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Seven Years, One Million Edits, Zero Dollars: Wikipedia's Flat Broke Superstar

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Nearly 4 million entries on Wikipedia are all written and edited by volunteers. On April 19, Justin Knapp—user name koavf—became the first person to complete 1,000,000 edits on the massive, online, open-source encyclopedia. For his efforts, he hasn't gotten paid one red cent.

An editor like Knapp is the lifeblood of Wikipedia, an increasingly vital resource that more and more people turn to, expecting accurate information. It's the sixth most-visited website in the world, and the only one that contains both a comprehensive history of the Battle of Fort Sumter and the anatomy of a paintball gun. Yet the site's editors don't receive any monetary compensation for their work, and they are dwindling in number. This doesn't bother Knapp, he told Gizmodo in a phone interview.


"I've never accepted any restitution for my work on Wikipedia—it's purely voluntary. While paid editing is not strictly forbidden, it's strongly discouraged. Editing these projects is relaxing and rewarding—those are both premiums in any prospective job."

Knapp's actual source of income includes odd jobs, like babysitting, and market research for TGI Friday's. He's living off his tax refund while working toward a nursing degree at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis. He turns 30 on November 18, but he considers himself 30 as of now, because he measures his age from the date of his conception. Until recently, he lived with his parents. Music, politics, and religion interest him, but his life—as the million edits might suggest—is Wikipedia. So just how much time does he spend working on the site?


"If you parse it all out, I mean, you have to figure, a million minutes is about two years. So even if you do the math and add it up and average it out, that ends up with a lot of time per day. So yeah, that's kind of just what i do in my free time."

He estimates he spends several hours daily editing Wikipedia articles. He's dedicated, down to ensuring that em dashes and en dashes are used properly. One of his crowning achievements on the site was building the bibliography on the George Orwell entry, the most comprehensive of its kind in the world, a task that took him more than 100 hours. He does extensive work to keep the site's information on music albums up-to-date.

"If there's a new album coming out, I create a Google alert and I get an email every time there's a review. I add that review to the article, and over time I make a new article. I've done that with an article on New Multitudes. It's a Woody Guthrie tribute album. If you take a look at the history of that, I'm pretty much the only person who's edited it, and I've edited it since the album was released. And I just keep on adding as there's new stuff."

For other topics, especially ones that aren't covered extensively online, he combs Google Scholar and JSTOR, or goes to the library to check out books and do research by hand. One common strategy is to purposely seek out places where he thinks there might be errors.


"Generally, I devise some kind of problem and I think: 'Oh, you know what, this probably hasn't been addressed, this probably hasn't been done thoroughly,'" he said. "And I set out to do that in a systematic way."

He's been at it since stumbling on Wikipedia while doing research on Western Sahara in 2003. He had an eye on the site through 2004, but didn't register as an editor until 2005. In the seven years since, he never set one million edits as a goal.


"The number is arbitrary," he said. "It just so happens that we use base-10 numbers, and here, there's a one with so many zeros after it."

The more meaningful measurement, for Knapp, is whether users can find the information they need. "Far be it for me to say that it's an act of love to edit Wikipedia," he said, "But I really do feel like it helps other human beings. That makes me feel good—knowing that somehow I can be a small part of helping someone who I'll never know."


It's amazing that anyone this dedicated doesn't receive pay for his work. You can use Wikipedia for free every day. But that deep, seemingly infinite information didn't land there by accident. It's there because of people like Knapp. [The Wikipedian]