The wonder of Wikipedia
About this time every year, the top banner of Wikipedia is given over to a very earnest image of its co-founder Jimmy Wales, with an accompanying headline asking for donations to keep the world's biggest, most widely available encyclopedia going.
Aside from those who keep Wiki oiled technically (coders, bug-fixers and the like), none of that cash goes to the people who actually contribute and make the site the fifth most-read in the world - its writers.
That's totally fine; it's a fundamental attribute of the project that anyone can go in and expound on their private passion, edit articles to keep it clean and do it all with the simple pleasure of knowing they've helped make a big, free record of human history.
But I spotted the other day that the banner had changed to feature the smiling face of one of these otherwise anonymous do-gooders. A university student, balancing studies with a clearly robust amount of time spent Wiki-ing, and who has contributed a staggering 18,000 edits.
Now, I'm slightly ashamed to admit this, but despite making Wikipedia usually my first click for basic background on a subject, I've never contributed a single word.
I don't think anyone else I know has, either. I've asked friends who give me a weary "naaah" on the subject, and yet, like me, use the site almost daily.
So then I thought a bit broader. But I couldn't even imagine acquaintances who are self-assured experts in their field sitting late into the night to pen another article on, say, a specific genus of moths found only in Ecuador. That man walking past on the street, is he an expert on Bolivian owls?
My question is, then, who are these Wiki-worker ants cobbling together nearly four million articles in English alone?
Are there communes somewhere in the backlands of the US - log cabins barricaded in by books and home to red-eyed scholars in front of scores of MacBooks? Perhaps they have momentous beards and resemble Socrates in a checked shirt.
Or perhaps these are the true pioneers of knowledge because they are the ones without any desire or hope for recognition in some unending quest for amassed learning.
I don't know. But I do know that in ever more commercial and self-driven times, the very fact of Wikipedia's continued existence is something to be admired.
While celebrity trundles its way into the most unlikely of fields - philosophy, art, even gardening - the idea that people might just want to share for the sake of it is pretty amazing. It's vital but hard to shake off that "someone else will sort it out" mentality - the true enemy of Wiki.
The consequence of this line of thought is, I've realised, either pay up or get writing. But 10 years on, this bubbling mass of words and jpegs looks more heroic than ever.
Updated: December 8, 2011 04:00 AM