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Steven Pruitt ’06: Wikipedia's most prolific editor

  • The Wikiman:
    The Wikiman:  About a year ago, Pruitt’s work caught the attention of Time magazine, which placed him on its third annual list of the 25 most influential people on the internet, with “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, President Donald Trump and reality TV star Kim Kardashian, among others.  Photo by Adam Ewing
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The following story originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine - Ed.

In the third-floor office of a beige brick townhouse just a few miles from George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, Steven Pruitt ’06 is demonstrating how he uses AutoWikiBrowser, a tool that allows him to make editing changes to multiple Wikipedia entries with one command. This semi-automated tool has helped him to reach his current total of more than 2.5 million Wikipedia edits as of July 2 — the most of any Wikipedia editor.

About a year ago, Pruitt’s work caught the attention of Time magazine, which placed him on its third annual list of the 25 most influential people on the internet, with “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, President Donald Trump and reality TV star Kim Kardashian, among others.

The Time article noted Pruitt’s efforts to address Wikipedia’s gender imbalance by writing articles about 212 influential women (that number has since increased to more than 600) in addition to his efforts to make the platform easier to navigate by improving the organization and format of entries. In the print version of the article, Pruitt’s entry appeared first. And his favorite part? He was on the page opposite from Russian activist Alexei Navalny, who has been using YouTube to circumvent censorship.

“That gave me quite a thrill,” he says.

Steven Pruitt ’06 (Photo by Adam Ewing)Sitting at his computer, Pruitt searches the discography for Italian mezzo-soprano Bruna Castagna. “OK, here’s a guy, Franco Vassallo. He’s a fairly notable bass.” But Vassallo’s name appears without either a blue link, which indicates the existence of a Wikipedia article about him, or a red one, which is a sign that an editor believes an article should be written about him. A red link, Pruitt says, “acts as an invitation for people to look and say, ‘Oh, there’s no information here. I could put information here.’”

If he wanted to add red links, Pruitt would search Vassallo’s name to find each reference, and then, using AutoWikiBrowser, convert each instance into a link by placing two brackets around the name. “That sort of helps integrate it better into the fabric of the encyclopedia,” he says. Then, when an article is written, the link will turn blue.

He also uses the tool to correct typos and grammar mistakes, and to code maps so that someone reading an article on, say, Pohick Church in Fairfax County (one that Pruitt worked on) can choose between a regional, state or national map.

“I have a lot of ways to customize what I’m doing here,” he says. “I still have to take authorship for every edit, but it’s a way of breaking down some of the more complicated things that have to be done. If I was doing all of that manually it would take months. AutoWikiBrowser can allow me to do a couple of hundred edits an hour, depending on how fast my internet connection is.”

During the workday, Pruitt is part of the records and information governance team at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C. “That’s everything from discussing policy to making recommendations to actually processing movement of records,” he says. One thing his team does is help the agency’s offices transfer records to the National Archives. And while he does his Wikipedia work for free on a volunteer basis, Pruitt believes it helped get him the job at Customs two years ago.

“I stand on my own,” he says. “But it certainly helped me get a foot in the door. Because it’s information management, basically. What I do now is information management. What I do on Wikipedia is information management.”

Pruitt is known on Wikipedia by his user name, Ser Amantio di Nicolao, borrowed from a character in an opera he loves, Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.” He typically puts in a couple of hours during weekday evenings and more time on the weekends.

He began dabbling in Wikipedia when he discovered the online encyclopedia while he was attending William & Mary as an art history major. The first article he wrote was about Peter Francisco, a Portuguese-born Revolutionary War hero known as the “Virginia Giant” who was also Pruitt’s great-great-great-great- great-great grandfather on his father’s side of the family. Since that first contribution, he’s written more than 31,000 other articles — some, he acknowledges, with the aid of a template.

“He cares so intensely about the spread of knowledge,” says Bethany Brookshire ’04, a friend from college who lives in the Washington area. “The instant he learns something, he has to tell you.”

In addition to his own writing and editing, Pruitt leads training sessions to help others learn how to edit, and he’s interested in getting more women involved, says Brookshire. A staff writer for Science News for Students, published by the nonprofit Society for Science and the Public, she is also the subject of a Wikipedia article — though Pruitt didn’t write it, because he considered that a conflict of interest. He is driven to give underrepresented populations a presence on Wikipedia, Brookshire says. “He’s passionate about bringing unknown people to light.”

That interest sparked Pruitt’s involvement in Wikipedia’s Women in Red project (the “red” reference highlights the goal of turning red links to blue by adding articles about accomplished women).

The project co-founder, Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, says she met Pruitt about five years ago after they crossed paths collaborating on Wikipedia articles. In 2014, she asked him to help with a project titled Women Writers, which involved about 5,000 articles.

“In order to better understand which areas our members should focus on, I knew we needed to do a better job of categorizing the articles within our scope,” says Stephenson-Goodknight, a visiting scholar at Northeastern University in Boston and vice-president of Wikimedia District of Columbia who lives on the West Coast. “Because Steve is adept at using a tool called AutoWikiBrowser, I enlisted him to create hundreds of categories. At first, I suggested what to create, but after a bit, he took the initiative, and created hundreds more.”

