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King of Corrections
Searching for Justin Knapp, the world’s most prolific Wikipedia editor.
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Justin Anthony Knapp (born November 18, 1982)1is an often-unemployed Wikipedia editor living in Indianapolis. He recently became the first person to make 1 million edits to the site. This article is about to expand.
When the Speedway native posted his millionth edit to Wikipedia on April 15, 20122—ironically, it was an update to his own user page quietly announcing the milestone to the Wiki community—it sat unnoticed for three days. Then an editor with the alias “Tony the Tiger” saw the post and wrote a public congratulatory note. A few others followed. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales came across it and named April 20 “Justin Knapp Day,” an honor he bestowed only three other times, to the site’s original programmers.
That induced the flood. Online news sites such as Gizmodo were the first to call. Then came the international press, including an Israeli talk show and something called Le Journal du Geek3. Local newspapers followed in May. The executive editor of Encyclopedia Britannica even phoned to pick Knapp’s brain. And by the time this publishes, Wikipedia will have introduced him to the world at Wikimania, its annual conference in Washington, D.C., attended by hundreds4.
Although he shares more than most people do online, including his phone number and dietary habits5, Knapp fiercely guards certain aspects of his privacy. Even close friends don’t know exactly where he lives or who he dates. For better or worse, though, more journalists will be calling with questions, as will potential employers with job offers. They will want sources. So it’s fair to ask of the man most responsible for the world’s largest repository of information: What can be known about Justin Knapp?[editorializing]
1.1 Early life
Like most boys, Knapp collected baseball cards and comic books, both of which come numbered for kids who can be bothered to organize them. But at an early age, he realized there were other ways to arrange his collection. He carefully stacked the cards by team, and within the teams, he filed the pitchers first, then the catchers. Baseball enjoys statistic-obsessed fans, so it occurred to him that he could also order the cards by home-run leaders and RBIs. And he applied the same taxonomic rigor to his comics6. Those fell into line by the appearance of certain characters, or writers and illustrators who contributed. Soon, stacked boxes of Mylar-wrapped collectibles in fastidious order filled his bedroom.
“He was a hoarder,” says his mother, Tina Knapp, an office worker at a westside auto-repair shop. “To me it didn’t look very organized, but to him I’m sure it was.”
1.2 Formative years
Friends from that period remember Knapp as precociously bright and interested in subjects like philosophy and politics that many kids his age hadn’t yet considered. He was also argumentative. Joseph Kilbourn, a pal since middle school, often saw him in the principal’s office for challenging his teachers. “He believed in anarchy,” Kilbourn says, “but it wasn’t punk-rock anarchy. He had a really well-read understanding of it, and he would say that ad hoc leadership would form to fill the vacuum in the absence of traditional government.”
Justin’s father, Jerry, worked long hours as an electrician at a factory, leaving his son with a lot of time to himself after school. When the boy enrolled at Covenant Christian High School in 1997, he began tinkering with computers there. After the family installed a simple HP in the living room in 2001, he spent his nights fastened to it, searching the Internet and playing games. Jerry recalls seeing Justin sitting in front of it when he went to bed, only to find his son still there when he went to work the next morning.[section may contain original research]
1.3 Higher education
After Justin began college at IUPUI, he discovered Wikipedia while researching one of his arcane interests: Western Sahara. Almost no information existed on the obscure North African territory, which struck him as a shame. So he took it upon himself to create a robust entry7.
And he was hooked. “One way of framing it is to say it became an obsession,” Knapp says. “I have my own narrative about it. It’s volunteering for a nonprofit that benefits education. It reflects a certain set of values: egalitarianism, liberty, freedom of information. I can’t liberate the people of Western Sahara, but I can write about it. Now when someone Googles that area, my information comes up. Which is powerful in itself.”
Over the next few years, Knapp tinkered heavily with the site between odd jobs—hauling gravel, mowing lawns, assisting in a computer lab—and racked up hundreds of thousands of edits. He graduated with a B.A. in political science, and then with a B.A. in philosophy. Still living at his parents’ house in his late 20s, he finally moved out in 2010, although even his folks seem fuzzy on where he moved8. Then he lost his pizza delivery job. Already sitting at 900,000 edits, he suddenly had even more free time on his hands. That’s when he began a monthlong, 16-hour-a-day Wikipedia binge resulting in a startling feat: 100,000 edits in 30 days.[please expand]
Even without consulting Wikipedia’s article about itself, many people could write the first few sentences of its entry. Launched in 2001 by Wales, a wealthy Chicago options trader9, it is a free encyclopedia, collaboratively edited by about 100,000 regular volunteers. At 2.7 billion pageviews per month, it now ranks sixth among the world’s websites. Its 285 language editions contain a total of more than 22 million articles. With a small headquarters in San Francisco and servers in Tampa, the project has been described as “radically decentralized.”10 Wales himself exerts little control over what has become a global experiment in intellectual cooperation, freedom of information, and anonymous mischief.
