When I first created Wikipedia back in 2001, the internet was a very different place. Only seven percent of people worldwide had a broadband connection, and more people spent time building personal websites than getting their news online. I knew what I wanted to create: a free encyclopedia, written by volunteers, for everyone in the world. But I wasn’t sure I knew how to do it.
I always joke that I’m a pathological optimist, so I was excited that this was almost a ridiculously big concept. And it worked. All these years later, the Wikimedia community of volunteers has created the largest collection of open knowledge in human history.
Today, Wikipedia has over 50 million articles (51.6 million to be precise — we love precision as Wikimedians) written by more than 250,000 volunteer editors around the world. This grand experiment has expanded in ways that I never thought possible. Wikipedia, Wikidata, Wiktionary and our other free knowledge projects host information on virtually every topic, and invite everyone to share what they know.
“All these years later, the Wikimedia community of volunteers has created the largest collection of open knowledge in human history.”
These projects have become trusted sources of knowledge, from who won the football match last week to understanding how a global pandemic is shaping our lives. All of this information — from the types of trains in India to the most popular British children’s books — is made possible by volunteer editors. Volunteers who contribute their time, research, writing skills, and more to make sure everyone has access to trusted information.
Oftentimes, being a volunteer Wikipedia editor is an invisible role. Few people will look at the talk page for an article, to learn more about the people who built it. But volunteers keep doing it anyway, because they believe in free knowledge, and they believe in contributing something to the benefit of the collective good.
The Wikimedian of the Year award is one small way I can say thank you, and recognize the time, effort, and resources it takes to keep Wikimedia projects up-to-date, neutral, and reliable. It is how I celebrate those volunteers who go above and beyond to fulfill our mission of free knowledge for the world.
I first started the Wikimedian of the Year award in 2011, in order to appreciate one of our standout volunteers for their achievements and their work on behalf of free knowledge. At that time it felt like a small thing to do at our annual conference — and over the years it has gotten bigger and bigger as people outside our movement are inspired by the individual stories behind the award.
I’m excited to announce that this year’s Wikimedian of the year is Sandister Tei, user: Sandiooses. Sandister helped pioneer the development of our volunteer communities in sub-Saharan Africa. She was one of the founding members of the Wikimedia Ghana User Group, the local Wikimedia affiliate group in Ghana, and has been very involved with the community there. This year, as the pandemic forced the user group to cancel in person events and gatherings, Sandister helped her community stay connected and informed. Through research and local sources, she contributed heavily to the Wikipedia articles about the pandemic’s effects in Ghana, ensuring the public record included Ghana in the story of how the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping the world.
“In a community dedicated to free knowledge, Wikimedians of the Year are the closest things we have to celebrity.”
A few weeks ago, I joined a Zoom call to surprise Sandister and tell her about the award. It was the first time we had met, in what passes for “in person” this year. She was shocked by the news, and it was incredibly fun to see her reaction as she learned about receiving this award.
In a community dedicated to free knowledge, Wikimedians of the Year are the closest things we have to celebrity. They are sometimes prolific editors; other times they are movement organizers, photographers, and knowledge activists. They create communities, initiate partnerships, welcome new people, and commit themselves to the work of building the sum of all knowledge. They usually come to my attention because they are recognized by their peers for their contributions.
But the Wikimedian of the Year is about more than an award — it’s a recognition of the role that volunteers play in this huge, sprawling global movement. There would be no Wikipedia, no Commons, no Wikidata without our volunteers. They write the words you read, upload the images you see; they build the knowledge that informs our world. The Wikimedian of the Year is a celebration of our volunteers because they are what make our projects and this movement possible.
As Wikipedia approaches its 20th birthday this coming January, the world looks different than it did in 2001. In many ways, it’s harder to be a Wikimedian. Misinformation is spreading at unprecedented rates, and there are fewer and fewer neutral places on the internet. It is because of people like Sandister and other leaders in the Wikimedia movement that Wikipedia will stay useful and relevant for years to come. It makes me incredibly excited for what the next 20 years for Wikipedia will hold, and who else will join us along the way.
“The Wikimedian of the Year is about more than an award — it’s a recognition of the role that volunteers play in this huge, sprawling global movement.”
In any other year, I would join Wikimedians from around the world at our international conference, Wikimania, to celebrate this amazing news. While we can’t be together in person this year, I’m thrilled to recognize Sandister in a virtual celebration. And here’s to hoping I will see you in person next year!
Learn more about Sandister and her work here.
Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia. You can follow him on Twitter at @jimmy_wales.