Examples of those categories include historical novelists, crime writers, and writers from Lesotho, Botswana and Eritrea.

The categories helped point out where articles were lacking, she says. “Then we tried to do something about it, by creating articles to fill these categories.”

When Stephenson-Goodknight founded Women in Red, Pruitt again stepped up to create thousands of new categories and write hundreds of articles.

“He is so genuine and fascinating,” she says. “Every time I’m in Washington, D.C., since then, we try and meet for dinner to catch up with each other.”

Since the Women in Red project began, Pruitt says, the percentage of biographical articles about women on Wikipedia has climbed from 14 percent to 17.65 percent.

“In two or three years, we’ve moved the needle,” he says.

Pruitt is especially pleased with a piece he wrote about Fati Mariko, a singer from Niger who has sold hundreds of thousands of records.

“She’s one of the most popular artists in the country,” he says. “But there’s nothing about her online, except for some videos of her songs on YouTube. That’s the kind of thing you run into when you talk about systemic bias on the internet.”

Another Wikipedia project that’s close to Pruitt’s heart is photographing Virginia sites that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Thanks in large part to Pruitt and another contributor based in Lynchburg, he says, 95 percent of the National Register sites in the state are illustrated.

During a vacation in July, he contributed additional images. On the Eastern Shore, he took a picture at the Northampton County grave of blues musician Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, who wrote several songs that became hits for Elvis Presley, including the rock ‘n’ roll icon’s first single, “That’s All Right.” During a stop at William & Mary, Pruitt photographed Blow Memorial Hall and then uploaded the shot to Wikimedia Commons using a smartphone app and added the picture to Wikipedia’s article about the building. He also photographed sites in Goochland, Powhatan, Lancaster and Charles City counties, as well as the city of Richmond and Dorchester County, Maryland.

A Wikipedia article that Pruitt wrote about Mary-Cooke Branch Munford in 2015 blends his commitment to gender equity and Virginia history with affection for his alma mater. A champion of education and women’s rights, Munford played a vital role in persuading William & Mary to admit women in 1918, and two years later, she became the first woman to serve on the Board of Visitors.

It’s Friday evening at the Pruitt home, and before the AutoWikiBrowser demonstration, we’ve been talking in the living room, where Steven’s mother, Alla, served a tray with a china tea set, cherry tree tea and homemade cookies while his father, Donald, relaxes in an armchair.

Steven doesn’t seem to mind starting his weekend by doing an interview. “It’s either this or editing,” he says. “Or going to the gym.”

Though he’s lived in Virginia most of his life, Pruitt was born in San Antonio, Texas, where his parents met as teachers in the Defense Language Institute’s Russian Department at Lackland Air Force Base. The family moved to Monterey, California, for several years before settling in Northern Virginia in 1989, when Steven was 5.

“They both taught Russian to the military at the height of the Cold War,” he says, noting that his father, an Army veteran, also speaks Spanish, French, German and Italian — learning the latter two mainly from opera librettos.

Alla Pruitt was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States in 1979, when an agreement between then-President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev allowed Russian Jews to leave the country and reunite with relatives.

“So all of a sudden people started finding long-lost relatives, and mostly in Israel of course,” Alla says. “And the story was that if somebody was leaving to Israel, you’d just give that person your name and in a week, you’d get an invitation from your second cousin three times removed, or uncle or something. Well, my mother did have a cousin in Israel and she sent us an invitation. And we left.”

Donald Pruitt is a Richmond native whose family lived in various locations around Virginia before landing in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Growing up, Steven was an avid reader of classic literature as well as mysteries by Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh.

“I’m an only child,” he says. “My parents had me relatively late. I’ve always been a bit of an old soul.”

Alla says that her son spent a lot of time around grownups when he was a child.

“For some reason that I still don’t understand, wherever we lived, there were no kids of his age,” she says. “He always was more comfortable with grownups, I think. And that probably rubbed off. Or maybe because his parents were older. As I keep telling him, we ruined his life because we hauled him to museums and concerts and operas and different countries. Since the age of, I think, 1 or so, he’s been traveling all over the world. He went to London and Paris at the age of 2.”

“I did play baseball with him,” she adds. “I don’t like sports. I don’t like baseball. I don’t know how, but I played baseball with him at the park.”

What does Alla think of her son’s Wikipedia work?

“I have to confess, I’m wrong,” she says. “At first we didn’t want the computer because I knew it’s addictive and time-consuming. Then his teacher said the child needs a computer.”

Steven was in third grade at the time. “Can I just interject for a moment? I think I was the last kid in my class to get a computer,” he says.

“He did a lot of Photoshops and pictures and silly things,” she says. “And then he started on Wikipedia. I said, ‘What is Wikipedia?’”

“I think everybody said that at first,” Steven responds.

“My attitude always was, ‘Why do you waste all the time? Why don’t you read a book instead?’ But then, I realized he’s doing something valuable and important.”

Was she surprised when the Time magazine article came out?