2.2 The rules
Anyone can edit the site, unidentified or as a registered user, which inevitably leads to things like the entire entry for journalism being replaced by the word “stupid.”11 It also leads to squabbles between well-meaning editors who simply disagree on a particular subject. Two will sometimes change the same fact back and forth repeatedly, a process called “reverting.” The surprising thing is how quickly the community polices itself. Of the 35 million volunteers who occasionally make changes to Wikipedia,12 about 1,500 are classified as administrators, with the authority to block other users from further edits when controversies arise. Those nominated to be administrators answer a few questions and submit themselves to the Wiki public for a vote of approval. Knapp has no particular interest in being one of them, but he ascribes to the same values they promise to uphold—a neutral point of view, civility, notability of the subject. That last one means Knapp himself can’t yet have a real Wikipedia entry of his own. To be “notable” in the Wikiworld, one needs to be famous for at least two things or one very big thing (think John Wilkes Booth). Making 1 million encyclopedia edits might get Knapp in the Guinness World Records,13 but it won’t earn him equal footing with, say, porn star and singer Hyapatia Lee14 on Wikipedia.[too biased—see footnote]
One of the perennial criticisms of the site, of course, remains its perceived inaccuracy.15 While traditional encyclopedias rely on a slow process of vetting by academic pedigrees, any 14-year-old can log on to Wikipedia and start entering “facts.” Yet, when the journal Nature compared 42 science entries from the site to those in Encyclopedia Britannica in 2005,16 the latter did not distinguish itself much—an average of three errors per article as opposed to four. And Wikipedia forbids original research. Which means it’s only as true as its traditional sources. Typically soft-spoken and patient, Knapp grows irritated at the accuracy question.
“Asking ‘How accurate is Wikipedia?’ is like asking ‘How accurate are blogs?’” he says. “Well, there are some good blogs and some lousy ones. Or how accurate are books? It’s too large a question, and it’s the wrong one. Wikipedia has millions of articles, and it has been created in just 10 years. So yeah, there’s a signal-to-noise ratio. But there are also a lot of excellent entries. If you’re going there for a stock tip or to find out what pharmaceuticals to take, you’re in the wrong place. That’s your fault.”
Critics also question the site’s stripped-down design, which has scarcely changed since it launched. Few photos or colors adorn the Web 1.0 typesetting. It looks like a Commodore 64 could run it.[opinion] What some see as a flaw, though, is central to Wikipedia’s mission. Programmers kept the code simple to make it easy for anyone to edit. Or download. Despite the fact that it’s close to the sum of all human knowledge, the entire thing can be pulled into a database that’s just 8 gigabytes—the capacity of an iPod nano.
3.1 Routine work
Knapp rapid-fires his 28-character password into a Mac on the IUPUI campus and begins to edit. At 6 feet tall and upwards of 250 pounds,17 he dwarfs the desk in front of him. Moppy hair and a feral beard hide most of his face. His wrinkled black T-shirt and loose-fitting pants appear pulled from the hamper. Nothing about him suggests comfort with public attention.
He worked in this computer lab once18 and has spent countless hours refining Wikipedia here, on the clock and off. The sessions begin in a number of ways. Sometimes the site posts a request to contribute to a subject or language edition that’s particularly thin. On occasion, Knapp will just hit the “Random Articles” button. But usually, he heads straight to his “Watchlist” page, a collection of about 10,000 subjects he actively follows. The variety is dizzying: a David Byrne discography, the Indianapolis flag, homesickness, the president of East Timor, a list of TED Prize winners, the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, the Karpass donkey.
While Knapp has written many of these articles, he specializes in typographical edits and organization. As with his baseball cards, he enjoys arranging entries in a logical way. Which at least partly explains how a person could possibly make so many corrections. When he’s authoring something original, he’ll manually refer to newspaper websites and journals. But Wikipedia offers “bots” that an editor can use to quickly clean up multiple typos or inconsistencies within an article, such as a comma repeatedly placed incorrectly or a mix of American19 and British20 date formats. Dozens or even hundreds of edits can be made in a few minutes.
