Is this the beginning of the end for the free crowdsourced online encyclopedia that is the sixth most popular site worldwide?
Justin Knapp, the site’s most prolific contributor with more than 1.3 million edits, isn’t worried. He called Wikipedia “robust” in an email to Business Insider and explained that the English site has reached a point where it can survive with fewer editors.
“The number of editors as such is not necessarily a problem — eventually, the content of the encyclopedia will become more-or-less complete and what’s required is curation and maintenance. By the time you get to 4 million articles in one language, it’s close to done in terms of adding new articles,” he wrote.
What matters more than sheer number is diversity.
“There are certainly problems,” Knapp wrote, “huge lacunas in the type of knowledge we have, other language editions which are far smaller, and an evidently unwelcoming environment for new users and women in particular. Although it’s conceivably possible that a complete and accurate encyclopedia can be maintained by men, it’s not desirable that a common resource is off-putting to a majority of the population.
Wikipedia has several projects underway that are meant to help with diversity, as discussed last year by Tom Simonite in the MIT Technology Review. As for the decline in editors, it goes against the wildly optimistic goals of the Wikimedia Foundation, but Foundation executive director Sue Gardner told Simonite there is no proof that it is harming Wikipedia.
So who keeps Wikipedia running?
We asked Knapp, who received international news coverage in 2012 for being the first to pass 1 million edits, some questions about his habits. The 31-year-old graduated from the University of Indiana with bachelor of arts degrees in philosophy and political science. He works at a pizza shop and also on a crisis line, at the American Friends serivce Committee, and at a grocery co-op. Our exchange is presented below, lightly edited for clarity.
Business Insider: How much time do you spend editing Wikipedia and when do you do it?
Justin Knapp: That’s hard to say as there is no typical day. What I edit, how, and for how long are totally contingent upon what’s going on in my life. When I was unemployed, it was a lot more than when I’ve been working 90 hours a week. Over the years, I’ve changed to doing lots of small maintenance tasks, concentrating on high quality work with references, and attempting to connect Wikipediawith other free content projects (including other Wikimedia Foundation projects).
BI:What sort of edits do you make?
Knapp: I make edits of all kinds but my go-to edits are small style and typo fixes (such as replacing hyphens with ndashes). I have also written new articles from scratch, approved edits from new users, rearranged and split categories, marked content for deletion or renaming, added citations where needed — pretty much anything that needs to be done all across the encyclopedia.
Edits I have made lately include adding a navigation box to the bottom of an article, taking out unsourced content, and adding categories. I haven’t added much in the way of content–just making adjustments. Before that, I made several thousand changes to styling issues regarding italicization. What I focus on changes day to day: sometimes, I notice a small problem with articles that is widespread and can be easily addressed. Other times, a new event (e.g. an album release) will occur and I want to cover it. For instance, I just started the article on Pete Davidson. I have also spent some time editing Spanish orthography and created a template to ease my efforts by inserting links to dictionary definitions from Wiktionary. I don’t have any MO as such other than making the encyclopedia better. A few perennial ones are changing hyphens to ndashes or mdashes, tagging pages that have bad references, and creating links between Wikipedia and other Wikimedia Foundation projects or external projects like DMOZ and OpenStreetMap.
BI: What contributions are you most proud of?
Knapp: I am most proud of helping other users if I can. When it comes to the content of my work, I think the George Orwell bibliography and my article on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today are pretty high-quality, if not perfect. The article on Illinois is high-quality and was written by collaboration which is basically the point of the encyclopedia.
BI: Will any other contributors match your total?
Knapp: In terms of sheer numbers, there are only a couple of users which have near as many as me but the actual edit count is not as important as the quality. In that sense, many users have surpassed me. There are plenty of edits I make that have low value individually but you add them up and it makes the encyclopedia better. Other users put forth significant effort on a few edits that are very valuable individually. The thing that makes this project function is everyone doing their part. I’m impressed by anyone who puts forth serious, scholarly effort and freely shares that knowledge with the world, such as my late friend Adrianne Wadewitz. I am also particularly grateful to the software developers who make the back end structure of MediaWiki possible because they have skills that I entirely lack.
BI: What do you think about the health of Wikipedia as a whole?
Knapp: I think that Wikipedia is generally a robust and useful project and that the Wikimedia Foundation and greater Wikipedia community generally make the right decisions. The number of editors as such is not necessarily a problem–eventually, the content of the encyclopedia will become more-or-less complete and what’s required is curation and maintenance. By the time you get to 4 million articles in one language, it’s close to done in terms of adding new articles. There are certainly problems, though–huge lacunas in the type of knowledge we have, other language editions which are far smaller, and an evidently unwelcoming environment for new users and women in particular. Although it’s conceivably possible that a complete and accurate encyclopedia can be maintained by men, it’s not desirable that a common resource is off-putting to a majority of the population.
BI: What motivates you to contribute to Wikipedia?
Knapp: I am motivated by two broad interests. On the one hand, editing Wikipedia is a hobby: it’s fun and relaxing. I can do it most any time I want. It’s not mandatory and I can start and stop whenever and however I feel. On the other hand, it’s an expression of my values–a way to encourage sharing, free culture, community, privacy, and liberty. I think that is true of a lot of Wikipedians in general. When the project started, it was made up of guys who were into making an encyclopedia and guys who were into free software and free culture. This is a product of both of those desires.