told Fast Company they had over 40 million pieces of "original content," along with the accompanying analytics information. "That’s over three times the size of the entire New York Times archive dating back to the 1850’s," Jacobs said. "And it’s growing exponentially."
For an ever-increasing number of obsessive TV devotees, the mere act of watching a show isn't enough anymore. The difference between now and say, the 1990s, when an X-Files or a Star Trek fan might start a blog or a fanzine, is that there's now a large, data-driven, money-making mechanism seeking to funnel fan passion into content. As these companies continue to grow -- Quantcast lists Wikia as the 16th most trafficked website with over 46 million monthly visitors -- and tough questions about "contributor-networks" emerge, actual people still log on to set in digital-stone the biographies of characters like the semi-obscure "Hot Pie." And like the young orphan and baker's apprentice, these wiki warriors are driven from the TV to the computer every Sunday night to serve piping hot information to hungry customers.
But what exactly keeps them coming back?
In the world of Game of Thrones, highly specialized knowledge of the realm is collected, maintained, and painstakingly passed on to future generations by the Order of the Maesters, a group of wise old men distinguished by their gray cloaks and the chains they wear around their necks. These chains are carefully forged by the Maesters themselves, and each link carries a symbolic value that corresponds to an area of study: gold for money and accounting, silver for medicine and healing, iron for warcraft, bronze for astronomy, etc. The Maesters even wear their chains when they're sleeping.
All of this essential chain trivia could likely be gleaned by thoroughly reading George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, pouring over the special features on the Game of Thrones DVD box sets, or, like aspiring Maester Samwell Tarly in Season 7, by training at the Citadel in Oldtown. Or, if you wanted to take the easy route, you could simply fire up Google and ask the closest thing the internet has to Maesters: the fact-finders, obsessives, and fans behind the Game of Thrones wiki community.
Kevin Carney is one of those wise wiki Measters. An unemployed writer who worked at a newspaper in Ireland, he was introduced to me by FANDOM as one of the Game of Thrones wiki's biggest contributors. Unlike some users who prefer to write the lengthy episode summaries or make updates to major character pages, he enjoys creating new posts for the small new characters introduced in each episode and updating obscure bits of lore. A task like making the page for "Lannister spearman," an unnamed soldier killed by dragon fire in the Battle of the Goldroad (and played by New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard), interests him more than the more quickly updated posts.
Speaking over the phone from Ireland, Carney says the recent episodes have been lighter on that type of hyper-specific maintenance. "While they've been introducing some new things, they've also been building up off what's established over the course of the previous six seasons," he says. "So our workload has been pretty light so far in Season 7."
There are also plenty of ready worker bees. According to FANDOM, the Game of Thrones wiki has 13 admins who help oversee the network of GoT-specific pages. On a given night after an episode, there are often dozens of contributors making large and small tweaks to pages, but the admins go through the feed of edits, look at the changes being made, and decide whether or not they're up to snuff. In Game of Thrones terms, the admins are the archmaesters. They keep a watchful eye over the archive.
"There are varying levels of contributions," explains Brandon Rhea, a manager of content production for FANDOM who got his start in the Wiki fan community world as a contributor to the Star Wars-specific Wookieepedia in 2007 before being hired as an employee by Wikia in 2010. "One person might just come in and write a sentence, but then another person will come in and write extensive pages about the battles that just happened or about the dragons in the episode."
Maintaining the wiki community even includes a visual component. Contributor Alexander Wrenn, a 22-year-old in the UK who last year began updating the Thrones wiki under the username Xanderen, focuses on tasks like creating heraldry shields, infobox designs, and page templates. Typically he stays up until 2am to watch the show at the same time as his American colleagues, and immediately dives into editing once the credits hit. Often, he'll re-watch the episode to screencap important scenes. Sometimes he'll even make a quick hand-drawn sketch if he spots a new shield onscreen.
"I had great fun creating a vector alphabet of all the runic drawings made by the Children on the Forest from the Danny and Jon cave scene," he writes via email. "I may have too much time on my hands."
Game of Thrones is a rare event series. Everyone watches. Everyone talks about it. And each episode spawns Reddit theory-crafters, Twitter joke-slingers, and that one guy in your office who thinks he's got it all figured out because he read about the "R + L = J" theory. Through each season, the Game of Thrones wiki provides two essential services: stability and authority. With its emphasis on facts over fiction, and confirmed details over spoilers, the site, along with its more book-specific counterpart the Wiki of Ice and Fire, creates a foundation for the rest of the internet to build on. At its most simple, it helps you keep all those damn names straight.
(On the subject of spoilers, Rhea says that the community has a policy not to use leaked material. This was an issue when the show's plot was catching up with the books, but also intensified online after the 2017 hack of HBO and subsequent leaks of scripts, spoilers, and full episodes. "I think that as fans they have a very strong desire to not do anything that would run afoul of the franchise," says Rhea. Though, he also notes he's not sure if contributors are watching the hacks themselves and pre-writing material to post after the episode airs.)
Make no mistake, the Thrones audience relies on the hard work of the wiki contributors: According to a publicist for FANDOM, when the Season 7 premiere "Dragonstone" aired on July 16, 2017, the GoT wiki site experienced 976,697 unique "sessions," with 134,135 of those occurring at 10pm EST after the episode aired on the East Coast. During that peak, the GoT wiki accounted for 16% of the website's overall traffic, which includes 385,000 separate communities. They've seen a growth of 25.48% in sessions compared to last year's premiere, which suggests that the site's reach, along with the show's popularity, is growing.
That's exciting news for HBO and the investors in FANDOM, but it's less clear how it benefits the wiki contributors themselves. The writers I spoke and corresponded with did seem genuinely excited about their work. "I love writing," writes Shane Jacobus, a 33-year-old contributor who goes by the username Shaneymike. "And I love having wiki as an outlet to help me keep up my writing skills, and provide the public with a detailed analysis of the show." Similarly, Kevin Carney says he simply enjoys doing it. He also cites the discussion boards as an entertaining way to discuss theories, speculate about the show, and interact with other users. It's fun.
"People are investing in these franchises based on facts and being able to connect things together."
The labor of a Game of Thrones wiki contributor emerges from ideas of service and stewardship. They live by a code similar to the vision statement of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which was also founded by Wales: "Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge." But Rhea, probably one of the few people to ever flip a wiki-contributing hobby into a full-time career, also thinks fans now consume stories, particularly multi-media interconnected ones like Game of Thrones, Star Wars, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in a new way that sites like FANDOM encourage. He uses the phrase "emotional continuity."
He began to think about the term more around 2014 when the reboot of the Star Wars universe happened and the "Expanded Universe" stories -- which included a wide array of Lucasfilm-sanctioned books, comics, video-games, television series, and toys -- were relegated to non-canon status. "Basically, people are investing in these franchises based on facts and being able to connect things together," he says. "Their way of connecting with it is what they know, and finding out what they don't know, and then being able to share that with other people."
What's true in Game of Thrones is also true in life: A Maester's work is never done.