Like many great online discoveries, it was boredom that led David Purdy to Wikipedia in 2006. Six years later, fewer than 50 people have created more articles than him. Purdy, a Haligonian raised in Paradise, N.L., has more than 4,500 articles and 130,000 edits to his name.
Purdy was on an engineering work term in Calgary, Alta. when he first came across the free encyclopedia. “It was the peak of the oil boom and there were drive-by hirings,” he says. “My supervisor was constantly getting promoted and being replaced by someone else. No one really cared about the work term student,” he adds. “At the point where I was really bored out of my mind and could not find any work for anyone to give me to do, I discovered Wikipedia.”
After four years at Memorial University he transferred into English literature. “When [engineers] look at something they want to know how it works. When I look at things,” he says, “I’m more interested in the etymology of the words used to describe the thing or the history of the thing.”
And so, he earned an Master of Arts in literature from Acadia University. He now teaches the history of science and technology tutorial at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
Purdy estimates he spends a couple of hours every day editing on Wikipedia, and he hasn’t earned a cent for it. So why does he contribute? “A lot of my dedication to Wikipedia comes from a belief that people should have access to all human knowledge,” he says.
Launched in 2001, Wikipedia is a collaboratively-edited online encyclopedia. Changes are instantly updated and any user is able to make edits to the more than 23 million articles. Purdy is one of a few hundred senior editors known as administrators. The administrators’ symbol is a mop, for two reasons. First, because of the extra tools they have to clean up things that most people can’t, for example deleting or moving articles or editing locked pages. “But also [the mop] is to keep us humble,” says Purdy. Wikipedia co-founder Jim Wales says it’s not a big deal, “and really it isn’t.”
Purdy says it’s important that administrators stay humble and not be paid. “If Wikipedia editors started getting paid then that would create an immediate bias,” he adds.
But there are rewards. Editors can give peers “barnstars” in recognition of especially commendable activity. One of Purdy’s proudest moments was being presented a “barnstar of civility” following an editorial disagreement that was resolved in a particularly courteous and respectful manner.
Besides editing, Purdy also volunteers his time with the Ambassador Project, which will allow students to publish final papers on Wikipedia. Instead of being tossed in the garbage or stored in a box, student work could be “forever out there for people to benefit from,” he explains.
Interestingly, Purdy says that the goal isn’t to present truth. “Wikipedia aims to present all views on a subject,” he says, adding that they are not to be presented equally, but instead “proportionally.”
“It’s really how society works,” he adds. Purdy says our society decides collectively what is true and accurate through discussion and debate. This, he explains, is also how accuracy is established on Wikipedia. “I think if we trust our society it would be inconsistent not to trust Wikipedia.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Dalhousie Gazette.