Meet the Internet’s unsung heroes: Wikipedia’s human collaborators

It would be impossible to imagine the world today without Wikipedia — a fact that students around the world can gratefully attest to.

Although editor bots often steal the limelight in conversations about this great resource, a lot of people have been putting in a lot of work to make Wikipedia what it is today.

Wikipedia actually has a pretty interesting page dedicated to tracking the most prolific authors on the site. All contributors are equal in the eyes of the site and its userbase, so this list isn’t about giving anyone bragging rights.

It serves to acknowledge the people putting considerable time and effort into creating this unique repository of knowledge that we all use daily (and mostly take for granted). In my eyes, they’re the unsung heroes, the ‘real MVPs’ of the internet, and a list commemorating their work is the least of what we should do for them.

But let’s get to know who they are so that we know who to be thankful to while scrambling to meet that paper deadline in the wee hours of the morning.

Steven Pruitt / Wiki user Ser Amantio di Nicolao

Pruitt in a jacket and tie

Steven Pruitt is an editor from Virginia, USA, with over three million edits and more than 35,000 written articles under his belt. Pruitt is hands down the most prolific human Wikipedia editor and publisher — not a bad accolade to hold.

Time magazine seems to agree, as it named Pruitt as one of the 25 most important influencers on the Internet in 2017.

Pruitt works as a contractor for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection but also finds the time to edit, flesh-out, and create material for the online encyclopedia.

“It started in 2001,” he explained in a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) thread in 2019.

“I matriculated college in 2002. I remember watching it climb in the Google search results, from the bottom of the first page to about two or three from the top. Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to take off…but it kept showing up, and one day I thought, ‘What the hell?’, and jumped in. I’m not sure I believed the ‘anyone can edit’ part of it until I became part of ‘everyone’.”

Pruitt is also one of the leading forces that helps shine a light on the achievements of women throughout history (my personal favorite is Hypatia), having written 212 new articles detailing the lives and achievements of influential women when the Time Magazine piece was published. He is also part of the Women in Red initiative, which is “focused on improving content systemic bias in the wiki movement”.

However, he doesn’t focus solely on this or any other topic. His primary source of information, according to the AMA thread are “books, mostly encyclopedias”, alongside material on the web or other sources “as long as they pass a small test :)”.

As to why he does it, it’s the oldest reason in the book — “it’s a hobby”.

“I have my moments, I think everyone does,” he said when asked whether he ever felt like he’s putting too much time and effort into Wikipedia. “But then I look back on some of the articles I’ve written […] and it feels good. That wonderful feeling of having made something useful. That’s what keeps me going, often as not.”

Pruitt adds that he has been approached with offers to write Wikipedia articles for pay by “a couple of people” and only said yes once because “I genuinely felt the subject deserved an article, and would pass the notability test”, but didn’t accept payment for it.

“I know it sounds cheesy, but I’ve come to believe that we, collectively, are changing the world and the way the world thinks about knowledge. That’s an amazing thing to think about, and it still blows my mind.”

It’s safe to say that without Pruitt, Wikipedia — and maybe the internet — wouldn’t be the same.

Justin Knapp / Wiki user Koavf

Justin Knapp—a Caucasian male with brown hair and a bushy beard—stands with his arms folded

He used to be the top contributor between April 18, 2012, and November 1, 2015, when Pruitt took the title. While Justin may not be the most prolific contributor to Wikipedia by sheer number of edits and posts any longer, he will forever remain the first to reach one million edits on the site. As of March 2020, he has performed over 2 million edits and doesn’t seem to be losing any steam.

We have to keep in mind the dedication and the workload people such as Knapp and Pruitt put themselves through for our collective benefit. He has submitted an average of 385 edits a day, every day, for seven years (starting in 2005) by the time he reached 1 million edits in 2012.

To be fair, he does have a perk most of us don’t: a degree in philosophy (and one in political science, but it’s harder to make unemployment jokes with that one) from Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis.

“Being suddenly and involuntarily unemployed will do that to you,” he wrote in “his personal page”, according to The Telegraph.

