I remember perspiring heavily the first time I spoke to him. I had seen him before, tugging at tree branches at two in the morning, lumbering uneasily outside Princeton’s Firestone Library. His eyes had an emptiness that terrified me. He seemed to move as though in a zombified stupor, his arms reaching forward to coil themselves around the nearest prop or pole. His feet seemed to fall behind. I had seen Paul, the Wikipedia Man, inside Firestone before. I had seen him in the Trustee Room and the Periodical Room, sitting by a desktop, his eyes fastened unflinchingly to his computer screen. He never blinked. The juniors and seniors working in the vicinity had heard him drone before. They said he hummed and talked to himself. They said he walked around with some frequency, periodically drumming his head against the wall. They were, like me, petrified by him. He seemed to rekindle a child-like terror in us all. As a ten year-old, I avoided goblins wherever I could. Trolls were the ultimate horror. Now, as nineteen-, twenty-, and twenty-one year olds, we had discovered a new boogey-monster: the Wikipedia Man. Paul appeared to be the classic grotesque, a new incarnation of Hugo’s Quasimodo or John Nash himself, an idiosyncratic recluse with a purpose. I wanted to find out what inspired him, what he found as precious and important. After heading over to Firestone last Thursday, I found Paul hunched over his computer in the Trustee Room, as I half-expected I would. Sliding into the seat right next to his, I caught him brooding over another one of his Wikipedia entries. The screen read: Editing Moment.
“Excuse me,” I whispered, “Could I talk to you for a minute?” The next ten seconds were pure terror. He swiveled around, his arc violent and sweeping. He looked beyond me, into the distance, his eyes stern and cold. They were a piercing crystalline-blue. His lips were pursed shut. He had a wild, shaggy head of hair. His beard was a curling, spiraling beehive. He looked bearish and brutal. “I don’t…I don’t…I don’t have time right now. I’m working on…Meet me in the Periodical Room in fifteen minutes.” His words were divided by puffs and sharp gulps of oxygen. His head tilted up and down, as the words spurted out metronomically. His voice was ghostly and aristocratic. His pitch dropped as he ended his iterated word-sequences and sentences. The lights in the Trustee Room were now flashing. It was time. “Come,” he said. “Walk with me.” Paul was attired in the patterned orange and brown sweater I saw him wearing all the time. His hair, moustache, beard, and sweater together formed one knotted bundle of unwashed dirty-brown. “Can you tell me about the kind of work you do on Wikipedia?” I asked him. “It’s not work; it’s a hobby,” he said decisively. “I edit Wikipedia. And the easiest way to find out more is to try it yourself– try it yourself.” The refrain continued. Try it yourself. Try it yourself. “I like it partly because…partly because its rules and customs suit my mind…partly because I’m a pedant and like to explain things. It has the attraction of video games. Something is always happening. And there are monsters to slay, all the various forms of fanaticism, enthusiasm…” I lost count of the isms. I was watching Paul trying to stagger and slide down the flight of steps that led to the Periodical Room on the A-floor, three hundred pounds of writhing fat and muscle. Walking had never looked as pained or awkward. Paul’s knees were locked in the middle and his toes were crimped inward. He had a penguin-like gait, a swagger gone seriously awry. His shoulders appeared to oscillate independently as he tried to catapult his torso forward. We entered the Periodical Room and settled down in front of one of the two computers in the room. I was now sitting no more than a foot from Paul. I could smell him, his potent mix of raw wool, sweat, grime and body odor. He smelled as I thought a roughed-up basement would. His nails were unclipped, accented with tints of green and brown. Paul’s fingers were knobbly and inelegant. I watched them, as they slowly and deliberately punched in the URL for the Wikipedia website: w-i-k-i-p-e-d-i-a-.-c-o-m.
