PROFILE

MEET MISTER KNOW-IT-ALL

An Ottawa man’s fanatical relationship with Wikipedia

CATHY GULLI August 14 2006
PROFILE

MEET MISTER KNOW-IT-ALL

An Ottawa man’s fanatical relationship with Wikipedia

CATHY GULLI August 14 2006

MEET MISTER KNOW-IT-ALL

PROFILE

An Ottawa man’s fanatical relationship with Wikipedia

CATHY GULLI

When Simon Pulsifer was eight years old, he counted the World Book Encyclopedia among his favourite storybooks. He read them diligently, until he got to “P,” one of the longest and most dense volumes in the series. Only three pages in, he stopped. “It wasn’t so much boredom as lack of follow-through in the grand schemes that I had in Grade 3,” says Pulsifer, now 24.

So many years later, the Ottawa resident (he lives with his librarian mother, historian father, and younger brother) has followed through with Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that lets anyone write and edit articles. Pulsifer is its most prolific contributor, with more than 72,000 edits to his username, SimonP. The subject of his first article, the Panama Canal, was posted on Dec. 10, 2001. (It would have appeared in the P volume of the World Book, had he gotten that far.) Pulsifer had just watched a Discovery Channel documentary about the canal, and typed up the original 252-word Wikipedia entry. That article has grown to 4,500 words, edited hundreds of times to include maps, descriptions of the locks, crossings, and the “Chinese presence” there. Pulsifer muses, “There’s a lot of people out there who know far more about the Panama Canal than me.”

The Wiki world includes 1.9 million people with registered user accounts, who together have made more than 69 million edits since July 2002 (it launched mid-January 200l). They are Wikipedians, and Simon Pulsifer is the archetype. “It is a subculture of probably some of the world’s most nerdy people,” he surmises. “Over-educated and underemployed students or recent graduates who don’t have families and real jobs to take up much of their time, so they spend it writing encyclopedia articles.”

Pulsifer graduated with a history degree from the University of Toronto in 2004, and has yet to find a job he considers interesting enough to take (though he is currently working for Ottawa mayoral candidate Alex Munter). He began climbing the contributor list a couple of summers ago when he discovered that with a little more devotion he could make the top 200. He went from 500 edits to a few thousand by autumn. “Once I got on that list, I started doing 20 edits a day,” he remembers. For most of2005, he spent up

to 10 hours a day contributing to Wikipedia, waking up late in the morning and writing till midnight or past. He has since cut back to a few hours a day, but what keeps him going is the opportunity to add to the sum of Wikipedia’s knowledge. “Everywhere you look there’s still more to be written,” he says.

According to the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia, more than 4-6 million entries are posted across 229 language editions (l.2 million in English), and it’s currently the world’s 17th most visited website. Founder Jimmy Wales insists Wikipedia is a community as much as an information source: “We have a social goal to make this kind of knowledge avail-

able to everyone.” Futurist DonTapscott, coauthor (with Anthony D. Williams) of the forthcoming Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, echoes this democratizing vision, saying, “Now knowledge can be co-created by large masses of people, as opposed to being done by authorities.” In real terms, that means no expertise is required to edit, which can compromise accuracy. So Wikipedia has rules: users must write “from a neutral point of view” and no original research can be posted. Yet edit wars occur between Wikipedians, some are banned, and Wiki “watchlists” of articles vulnerable

to vandalism are drawn up. And detractors seize on mistakes. Recently, the journal Nature reported, “Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of accuracy of its science entries.” Encyclopœdia Britannica disagreed, and produced a compendium of complaints about the story. (Nature sticks by it.)

Pulsifer isn’t so utopian in his take on Wikipedia. He says some users spend more time debating edits than actually posting any. And he doesn’t believe Wikipedia is as accurate as standard encyclopedias. The advantage is its breadth. “So when the choice is between no article and a slightly inaccurate one, the risk of the inaccurate one is

always better,” he concludes, adding diplomatically that the Nature study indicates both Britarmica and Wikipedia “have a lot of room to grow before they’re really top notch in reliability.”

Meanwhile, Pulsifer’s edit count gets higher. He says he’ll always contribute, but concedes, “I do actually need to find employment.” Less time online could mean that Pulsifer will lose his status as the most prolific contributor, but he says he’ll bow out gracefully. “It wasn’t all that noble a motivation. I never was particularly good at sports, so [I thought] ‘might as well compete at Wikipedia.’ ” M