Wiki's Million Edit Man is lifelong Hoosier 

click to enlarge Knapp on the campus of IUPUI, where he earned degrees in philosophy and political science. - PAUL F. P. POGUE
  • Knapp on the campus of IUPUI, where he earned degrees in philosophy and political science.
  • Paul F. P. Pogue

It is worth noting that long before Indianapolis resident Justin Knapp become famous for being the first Wikipedia editor to reach one million edits, he was already Internet-famous. Or nerd-famous. Or - okay, very-specific-subset-of-nerdery famous.

Knapp, 30, was the sole entrant in a contest for the DC comic Vext back in the late 1990s, which was promptly cancelled. The editor quit, and the prizeless Knapp dubbed himself "King of All Vext Fans" as a consolation prize. To the best of my knowledge nobody has ever challenged him on that front, and so his title remains as his Wikipedia handle, KOAVF.

Now, of course, he's slightly more well-known. He was the first - and remains the only - Wikipedian to cross the million-edit line, seven years after he established his editor's profile. (For those of you keeping track at home, that's something on the order of 400 edits per day.)

Since then, being the Million Edit Man has become something of a full-time job. Although Knapp has never done anything himself to plug the accomplishment, plenty of tech web sites and journals picked up his story, ranging from Gizmodo to obscure Russian web sites to Israeli talk shows. Some of Knapp's days have been nothing but getting up, breakfast, hours of phone interviews, a couple of hours of wiki editing, then sleep until the craziness starts all over again. (And he hasn't even had the TV guys catch wind of him yet!)

Talking to Knapp is something akin to reading a Wiki article and following all the links, as the free-ranging conversation can quickly jump from Orwell scholarship to Sufjan Stevens to Jim Shooter's comic writing career to the exact rate at which neuroblastoma can spread through a two-year-old's abdomen.

In other ways it feels like a dense conversation that belongs in a Chaim Potok novel, and not just because of Knapp's beard, black clothing and distinctly rabbinical way of gesturing. Knapp is fixated on information and accuracy. He spells out the name of nearly every person he mentions - and he can recall which magazines got factual information wrong, not to mention which magazine he thinks another magazine cribbed from to get that wrong information.

Knapp started out by editing articles about the Western Sahara, an old area of interest for him, and then spread into philosophy, political science, religion and popular culture.

"There are scholars, people pretending to be scholars, and hobbyists with something to give," he says. "Myself, I'm just a helper. I like Wiki because it shares the same values I have: liberty, free information sharing, community, egalitarianism, and all those things built into the way Wikipedia works."

click to enlarge Knapp did much of his work on Wiki's George Orwell bibliography at the IUPUI library.
  • Knapp did much of his work on Wiki's George Orwell bibliography at the IUPUI library.

One of his most notable contributions has been overseeing Wiki's George Orwell bibliography, possibly the most comprehensive in existence. But while he's proud of how it turned out, he can rattle off a half-dozen sources that he feels deserve more credit.

"I'm only piggybacking off the scholarship of others," he says. "But that's how Wiki works - a place to aggregate the research. And it allows you to organize it in different ways - if you want to see a list of everything Orwell ever published and want it alphabetical, or chronologically organized, you can do it with a click. And by definition you can't do that in print."

Most of those million edits are things you would probably never even notice. "A lot of Wiki is maintenance - I'll find an editorial or typo or small technical issue, but it might also turn out to be a systemic problem across a whole bunch of stuff," he says. "It's very boring work for some, but I very much like being able to categorize and bring a sense of consistency and conformity to information."

The whole thing started getting crazy around April 20, when another Wiki user who tracks this sort of thing noticed that Knapp had hit the million mark. That user posted it on the talk page of Wiki co-founder Jimmy Wales, who ultimately declared a Wikipedia Holiday for Knapp - just about the rarest Wiki honor there is.

Before long, Gawker noted it on a Twitter feed, Gizmodo writer Leslie Horn called him up and it was mayhem from there. So far he's been contacted for a variety of unexpected tasks - some press release editing, a self-published book, something in California with a venture capitalist.

Not bad for a guy who currently supports himself with freelance editing, tutoring and the like. "I don't know if anything in terms of a professional job is happening, but something here might turn into something ongoing."And in July he heads over to Washington D.C. for the Wikimania conference, courtesy of the Wikimedia Foundation.

"All this recognition is nice, but my friends know it's not the sort of thing I'm really accustomed to," he says. "My story is trivial and fluffy - a number with a lot of zeroes after it. But what it does do is let me talk about the values that Wikipedia has. It's not just a piece of technology or a platform for social networking, or even an encyclopedia. Wikipedia is working because it's not a contest. Volunteers do it because they want to do it. If it was a job or a competition you'd be going it for another reason, to win or climb the ladder to make money.

"There's still some measure of vanity, inefficiency and stupidity, which is true of any human institution, but that's not the purpose at the core. And that is a watershed moment in sharing technology. There are 13 million pieces in the Wiki commons, from a picture of someone eating ice cream to a recording of someone speaking Nepalese, or a dictionary that tires to have definitions of every word in every language. These are huge undertakings and it's an important moment in human history."

He could talk for hours about the free-information movement - and in fact, we spent quite a bit of time on it - including the fact that even the free information movement as we know it relies on a certain set of suppositions and is an ever-changing work in progress:"If you take a fact and the opposite of a fact and put them together, you don't arrive at a better fact. You arrive at gobbledygook. Truth is not always about democratic consensus."

But he does believe the best way forward, for the moment, remains with the Wiki. "My work on Wikipedia is part leisure and part hobby, but it's also about actualizing the principles I believe in. Part of it is narcissism, and part of it is because there are kids in Kenya who need an encyclopedia. The work I've done on, say, the Sufjan Stevens album may not be relevant, but it'll help someone. I don't really care about anyone ripping on me for being obsessive or freaky or weird. Open access and egalitarianism, that's what's most important."


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Paul F. P. Pogue

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