“This is Wikipedia,” announced Paul. We started surfing from one entry to the next, from Saffron to Baseball, until we found an entry that drew Paul’s attention. “Ah—Tell me. What’s wrong with this article?” I surveyed the article. Pioneers of Brazilian rock and roll (1959) . Nothing seemed obviously wrong. “This is an imperfect link,” Paul said. “The brackets are incorrect.” Paul started to run through the directory of defining marks for special edits. Use two brackets to form a link; use three to embolden the link. Paul ticked them off, going down his mental list. “You can produce numbers, indentations, single indentations with colons, links and links with double brackets.” Paul’s Cs and Ks were lathered in air and phlegm. Brackets were brachuts; articles were artikhles. They were endowed with the rounded feel only a fat man short of breath can produce. “Let’s set you up with an account,” Paul said. I stepped up to the keyboard and gingerly deleted Paul’s username, pmanderson. As I did, I took a second look at the hefty three-hundred-pounder sitting behind me, sprawled against his ungilded throne. “O.K.; this is your talk page. Let me put in ‘Hello, world’ for you.” The greeting seemed to be an unwitting confession of a certain kind. Wikipedia was clearly a portal to Paul, a conduit to a different universe without the corporal constraints of his material present. “Now, tell me, what’s a subject you know something about?” Cricket, I told him. We jumped to the entry on “cricket” and, in a minute, we were editing “The Laws of Cricket.” “Each section, small or large, has an edit button,” he said. After guiding me through the watch-list for the article, the list of former editors for the entry, Paul paused and spoke prophetically. “This and the advice…this is the advice…these are the things you need to know to edit Wikipedia,” he said, swallowing, editing and re-editing his own words. We soon moved to the section on Wikipedia’s policies. “Wikipedia has a neutral point of view. Wikipedia includes all views in proportion – represents all views and without bias. This is expected to be the result of a collaboration of editors. Wikipedia is interested in verifiability, not truth,” Paul said syllabically, over-enunciating as he did, as though he were authoring Wikipedia’s disclaimers and by-laws right then and there. “What do you mean by verifiability and not truth?” I asked him. “We are interested in what the Republic of Letters thinks. The majority of us are not interested in using Wikipedia to trumpet absolute truths. A substantial number of people, however, do—do try to prove why Macedonia has always been part of Greece, why obscure archeological theories are in fact true. They talk about the truth and absolute infallibility of Marx, Friedrich von Hayek, and Ayn Rand.” Paul sounded as though he were delivering a rehearsed stump speech. His words now had a rhythm and fluency they never did before. The name Friedrickh von Hayekh rolled off his tongue, the Cs and Ks purple and exotic. These, apparently, were the monsters he had set out to slay. “The most important thing, the other thing about Wikipedia,” Paul continued, “is be civil, be polite. Otherwise, one of the siss-sops, the admins we call them, will block you. See! They forgot to edit a whole section because they felt it was fun. But eight minutes later, someone—a user called slimvirgin—noticed this and put it back. If you do something vandalous, scandalous, obnoxious, or crazy, the majority of Wikipedia users who are sane will overpower you and put it back. ” I could tell Paul had forged a visceral connection with the medium, one in which words like sanity and civility were colored by the mores and power-politics of cyberspace. “Who decides who becomes an admin?” I asked Paul. “The community decides,” he said, scrolling down and pointing to Wikipedia’s voting and nomination procedures. “You become an admin because the community thinks you should be. See this person—he’s been voted down because he had a relatively low number of edits.” Paul’s community seemed to rely on a unique blend of Orwellian supervision and direct democracy, a potentially prototypical power-structure. “There’s an article I have been involved in—the Phaistos Disc—a nice, calm article,” Paul said, steering me ever-further into his labyrinthine vault of esoterica. “Read,” he said, pointing to the screen. Paul’s imperatives were placid but forceful. I had five seconds to ingest what I could before Paul started scrolling through the article in a speed-reader frenzy. “You wrote this?” “I was one of several people who did,” Paul said, running his cursor through the list of decipherments and acknowledgements at the bottom of the entry. “This particular user is someone who believes that Jean Fauconneau discovered a whole period of Greek, pre-Bronze era history.” Paul had an unforgiving eye for depth and precision. A single error could provoke him, catalyzing a rush of diatribe. “Editor Wheeler is the kind of person who comments with full capital letters,” he said. “His theory to the world is that the Dorians were a beautiful blonde race, a theory he picked up in a book published in 1824, prior to all modern philology and archaeology.” Of certain others, Paul was even more sharply dismissive. “This is a North Carolina professor who is a crank— There are some people out there saying every American state had an original established religion. This is just plain, flat wrong. Pennsylvania never had a state religion. William Penn would rise from the grave and strangle anyone who said that!” There were flashes of violence in Paul. He thrashed his arms against his thighs whenever Verne, the supervisor, asked him to quiet down in the Periodical Room. He never liked instructions.