His work didn’t go unnoticed in the community, with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales congratulating him and declaring that April 20 would be Justin Knapp Day. He says that he doesn’t have a fixed routine in regards to his editing and that his “go-to edits are small style and typo fixes”. Philosophy, politics, religion, history, and popular culture are some of the categories he works on most.

In his day to day life, Knapp has had several odd jobs including pizza delivery, working at a grocery store, and as an operator for a crisis hotline. He also owns a magnificent beard.

I find it quite infuriating that the work of people such as Knapp goes unrecognized by the vast majority of society, despite all the immense benefits it brings. His is a prime example of why careers aren’t a true reflection of an individual’s worth and merits. We all are liable to look down on someone for being “just a pizza delivery guy,” or “just a cashier lady,” with the unstated but implied belief that if they’d only work hard and educate themselves as we do — perhaps on Wikipedia — they would deserve the quality of life we enjoy.

But that pizza delivery guy and that girl working her fingers to the bone behind the counter might just be the person who wrote and corrected the Wiki page you used in your dissertation at school or high-stakes presentation at work. And they may be working “up to 16 [hours] a day” to allow anyone, anywhere, including you, access to the sum of human knowledge.

Wiki user BrownHairedGirl (BHG)

Grainne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley), the pirate queen of Ireland, whom BHG calls “one of her heroes”.
Image modified after Wikipedia.

The definition of an unsung hero, because she wants to “neither tell [her] life story or reveal all sorts of interesting details about [herself].”

All we know of the elusive BHG comes from her user page (linked above). She’s currently living in Connacht, Ireland, was “expelled from the University of Life”, her eye color is “working”, and she seems to be in a romantic triangle with Gráinne and Finn McCool, two figures from Irish mythology. Which, one would assume, makes her Mrs. McCool.

Beyond her sense of humor, BHG is also a major contributor to Wikipedia, having performed close to 1.8 million edits. She’s one of the scarier admins of the site, with close to 12,000-page deletions and 245 user bans under her belt in her 14 years and 4 months’ worth of work on the site. But she also has a nurturing side, restoring over 1,100 pages back to the Wiki.

BHG spawned BHGbot in 2007, a bot that tags “talk pages of articles and categories [to] identify the articles as being within the scope of a particular WikiProject”, although we are not informed of whether she did so by Finn McCool or someone else. Tragically, BHGbot’s life was cut short in 2009.

Her work further includes quite a bit of heavy lifting behind the scenes, which has to do with streamlining the way Wikipedia’s automated systems handle category indexing. I won’t pretend to fully understand what that means, but it involves coding.

BHG mostly works “on Irish topics, especially politics,” she explains on her user page.

“I have also done a lot of Scottish politicians and judges, and on Westminster MPs from across the UK. Plus Irish and UK constituencies and by-elections. I created the page Families in the Oireachtas [the Irish legislature], built and developed a large chunk of the articles on UK constituencies, and built the [navigation boxes] which unify navigation between the constituencies in Ireland of 5 different parliaments and assemblies.”

She cites the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) as her “most useful source” of information for her work on Wikipedia, noting that “sadly, the BNA no longer offers free access to Wikipedia contributors” but that she plans to one day take out a subscription and “start writing articles again”.

Richard Farmborough / Wikiuser Rich Farmborough

A 53-year old Richard Farmborough.
Image credits SKBalchal / imgur.

Another one of Wikipedia’s mysterious contributors (hard facts and mystery — this site has it all), Rich is close to reaching around 1.7 million edits since he joined in March of 2015 (according to his user page).

His user page is quite cryptic. It tells us that Richard is skilled in technical and general editing and that he likes “to welcome, facilitate, and enable new editors”.

I had to do some prodding around to find out more about the man behind the Wikiuser Rich, but from what I’ve found, he seems like a genuinely cool guy. Writing in a blog post for Wikimedia, Syed Muzammiluddin explains that Rich “developed a passion for English Wikipedia the moment he discovered the project as early as 2004,” especially given his previous experience and interest with bulletin boards. He considers himself to have been a “full-time Wikipedian” ever since March 2012 “with some gaps”.

