Meet The Guy Who’s Made 1.4 Million Wikipedia Edits (And Counting)
Have you ever wondered who the hell edits Wikipedia's endless articles? I have. I've wondered this for a long, long time. Which is why I tracked down the community's most prolific editor, Justin Knapp, who as of this writing has a whopping 1,478,872 edits under his belt. He lives in Indianapolis, works four other jobs, and has been contributing an average of 385 edits per day since signing up in 2005. He's so highly regarded among the site's elite that founder Jimmy Wales even declared April 20th Justin Knapp Day. You don't have to take it from me, though. It's all on his Wikipedia page.
He generously gave me an hour of his time to answer all we ever wanted to know about how the Wikipedia sausage gets made.
So, what exactly do you spend your day doing?
Working on Wikipedia is my hobby. It's a thing I do when I have free time, and it fits in between everything else in my life. If I had more free time, I would do more. If you really wanted to know a little bit more about my life and my daily routine, you can look at all the edits I've made for the past decade-plus. You can see times when I was unemployed or when I was depressed or when I was busy or traveling. It's my go-to thing whenever I get home and take off my shoes. When I had jobs where I could screw around on the computer, [I was] really productive on Wikipedia, but not productive at work.
When you have a lot of free time, how many hours a day do you dedicate to editing?
It can be a whole day. There have been times where that was my routine all day long. It can be a full-time job that takes 40, 50, 60 hours a week. That's how it has been at times when I've been busy and haven't been busy with other real-life stuff. I set tasks and have goals and say, "Okay, I want to make sure I get three of these done today and this much tomorrow.” I set benchmarks like that.
"I believe in free knowledge and free culture, and I believe in freedom and sharing community."
How do you stay motivated?
There's a dimension of it that's just a way to kill time and a way to screw around and a way to figure out puzzles, learn things, find things that don't fit or don't work and work around them. There's that element of it, which is just having fun and goofing off. Sometimes even meeting individuals. I've met some people online because of it and had a nice relationship or had a kind of social element. There's all that.
On the other hand, it's also an expression of a set of values that I've got. I believe in certain things, and this is consummate with some of those things. I believe in free knowledge and free culture, and I believe in liberty, and I believe in privacy rights, and I believe in freedom and sharing community. It's not purely recreational. Not just screwing around. It also has this dimension that's something I think is important and valuable as an enterprise.
How did you get involved with Wikipedia?
The first time I ever found it was when I did a high school school project on India. I'm pretty sure I found it through a standard search engine. Probably Yahoo. I poked around a little, but I didn't ever edit. Then in 2004 I started to understand exactly what it was, how it worked, why it was what it was, and then I started editing.
The thing that really grabbed me when it came to editing was my interest in the Western Sahara and the political conflict there. There wasn't a lot of information about it online. I took it upon myself to start editing based on that topic—which was not entirely appropriate, because some of it was advocacy editing rather than objective work or encyclopedic editing. That was the first topic that drew me in. By 2005 I was checking it, working on it, doing it every day.
What’s your favorite contribution to the site?
When it comes to the things that I've done, there are two I feel pretty proud of. One that immediately comes to mind is the bibliography of George Orwell. I spent a lot of time working on that, and I think it's pretty good. It's not 100% where I want it to be, even though I've been working on it on and off for years, but it's a good 95% of where I want it to be. It involved getting research, going to libraries, getting little books, looking through them, sending out e-mails. Hitting the bricks and finding the data myself.
Another one that I put a lot of work into was for this David Byrne and Bryan Eno album called "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" from 2008. That was the first time I ever deliberately set out to write a good article rather than just to write some article or to edit something that already existed. This time I said, "I'm going to try to follow the rules. I'm going to try to find sources. I'm going to try to read up on best formatting and best practices. I'm going to try to have good copy." It's not flawless, but it's about as good as it's going to get.
What's your favorite entry?
There are some really good ones. A friend of mine wrote several good articles about topics on British literature. She wrote excellent articles about things like public reception of Jane Austen. They're not the sort of thing you would immediately think of, but they're clearly labors of love from someone who has a personal interest in the topic and went about doing it the right way. Those are always impressive to me, so that's the one that stands out.
Are there areas of interest that you check in on regularly?
That goes back and forth. We have what are called watch lists. Whenever you log in you can check a watch list, and you can see what's been edited. A watch list acts like a scratch pad, a kind of external memory of things that interest you. Mine has ballooned up to being like 14,000 pieces. They're all articles. Some of them are back-end stuff like categories and things that don't really get edited that much. They're not all content. If you were to look at my watch list, you'd see a lot of categories about albums, for instance. I've categorized a lot of album articles. You would find entries on philosophy, political science, religious topics. I don't really have much of a mind for the physical sciences. Humanities, liberal arts, and popular culture stuff are my wheelhouses.
