Why you should care
Because Wikipedia is at an adolescent crossroads.
The act was a touch sophomoric in retrospect, but in Steven Pruitt’s defense, he was, in fact, a college sophomore when he sat down at his computer to compose his first article for a 3-year-old website called Wikipedia. Peter Francisco was a noteworthy subject — a brutally effective Revolutionary War soldier known as the “Virginia Hercules” — but he was also Pruitt’s ancestor. Steven probably wouldn’t do it again, though he considers such nepotism OK so long as it meets the standards for objectivity that have helped build Wikipedia into a credible global collaboration, a triumph of open source information that serves as a microcosm for the potential and pitfalls of the internet itself.
It may have been a youthful transgression, but the Francisco article launched Pruitt on a journey to become by far the most prolific English language Wikipedian — as the site’s editors are known — with more than 2.2 million edits pixeled into history (the next closest has completed a mere 1.8 million edits). What’s more, Pruitt has turned his unpaid hobby — he works as a federal contractor in information management for Customs and Border Protection by day — into a crusade to improve Wikipedia’s functionality and chip away at its gender imbalance.
Ask Pruitt to name the site’s biggest challenge and he’ll point to a small editing community that lends itself to a “systemic bias.”
Time magazine recently named Pruitt one of the 25 most influential people on the internet, but unlike his fellow influencers Kim Kardashian and Chance the Rapper, Pruitt tells OZY he embraces a “stereotypical internet nerd” existence. The single 33-year-old lives with his parents, to help them as they age and to save money in the pricey Washington area. “I drink a lot of Diet Coke, and I don’t shave every day,” he quips.
With the thoroughness of a lengthy Wiki entry, Pruitt explains the global historical forces that shaped his personal narrative: A Leonid Brezhnev–era weakening of emigration restrictions for Jews allowed Pruitt’s mother to leave the Soviet Union, ostensibly for Israel, but she rerouted to the United States. Pruitt’s father was a college professor in Virginia and later a Russian linguist for the Navy. They immersed their only child’s ears in opera, his mind in literature and his eyes in art. (Disclosure: I went to school with Pruitt in northern Virginia, and can confirm that he was an odd but friendly kid who sang opera to himself as he ambled down the halls.)
As a student at the College of William & Mary, Pruitt majored in art history, sang in the choir and started noodling around on a niche website where anyone could write and edit encyclopedia articles. Pruitt would occasionally team up with other users to divvy up workloads, but more often than not he charted his own course. “I’m a bit of a loner,” he says.
Now writing under the username Ser Amantio di Nicolao, a minor character in a Puccini opera, Pruitt has created 30,000 articles on his own, but the 2.2 million edits (more than 500 per day) would be impossible without automated help. For instance, he used an artificial intelligence bot to improve the map functionality on tens of thousands of pages devoted to the National Register of Historic Places. He’s in favor of generating automated articles about geographic areas or species — similar to a project on Swedish-language Wikipedia — but “stick in the mud” thinking in the wider community, Pruitt says, means no such tool is forthcoming.
Pruitt is one of about 500 active administrators, with the power to, for example, ban users and delete pages. When the internet snickers at House Speaker Paul Ryan being added to the Wikipedia list of invertebrates (spineless, get it?), Pruitt and his cohorts must mobilize to nix such satirical, but inaccurate, changes.
Launched in 2001, Wikipedia is grappling with myriad challenges in its angst-ridden teenage years. About 3,500 people make more than 100 edits per month, a number that has remained mostly stable since 2010. But it’s difficult to edit the site on a mobile device, an impediment to recruiting a new generation. “There are very few people [as prolific as] Steven, but they contribute a massive amount,” says Aaron Halfaker, of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that supports the site. “Wikipedia has this trade-off that we’re struggling with, where the focus on quality means we’re pushing newcomers out of the site.”
Ask Pruitt to name the site’s biggest challenge and he’ll point to a small editing community that lends itself to a “systemic bias.” One way he’s trying to fight it: the Women in Red project, a reference to how names that are mentioned in Wikipedia articles but do not have articles about them appear in red. In 2015 Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight helped launch a push to write more women’s biographies to close a gender gap created by history and Wikipedia’s 90 percent male editing force. Two years and tens of thousands of articles later, it’s made a small dent, as the proportion of female subjects rose from 15 percent to 17.4 percent. Pruitt has written many of them, and he’s been a “superhero,” in Stephenson-Goodknight’s eyes, with his mass AI edits to article categories to ensure an accurate gender tally.
On average, Pruitt says he spends three hours per day on Wikipedia, and though he sings in the Capitol Hill Chorale and takes regular walks around the neighborhood, the site bleeds into his offline life. Aside from sporadic get-togethers with fellow Wikipedians, Pruitt’s travels often result in uploading photos to Wikipedia from important sites. Examining a mental to-do list, “it’s easy to get overwhelmed,” he says. But there are always more articles to write and bots to deploy in the service of the world’s knowledge database. Soldiering is in Pruitt’s DNA. Check it on Wikipedia.