Photo via Gareth Owen

Gareth Owen is one of the earliest contributors to Wikipedia—his user ID is 151, and his first edit was to create the “Hobbits” article in March 2001.

He has seen Wikipedia grow “in just a couple of years from a sparse website to something where you could look something up with a reasonable chance of getting a non-terrible response.” As described in his own voice.

Owen, a native of North West England who now lives just outside Manchester in the United Kingdom, has been using the internet when he was a student in the early 90s. He discovered Wikipedia in its earliest days, when the site was just a “silly little spin-off” from a less-collaborative wiki called Nupedia. Owen was most active during Wikipedia’s first few years. Collaborating with people from different places on providing information to the public about topics of interest to him was his motivating force.

“I enjoyed doing research on my favourite topics,” Owen explains. “I enjoyed the collaborative process and watching people devote their time to something really worthwhile—essentially altruistically—and expecting little in return.”

So far, Owen has edited Wikipedia over 6,000 times and has created 113 new articles. He has been most interested in editing articles about music, sports and mathematics, his field of study. He has started some important articles about music, covering bands like The Beatles and The Velvet Underground, and he has rewritten articles about  Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and The Rolling Stones.

The sports category on Wikipedia is rich with many articles first written by Owen, such as Manchester United F.C., Rugby World Cup and expanding the existing article on the Summer Olympic Games to include details about the history of the Olympic Games from the beginning until Sydney 2000. These are just a few examples.

“Everything was up for grabs back then and there was so much to be done,” Owen elaborated. “If you started working on an area, you could expand an entry with a few token sentences to something with a larger overview of a big subject. And if you did a good job, Larry Sanger or Jimmy Wales would add your article to the “Brilliant Prose” list, which was a pretty good feeling.”

The Wikipedia quality standards have changed over the years. The  “brilliant prose” selection system has since been replaced with new criteria for selecting Wikipedia’s best articles, which are now called “featured articles.” Some of Owen’s articles that were cited in the “brilliant prose” list in the early 2000s now appear as featured articles, thanks to the efforts of other Wikipedians. Some examples include The Beatles, Sandy Koufax and Babe Ruth.

During this time, Wikipedia was very quiet with a minimal rate of spam and edit wars. Owen remembers that “the rate of editing was slow enough that only a few people would keep an eye on anon edits and correct the most egregious damage manually. Jimmy Wales would arbitrate anything that ran on too long. Obviously that didn’t scale very well, and extra layers of administrative oversight came in by the mid-2000s.”

“The George W. Bush article was a battleground even then, but I shudder to think how much admin time has been devoted to trying to impose a neutral point of view on articles about the Clinton/Trump presidential race,” he adds.

A couple of years ago, Owen and his family were surprised by a show host who quoted Owen on BBC Radio 4. The show had been discussing Wikipedia when the host John Lloyd closed by saying, “In the words of an original Wikipedian, Gareth Owen, ‘The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice; in theory it’s a total disaster.’” The quote has been used several times, including once by the New York Times.

“This remark has cropped up in a number of articles and features (sometimes credited to me, sometimes others). I wonder if in 100 years it’ll be the only trace of me left on the internet.”

Samir Elsharbaty, Digital Content Intern
Wikimedia Foundation

“The decade” is a new blog series that profiles Wikipedians who have spent ten years or more editing Wikipedia. If you know of a long-time editor who we should talk to, send us an email at blogteam[at]wikimedia.org.