What grammatical errors really piss you off?
One that gets me all the time is replacing hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes in articles. That happens a lot in sports articles, because in sports articles you're always talking about scores of like 10 to 2 or you're talking about seasons or years and someone's performances which spans 1943 to 1988. That's a little nit picky thing I'll fix dozens or hundreds of times over and over and over again.
If someone like me makes an edit on a random page, who gets notified, and how does it seem to get changed back so quickly?
For instance, if you were to edit an article that I watch, I might see that whenever I log in. Another option is that I could have e-mail alerts set up. I can also subscribe by RSS or Atom feeds. If there are edits that are clearly vandalism or inappropriate, there are kinds of semi-automatic or automatic triggers and filters that catch that. Sometimes a completely automated process will fix it. For instance, let's say you don't have a login and you go to an article and you decided to just blank the whole article. You just delete everything and save it as a blank document. There will be a little robot that comes along and undoes that about 3 or 4 seconds later. There are certain actions that require no human discrimination at all. Let's say you didn't change an article entirely, but you just inserted a line in the middle of it that says that this guy beats his wife or you include a racial slur or something. We can have these little tools that catch streams of possibly bad edits or problematic edits, and they can go in, and use their discrimination to say, “Oh, this one’s actually OK, that one’s not OK, this one’s OK, that one’s not OK.”
Another thing that can happen is if someone has a new account and they add really long amounts of text, like big, fully fleshed-out articles. A robot can go along and take a look at the text that that person’s added, and just run it through a search engine, and see if that text has been copied and pasted from other sources. That could be a copyright violation. Other things [that might trigger it] might be if someone starts adding external links all of a sudden…a lot of times that's spam.
“Using Wikipedia as an advertising platform...it’s not good business sense. It doesn't work."
Do you know of brands or people that have been caught paying people to write about them?
Oh, yeah, sure. There have been plenty of times it’s happened. About three years ago, when there was a flurry of news activity about my editing, I got contacted by strangers out of the woodwork. I still get e-mails almost every day from journalists or academics or companies who have whatever kind of interest in picking my brain, or getting me to do something for them.
Several companies—they’re hardly even companies, they’re just guys in basements that have Internet connections—came to me and would say, “Hey, can you write an article about my company on Wikipedia? I really want an article about my company on Wikipedia.” I would say, “Look, I can do that, but there are these rules about how it’s done, and I can’t just like take a press release of yours and publish it online. That’s not a Wikipedia article. I’ll have to go through these steps and do all these things, and make it appropriate and proper for the encyclopedia. If it can’t meet these criteria, then I can’t do it. Even if I did and you paid me, someone else would come along and delete it, so it would be a waste of my time and your money." If someone’s interested in helping write the encyclopedia, then I’ll be happy to help them. If they’re just interested in using it as an advertising platform, not only is it inappropriate, it’s also just not even good business sense. It doesn’t work.
Have you been offered big money?
Yeah, [companies] have wanted to give me contracts or whatever... which is all legit, as long as it follows certain sets of guidelines. If I wanted to just take someone’s money, I could have done it several times over. I wouldn’t be very wealthy. It wasn’t a fabulous amount of money, but I could have gotten enough money to get myself a car from just saying, “Yeah, sure, I’ll write this article, or I’ll promote it.” I never promoted myself. I’ve never made it a point to try to solicit anyone to give me money, but I’m sure if I hustled more, if I was more self-promotional, I’m sure I could have roped somebody else into it and said, “Hey, look, I can write about your company,” and scammed someone of money.
Have you ever found yourself at odds with other editors?
Oh yeah, constantly. When I first started, I would get into conflicts with editors who had different political opinions about topics related to the Western Sahara. Sometimes, it came from a clash of values. I would have that happen with editors from Morocco, who were writing about Western Sahara regularly. I don’t write as much about it [anymore], so it doesn’t come up as much.
I think also, just in general as a person, I’ve matured and chilled out more. Another example of conflicts [editors] will get into on a regular basis are how certain things are to be addressed and styled, written and formatted. For instance, the way that you Romanize or Latinize Hindi terms, Sanskrit terms, or Chinese terms. There are different ways of Romanizing Chinese, or Arabic, or any other non-Latin script. Someone can write an article on Muammar Gaddafi, and there are literally 80 different ways to write his name; Mohammar, Muammar, Quaddafi or Gaddafi. There could be these extremely arcane, very small, narrow issues.
