The American Lei Feng?

by W.F. Price on April 28, 2012

Lei Feng was a young man who died in 1962 in service to the Communist regime in Maoist China. After his death, Lei was lionized as the model citizen, who selflessly sacrificed himself to Communism and his country. Despite the fact that Maoism has fallen out of favor, Lei Feng remains something of a cherished figure in China, and a museum dedicated to his life remains popular in Changsha, where he was born. I first heard about Lei Feng when watching a movie commemorating his life shortly after I moved to Beijing in 1997. My Chinese friends filled me in on who he was, and told me he was a great hero and much beloved, representing the pure, simple ideals of the revolution.

Today, we have millions of American men selflessly working away for the good of society, often without any compensation. Many of them do so unwillingly, having been forced into penury by their faithless children’s mothers/ex-wives, but there are still those who contribute to the common good with neither carrot nor stick to motivate their endeavors.

One of these is Justin Knapp, an unemployed thirty-year-old who apparently lives with his mother and spends hours every day editing Wikipedia. Knapp recently became the first person to pass the one million edits mark, meaning he has put thousands of hours into the Wikipedia project. For all his effort, Knapp has not recent a penny of compensation.

Knapp is described as follows:

The bearded and bespectacled former pizza delivery guy from Indianapolis, Indiana is a pretty extraordinary wikipedian. Last week, Knapp, 30, became the first person on the site to reach 1 million edits. He’s done it by spending “several hours” every day on the site. Knapp’s never received a cent of pay from Wikipedia and is currently unemployed.

When asked why he does all this work, he responds:

Broadly speaking, I do it for two reasons. Aesthetically, it just pleases me. This is how I relax: I read and write. Finding things to do in this project is a way of passing time that is constructive and fun for me. On the other hand, editing is also a way of actualizing some of my values. I believe strongly in sharing and collaboration so if I can be part of a worldwide, multi-lingual community all dedicated toward giving away the world’s knowledge freely, that gives me a sense that I’m doing a good thing.

There’s been a lot of talk about how there aren’t enough female editors on Wikipedia. Even Wikipedia periodically flogs itself over this “problem.” Given that the job is open to all, this puzzles some people. Supposedly, women are altruistic and like “sharing.” But is this true? Do they really like to share, or do they simply like being shared with? Maybe women really are the smarter sex, and simply don’t like working for free. Perhaps similar jobs that pay are open to women but not men. Whatever the reason, the lack of female editors on Wikipedia is presented as an example of misogyny and bias, and harmful to women.

However, one thing I’d like to ask women is whether they’d really like to work for thousands of hours for free. I’m pretty sure we know the answer, as they hate the idea of even fixing a family dinner or taking care of their own children without being paid for it; women in the US have fought a decades-long battle to be financially compensated for everything they do. Including, most recently, undergrad fornication.

So, unless Wikipedia wants to start paying editors, the gender disparity will likely remain stark. And, in the meanwhile, men like Justin Knapp will continue to put hard work into bringing knowledge to the world. Like Lei Feng, they sacrifice their strength and ability for the greater good. However, there is a difference: at least in Maoist China, men like Lei Feng were honored at the highest level. Here in the West, men like Justin Knapp are encouraged to keep working away and all the while demeaned and insulted for their effort, simply because women – through their own choice – aren’t equally represented amongst those who choose to sacrifice their time and effort.

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