"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planetisgiven freeaccessto the sum ofallhuman knowledge. That’s what we’re doing."

In August 2005, at a modest youth hostel in Frankfurt, Germany, hundreds of writers, students, computer hackers, and ordinary Internet users from around the world gathered on the grounds of Haus der Jugend on the bank of the River Main. Few had ever met in person, and most didn’t even know one another’s real name. What they did know was that they had collaborated with one another over the Internet, across different time zones and continents, toward the same goal: creating an topic. They knew one another mostly by their cryptic Internet personas—Anthere, Cimon Avaro on a Pogostick, Eclecticology—usernames that projected a quirkier side to an online community that focused on a rather academic task.

There was a curious diversity—they came from different locations, age groups, and educational backgrounds—but they all referred to themselves with the same label: Wikipedians. They were there face-to-face for the first-ever Wikimania conference, bound by a common passion to give away their labor, knowledge, and know-how.

In the hostel’s courtyard, over cold beer and cold cuts, they swapped passionate stories. Each person inevitably followed "Hello" with a description of the eureka moment when that person stumbled upon Wikipedia and became an addict. Before long, laptops filled up the outdoor patio as users enthusiastically shared their favorite articles and obsessions. Previously used to editing alone in their homes, Wikipedians found themselves next to others who had the same strange obsessions.

Suddenly talking about digging through stacks of books to confirm one fact, checking grammar for five hours straight, or creating thousands of maps by hand didn’t seem so dysfunctional. One user showed how he prevented vandalism to Wikipedia with software he had written, while another demonstrated how he translated articles from Spanish into Portuguese. Into the night, users rearranged plastic chairs and outdoor furniture to cluster around laptops, using the wireless Internet as an umbilical cord to attach to the Wikipedia mother ship, editing, sifting, and adding to the site. Only the hostel’s curfew kept them from staying up until sunrise. And oddly enough, this all happened ad hoc, in the days before the conference even formally started.

When it came time for the keynote address, hundreds of Wikipedians and attendees clustered into the modest assembly hall, a space more accustomed to holding amateur youth camp performances than hosting Internet luminaries.

A tall and portly gentleman emerged onstage with the trusty hacker look— gray beard, button-down shirt, round stomach, and tan Birkenstocks. Most barely knew who he was, but without Ward Cunningham they wouldn’t have ever found one another. He was the creator of the wiki concept, the radical idea of allowing anyone to openly edit any page of a Web site.

The audience hushed up to hear him speak. But he didn’t want the attention. Instead of starting his talk, he turned the spotlight on the crowd of Wikipedians in front of him.

"I know that it’s really you guys that made this thing noteworthy. . . . Right now I would just like to applaud you. Would you join me in saying thanks to all of you, please? You guys are great."

The Wikipedians grinned and started raucous clapping, looking around at their peers representing fifty-two different countries, basking in the moment. For the first time in Wikipedia’s four-year history, the people who created it were able to celebrate their achievement in the same room. By that time in 2005, they had built one of the top fifty Web sites in the world, purely by volunteer effort. (By the end of the year, it would be in the top thirty, and the next year in the top ten.)

In the audience were the folks who built Wikipedia from nothing. There was Florence Devouard, a French housewife with a master’s degree in agronomy who spent most of her time taking care of her two children. As a volunteer and recently elected board member for the foundation overseeing Wikipedia, she was one of the early core users who discovered the Web site in 2001. Danny Wool was also an early editor, a former yeshiva student in Israel, turned atheist, who wound up working in publishing, even editing encyclopedias as part of his career. He quickly became known in the Wikipedia community for his omnibus knowledge and photographic memory, a walking institutional memory bank. Then there was Erik Moeller, a German user with the trademark ponytail of a computer hacker and a singular focus on pushing Wikipedians to start bigger and more ambitious projects.

They worked across continents, time zones, languages, and cultures to cooperate online, bound together by a passion for volunteering time, energy, and knowledge. They put together the sum of all human knowledge so others could have it for free—both as in freedom, and as in cost.

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