The Wikipedian of the Year award is surely one of the Internet’s stranger prizes. It does not exist in any formal sense, and its winners do not always know they have won. Wikipedia doesn’t actually sponsor it. There are, in fact, no published criteria for winning the award; that’s entirely the discretion of Jimmy (“Jimbo”) Wales, the encyclopedia’s cofounder (and “God-king“), who now sits on the board of trustees.
And he owes the two winners $5,000 each.
Rauan Kenzhekhanuly won the inaugural award in 2011 for his work building a robust Kazakh language Wikipedia—work that would later become the subject of controversy, after online sleuths dug up that his project was enabled in part by a fund run by the autocratic Kazakh regime. Wales announced the prize at the 2011 Wikimania, the annual Wikipedia conference.
In the year and a half since winning, Kenzhekhanuly hasn’t seen a dime. Wales has publicly acknowledged this fact. But he says there’s nothing fishy about it. “The actual money has not been transferred yet, as the concept has always been that I’d do it ceremonially when I go to Kazakhstan, which I’ve not managed yet,” Wales wrote on his Wikipedia talk page on April 22.
That’s all well and good, but Kenzhekhanuly isn’t the only winner who’s never had a sniff of his prize money. And at least when Kenzhekhanuly won, the news was greeted with some fanfare in the form of press releases and newspaper articles. Last year’s winner, a Wikipedian called “Demmy,” didn’t even know about the prize until attendees at Wales’ speech told him about it on his Wikipedia user page (“Jimbo Wales has just announced the Wikipedian of the Year award, and it is you!” a Rich Farmbrough wrote. “Congratulations!”)
Wales had once again announced the prize at Wikimania, held in Washington D.C. in July 2012, though this time the award’s name had changed. It was now simply the “Jimbo Award”—an attempt perhaps to emphasize that Wikimedia has no formal ties to the award.
“It’s not something the Wikimedia Foundation has been involved with,” Wikimedia’s communication head, Jay Walsh, told the Daily Dot. “This is Jimmy’s personal initiative.”
At least two accounts of Wales’s Wikimania speech indicate he once again promised a prize of $5,000, from his own pocket. But it appears to have taken Wales more than five months to finally reach out to Demmy himself.
Demmy—who Wales has apparently never met—had programmed a bot to translate short English Wikipedia articles into his native Yoruba, a language spoken widely across Nigeria. The fruit of his labor was 15,000 new, machine-translated articles in the Yoruba language Wikipedia.
After reaching out to Demmy in January 2013, Wales promised to pay him the $5,000 in prize money after returning from Switzerland, where he’d be attending the World Economic Forum in Davos from Jan. 23 to 27.
Three months later, Demmy still hadn’t heard a peep out of Wales. Here’s what he told the Daily Dot in an email earlier today:
In January, Wales contacted me and told me the award carry prize money of $5000 which, he said, he intended to give to me. My last email to Wales was on March 29, 2013. Yes he promised to pay the award money in the last email he sent me on 20th January 2013, there he said he was going to Davos but will process the paper work when he get back the following Monday. That was the last I heard of him.
He added: “I sent him 2 emails since then (on Feb 22 [and] Mar 29) but he didn’t reply to either of them.”
It sounds like that’s about to change. After we contacted Wales about Demmy’s situation, he responded: “First I heard of it. I’m in touch with him now. Thanks for the heads up.”
Photo via William Brawley/Flickr