Philately by country seems as good a place to start editing as any, and Knapp sees a flaw right away. “Stamps and stamp collecting don’t really interest me,” he says. “But problems with information do. See how someone has taken the category ‘philately by country’ out of the larger ‘philately’ article? That shouldn’t have happened.” He reverts it.
Moving on to the suicide of Tyler Clementi, he pulls up a longstanding dispute in the item about the highly publicized 2010 death of a gay Rutgers student. Another Wikipedia user took issue with his removal of people from Buffalo, New York as a category from this entry. The suicide of Tyler Clementi is not a person from Buffalo, New York, Knapp reasons. But he decides to let this one go.
3.2 Special projects
Next, Knapp turns to one of his mega-undertakings, an article on the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz.21 A six-LP set from 1973, it’s a landmark piece of jazz history, and Knapp wants to be thorough. He is in the process of adding all 86 tracks, each with the person who wrote it, the musicians, the length, and the critical reception. It will take weeks. “I care about this stuff because I want to read about it myself,” he says. “That’s almost always my justification.”
That was certainly the justification when he undertook what may be the world’s most comprehensive bibliography of George Orwell.22 When printed, it runs 56 pages and includes every known novel, article, pamphlet, and poem23 by the iconic author of 1984. Camping out at the IUPUI library, Knapp went through 700 books and devoted 100 hours to what he considers his greatest Wiki achievement. In a way, it is his own 1984.[editorializing] While he will edit just about any subject, the kinship he felt with Orwell, an outsider with few academic credentials, clearly inspired this particular effort. Before he became a journalist, the author was a homeless French teacher—“a tramp,” Knapp says. His writing derives its force from a moral authority and natural intelligence.
The Orwell bibliography has been fine-tuned by others since Knapp created it, and it may or may not be representative of the quality of Wikipedia at large. But no less an authority than Michael Sayeau, trustee of the George Orwell Archive in London, found little to correct when he perused it. “I’ve taken a look, and I can’t find any errors or glaring omissions,” Sayeau says. “The sourcing is impressive. Obviously, those responsible are very well-read when it comes to George.”24
Staying on top of the Wikipedia food chain, Knapp says, is not important to him, although he has now passed 1.1 million edits. The only other person who compares is Rich Farmbrough from England, who recently hit 1 million himself.25 And the Brit has a habit of being blocked by administrators for questionable mass-edits across many articles. The two seem to be churning out micro-corrections at roughly the same rate recently, so there’s no guarantee that Knapp will stay on top forever. Farmbrough does enjoy one advantage that frees up his time considerably: He currently spends a lot less of it answering calls from the press.
4.1 Impending exposure
Someday soon, you will visit wikipedia.org and see Justin Knapp’s face. The site interviewed and photographed him early this summer for a web banner soliciting donations. Even a nonprofit needs money,26 after all, and so does Knapp. Odd jobs will only pay the bills for so long, and volunteering hundreds of hours to the cause of free information may not always be feasible.[speculation]
4.2 Wikipedia’s challenge
Keeping Knapp and those like him, though, is critical to the website’s future. In an interview with the Associated Press last year, Wikipedia’s founder said they had been losing regular contributors. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the major entries have been written, leaving the detail work Knapp loves but that most find tedious.27 Maybe the contributors—mostly young men of the pedant, tech-geek, or grammar-Nazi variety—are just finding more fulfilling things to do with their lives.
4.3 Personal opportunities
Whatever the case, Knapp’s life of privacy will be hard to maintain. He hesitantly agrees that the exposure at Wikimania will lead to another massive round of phone calls. While he may be perfectly comfortable with his monastic habits, his friends hope he’ll exploit the publicity. “On the rare occasion that he has money, he gives it away. I worry about that,” says Margaret Ferguson, a political-science professor at IUPUI who befriended him after he had been a student in one of her classes.28 “I want him to have a job. I want him to capitalize on this opportunity.”[too biased]
Knapp seems surprisingly open to that, she says. He is taking the calls. He is accepting the event invitations. How much he continues to edit will depend on what becomes of them. “If the whole course of my life is editing Wikipedia, that would be kind of an impoverished one,” he says. “I have things I want to accomplish—a career, a family—and those will conflict with editing.”
All worthy pursuits. But the reluctant celebrity, so guarded about his personal life, ought to be careful about being too good at his future endeavors. He doesn’t want to end up as a subject on the site that made him famous. “If I’m only notable for this one thing,” he says, “I won’t ever have a Wikipedia page.”29
Photo by Tony Valainis.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.