According to the same source (it also has a photo of a younger Richard), he was born and brought up in Enfield (a London borough) and holds a degree in Mathematics. As far as careers go, he has worked as a professional in car insurance, in e-commerce, and in academia.

“The English Wikipedia should be considered a storehouse of resources,” he told Muzammiluddin. “Given the ubiquity of the language, anyone with even a passable command of English can make a valuable contribution to Wikipedias in other languages. Not just in articles, policies, and guidelines, but also in the wide reuse of templates—saving thousands of hours.”

British tabloid The Sun cites Rich as a “retired project manager Richard, from Stamford, Lincs”, so make of his bio what you will. However, they do have some interesting quotes detailing’s Richard’s experience with the encyclopedia and what drives him to contribute:

“When I first found Wikipedia I started jumping in and editing as I read, adding bits here and there. If I see something that needs doing, I will do it. It might mean writing a few sentences, but it could be as simple as fixing a typo,” he explains.

“It seems like a lot of time, but what else would I be doing? Watching videos of cats on YouTube? At least this is productive.”

He further explains that it is important to him “that knowledge is accessible to all,” and volunteers like him “are making that possible — one edit at a time.” His advice to everyone out there is to “be bold, be patient, and be kind”.

That being said, though, I am very partial to cat videos on YouTube.

Wikiuser BD2412

“This editor is a Grandmaster Editor First-Class and is entitled to display this
Mithril Editor Star with the Neutronium Superstar hologram” — this is the message that, in a bright yellow box alongside a picture of said Star, greet you upon accessing BD2412’s profile page.

This is the best picture I’ve been able to find of BD2412 — conveniently supplied by himself.

BD2412 joined Wikipedia in December 2005, making him one of the longest-serving Administrators of the site.

Among the few tidbits of information we get from his page is that BD2412 is a lawyer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his profile lists “law” and “people in law” as some of his main areas of contribution. Wikipedia lists him as having made in excess of 1.5 million edits, and BD2412 states that he has edited about 14.25% of the articles on Wikipedia — not a mean feat by any margin.

“If you have edited more than seven articles, there is probably an article that both you and I have edited,” he adds.

BD is also “an administrator on English Wiktionary; and on English Wikisource; and an admin and bureaucrat on English Wikiquote,” and judging by the pins on his page, has published peer-reviewed articles in academic journals.

I also like these two quotes he has on his profile — one about what Wikipedia is for and how it should function, the other about cautioning that the source of information you’re using can shape the data that you find:

“Wikipedia is not an experiment in democracy: its primary method of finding consensus is discussion, not voting. That is, majority opinion does not necessarily rule in Wikipedia. Various votes are regularly conducted, but their numerical results are usually only one of several means of making a decision. The discussions that accompany the voting processes are crucial means of reaching consensus.”

“Be aware of Google bias when testing for importance or existence: bear in mind that Google will be biased in favor of modern subjects of interest to people from developed countries with Internet access, so it should be used with some judgment.”

These are just 5 of Wikipedia’s contributors — granted, they are the 5 most prolific ones as measured by the number of their edits and posts, but they’re by no means the only ones. They’re just 5 out of a page listing over 5000 people. And there’s a second page dedicated to yet another 5000 (presumably to keep the lists navigable).

It’s a testament to these people, their work, and the mind-boggling wealth of data that Wikipedia encapsulates, that with very tiny exceptions (i.e., one Reddit threat, a quote, and picture), everything I’ve written here is available on the platform.

We tend to take it for granted. There’s absolutely no shred of doubt, at least to most of us in the West, that if an internet connection is available, we can access data on virtually anything; on everything. In 30 seconds we can use our smartphone to say “see, I was right” in an argument with our friends just by typing “wi” and hitting enter on Wikipedia when it comes up as the first suggestion.

For any of our ancestors, Wikipedia would be nothing short of a miracle. We know it’s not; it’s just a system constructed on electricity forced into silicon chips. But systems are only as powerful as the people who build them allow them to be. In that light, the work contributors such as these five here do, without asking for recognition, fame, praise, or fortune, often refusing it voluntarily, is nothing short of a modern miracle.

All images used in this post, unless otherwise stated, are sourced from Wikipedia.

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