“Pleasantly,” she says, laughing. “We were very happy for him. Kind of unexpected, I have to admit. Being a parent, it makes me very proud, very happy.”

Later, Steven says that in the next few months, he might step back from doing so many Wikipedia edits to work on a book about his mother’s family.

“I’m wary about putting this out there because then people will start asking when’s it going to happen,” he says. “You’ve heard my mother’s story in embryo tonight. I think there’s a book there — the story of three or four generations of life under the Soviet Union and getting out.”

Meanwhile, he keeps setting goals for himself: “I’ve broken the 2 million mark. I’m the No. 1 editor. OK, let’s see if I can get a million more than the next guy. That hasn’t happened yet. If I ever do some stepping back — and like I said, I’m not going to pull far, far back, it would just come down to a few edits a day, that sort of thing — it will be to focus attention on something like that.”

He’s also mindful that his parents are getting older and he is poised to step up his care and advocacy for them as needed. “I’m playing catcher and waiting for whatever comes flying over the plate,” he says.

Pruitt didn’t set out to be the top English-language Wikipedia editor. “Not at first,” he says. “I think it happened at some point that I saw a list of statistics and I was already fairly high up on it. If I had been fairly low on the list, I would have just said, ‘Eh, well, OK, something to play with now and again.’ But I was already fairly high up on the list, so I thought, ‘Oh, I can aim for a million.’ I think at that point there was only one other editor that had a million. There are now six. I think I was the third person to hit a million on English Wikipedia, and because it’s the largest, I’m probably about third across all platforms.”

Despite spending countless hours in front of a computer screen, Pruitt is far from antisocial. His friends describe him as outgoing, personable and adventurous.

From September to June, he rehearses weekly with the Capitol Hill Chorale, in which he sings first tenor, and he’s known for organizing dinner-and-a-show outings with fellow William & Mary alumni, including former college roommate Harrison Killefer ’06, who also sings in the chorale.

Killefer recalls that a few years ago, Pruitt spearheaded an effort to sample cuisines from a country or region for each letter of the alphabet — going for out-of-the-way places whenever possible. One restaurant the group visited was Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, where Killefer tried grasshopper tacos.

“He’s good at being the catalyst for those activities,” says Killefer, who works in health policy and health strategy for the Mitre Corp.

Like Killefer, Brookshire, a soprano in the Capital Hill Chorale, met Pruitt through choir in college.

“He is one of the most honestly good people I have ever met,” she says. “I’ve never heard him say a mean thing about anybody.”

Both she and Killefer recall the choir as a tight bonding experience, with members spending six hours per week rehearsing and then going on tour together.

Brookshire remembers that whenever Pruitt would see her on campus, he would break into song, serenading her with the line “Oh B., my B.” from the opera “A View From the Bridge.”

“I’d be walking by Crim Dell pond on campus and hear that echoing,” she says. “He’d sing it across the Sunken Garden. It didn’t matter where you were.”

Pruitt says his interest in art history led him to visit William & Mary when he was looking at colleges.

“The first time we were on campus, I said, ‘This feels right.’”

The size of the school appealed to him, as did its history and character. He adds, “I discovered a couple of years ago it’s a campus that has its own smell that stays with you. We were down there for a visit and it had just rained. I walked onto campus, I took one whiff of the wet soil and I said, ‘I’m home.’”

Pruitt recalls memorable classes with art history professors such as Catherine Levesque, Alan Wallach and Miles Chappell ’60, then the department head. Chappell, he says, “tended to mention, just in passing, that he’d worked with so and so in Italy, so and so elsewhere, and then I went into the library one day and happened to discover that he’d curated an entire exhibit at the Pitti Palace in Florence. Never a word about it. And from what I understand, they don’t invite many non-Italian curators to work at the Pitti.”

The William & Mary Choir, led by director James Armstrong P ’21, became a huge part of Pruitt’s college experience.

“We were majors from all sorts of disciplines,” he says, “But for most of us, I think the people we stay in contact with most are the other music nerds.”

Pruitt finds himself remembering a saying Armstrong often used in rehearsal: “There is wonder in well-doing.”

“I can’t say it’s a motto, exactly, but I find it gels with a lot of what I try to do, both online and off,” he says.

Pruitt’s home office is crowded with books, music CDs and mementos from his travels — a carved head from Krakow, Poland, a Cycladic sculpture from the Greek Islands, a cuckoo clock from Switzerland.

Close to his desk is a book that he’s been using to create Wikipedia entries: “The Artists of Washington D.C. 1796-1996.” Flipping through it, he ponders: Who might be a good candidate for a Wikipedia article? Here’s a picture of a bust of artist Reuben LeGrande Johnston by 19th-century sculptor Ulric Dunbar. But there’s very little online about Dunbar, Pruitt says. “He’s documented, but not digitized.”

Pruitt, along with other Wikipedia editors, are devoted to lifting such notable people from obscurity: “What can we unlock from the libraries? What can we make accessible?”

“We’re getting to define who belongs in the greater canon of knowledge,” he says. “Here we are, a bunch of people on the internet, redesigning the canon.”