As I soon found out, Paul had been a Princeton student himself, graduating with the class of ’79. He had been a mathematics major with a minor in Classics. Spivak’s Calculus had been his Bible. After graduating from Princeton, he attended Rutgers but never completed his doctorate. He was currently unemployed and had been editing Wikipedia for a year now. Paul, however, refused to broach the interval between his time at Rutgers and the year he had spent with Wikipedia. When he insisted that he simply could not remember the work he had done before Wikipedia, I assumed he suffered from a form of amnesia. When we talked a second time, I resurrected the topic. “Paul, I’m still slightly unclear on what you did coming out of Princeton.” “Yes, and you will continue to be,” he retorted emphatically. I dropped the issue. Paul had not only been defensive about the caliber of Rutgers as a university, but had also been visibly bitter about never receiving his doctorate. “Like most mathematicians,” he said, “I was taught the story of Evariste Galois, who died in a duel at the age of twenty one, leaving behind a hastily written manuscript that spawned a new branch of mathematics. I, like most people, learned this at age twenty two. Some of us find this depressing. This may be one of the reasons I don’t have a doctorate.” I surmised that his trajectory, coming out of Princeton, had been less than flattering. I frequently tried to pilot Paul’s musings about Wikipedia in a more personal direction. Inevitably, however, we returned circuitously to Paul’s now mono-maniacal obsession with the online encyclopedia. When I tried cutting directly to his time at Princeton, he finally relented, telling me that he had been the Chairman of the Clio Party during his senior year. When I informed him that I was the current Whig-Clio President, he lit up. “Oh, I would much rather talk about Whig-Clio than Wikipedia,” he said. “This is far more interesting.” I had discovered Paul’s secret vice. Paul was no politician or bra-burning neo-feminist. At Princeton, he had developed a fetish for the RPG, the fantasy role-playing game. “I walked in on one of the activities at Whig, during the week freshmen are supposed to, and found a group of people playing a game that looked strange,” he said. “The first supplement of Dungeons and Dragons was just out,” Paul recounted. “They said I would be ‘Dwarf’. I told them what Dwarf did and we ran into a beholder, a floating armored eye that casts its own magic. Our characters slew it and took its treasure. That was sufficiently fun so I returned the next week.” Talking about elfin towns and floating armored eyes, Paul sounded almost blasé. The premise behind the RPG was simple: a band of science-fiction enthusiasts got together, with one of them, the so-called game-master or GM, fashioning their physical universe. The others were assigned roles, each in turn describing what his character would do under the circumstances. Though mostly grounded in elfin lore, the constructs were varied. “You are a farmboy on the hills of Kantagan,” Paul said, concocting an example. “Your uncle is feeling cold. There are people in town who are said to have invented something called gin. He wants you to go and get him some. Or, the GM might say, ‘Hi; you are all detectives in the Cotton Agency in San Francisco. You are in the office, as a tall blonde walks in. What do you do?’” The genesis of the Whig-Clio role-playing subsidiary had been a fledgling war-games society crafted in the spirit of Kissengerian realpolitik. In the sci-fi RPG arena, however, Tolkien was still king. “I was after all grown up on Tolkien,” Paul said, “and to the extent to which the world of the Lord of the Rings took the structure of the universe, it was a major influence on fantasy role-playing.” Included in Paul’s bevy of favorite authors were the likes of Asimov, Beujold and Avram Davidson. Paul, however, credited Tolkien alone with having a seminal effect on him. From Tolkien, he had borrowed his view on, of all things, capital punishment. “In Chapter two of Book one,” Paul said, diving into the obscurities of The Lord of the Rings, “Frodo says of Gollum, Frodo is talking to Gandalf, and Gandalf has just explained what has happened, including the role played by Gollum…” The alarm in the Periodical Room had just started blaring, to Paul’s acute annoyance. His delivery had become distinctly choppier. “You can stop now!” The throbbing red bell in the Periodical Room soon shuddered to a ringing halt. “Yes, Gandalf is explaining what Gollum did and how Bilbo had Gollum at sword-point and didn’t kill him. And Frodo says, ‘But Gandalf, he deserved to die.’ And Gandalf says, ‘Deserved to die? Many who live deserve to die. And many who die deserve to live– deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not hasty to hand out Death in Judgment.’ And it does seem to me that certain of the sovereign states are terribly hasty.” Paul had successfully made Tolkien sound scriptural. “I think The Lord of the Rings is in fact applicable, not to the temptations of the Second World War, of which it is explicitly not an allegory, but to the Cold War. We were tempted to take up the weapons of the enemy.” Paul would have made a fine literary critic. His heavy-set wife had just entered the Periodical Room. She had short, curly hair and, unlike Paul, was black. They had met at a Science Convention Fair more than seventeen years ago. “What’s it like living with Paul?” I asked her. “Never a dull moment,” she said, rubbing her index finger against Paul’s nose. “Never a dull moment.”