"If I wanted to just take someone’s money, I could have done it several times over."
What’s the weirdest, grossest, or most controversial thing you've edited?
Nothing immediately comes to mind when it comes to a controversy that directly involves something I’ve done. I’m not interested in things like genocide or obscure sexual practices or anything like that. The only time I’ve ever really gotten involved in anything like that at all was when there was a controversy about including a picture—or pictures—of Mohammed in the article about Mohammed. That was very controversial. What ended up being kind of the payoff or the consensus at the end was that we would include what is the most common way of depicting Mohammed, a piece of script. I didn’t really get that involved in that, either. I just kind of voiced my opinion.
Do you know Seedfeeder, the anonymous illustrator?
Yeah, the one that did all the line illustrations of all the sex? I don’t know them personally. I happened to read an article about [him or her], and just as an aside, posted on [his or her] talk page and just said, “Hey, there’s an article about you. I don’t know if you saw it.” That person had stopped editing several months prior anyway, or stopped editing for that account. Again, they could still be editing, just doing different things under a different name, so I don’t really know. He or she could be in this café with me right now, I don’t know. If that’s all they do— just make kind of borderline filthy drawings—then I don’t know, they're probably not the sort of person I would hang out with in real life.
How does someone break into the editing gig?
First of all, if someone wanted to, they don’t need to make an account at all. Just edit from an IP address. If you wanted to climb the ladder, you would do that by doing good content, producing good content; providing sources where sources are needed, making sure the articles that are good are sourced and have proper English. That they're intelligible. That’s really 90 percent of it, just a decent grasp of the language and citing your sources. All it really takes is just kind of feeling that you understand how Wikipedia works, and providing sources for the edits that you make. That’s almost all it is.
"90 percent of it is a decent grasp of language and citing your sources."
How does someone create a Wikipedia page that won't get deleted?
There are guidelines. They’re called notability guidelines. A large portion of those guidelines just evolve into: "are there sources?" Are there third party sources that talk about you? What it amounts to is just if others have written enough about you, then you’re notable. If you’re notable, then an article can be created about you. You have to talk to other sources; other sources that can be reliable third party sources, et cetera.
Do you hang out with other editors?
There what’s called Wikimania, which is a conference. Generally speaking, it’s usually for Wikipedians. I went to that once, when it was here in the United States, in 2012 because I was invited. Someone paid, otherwise I couldn’t pay for it. I don’t have any money. I ended up meeting some folks. For one reason or another, it’s never really come together for me very much. There have been times where that’s happened, and there are opportunities like that. Some folks will have barbecues where a bunch of folks who are otherwise strangers chit-chat and play frisbee.
Have you ever played Six Degrees of Wikipedia?
Yeah, I think I know this one, where you can start at one topic and try to end up at another one? Sure. The easiest topic to get to is the word “philosophy,” because as an idea, it’s an abstraction and is basically the most fundamental abstraction there is. I’ve kind of goofed around like that. Let’s say if I’m on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it mentions martial arts, there’s a strong relationship between philosophy and discipline and sets of values in martial arts. You can get to philosophy really easily.
Are you a killer trivia teammate?
Yeah, I think generally I am. Sometimes folks will ask me. I’ll make a reference to something, like I’ll say something which is a true fact, like “The capital of Zimbabwe is Harare.” If I mention that every now and again I’ll get this weird look like, “How did you know that?” I’m like, “It’s not a secret. No one was hiding what the capital of Zimbabwe is.”
What’s your least favorite entry on Wikipedia?
I guess my least favorite would just be the thing that’s crappiest at a given moment. Let’s say, for instance, you choose a really broad or important topic like society. There’s definitely an article on society in Wikipedia, but I don’t know if it’s a very good one. If you don’t have a very good article about a very fundamental topic, that bothers me.
What’s the most common question you get asked?
Well, I have to ask, too: Why do you do it?
Someone has to. Those who can, simply must. That’s true of everything. There are definitely more important problems in the world than a free encyclopedia. Nepal just had a huge awful earthquake, and a lot of folks died. Someone should do something about that, but there’s not a lot I can do. I’m not in Nepal. I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t know a lot about earthquakes, so there’s very little I can do about that although it’s certainly very important. This is something I can do something about, and I can do something about it in a fairly substantial way on a regular basis. If I had other certain sets of skills, or if I had money, or if I had connections, there would be other things I should be spending my time doing.
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercompressor, which doesn't have an official Wikipedia page...yet.
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