Time Magazine Named Steven Pruitt One of the Most Influential People on the Internet–Just For His Wikipedia Edits – northernvirginiamag.com
If you’ve used Wikipedia for a school paper or a quick fact check, chances are high that this Alexandria native has corrected the page.
By Jesse Rifkin November 24, 2021
What do you know about the Korean porridge jeonbok-juk? How about the 18th-century nun and French Revolution figure Marie Marguerite Françoise Hébert? Or the German nautical art–themed museum Museum Kunst der Westküste?
If you were to turn to Wikipedia for the quick rundown, you’d find information recently retouched by Steven Pruitt. With 4.4 million edits to his name, the Alexandria man is by far the most prolific Wikipedia editor of all time.
You’ve almost certainly used Wikipedia at some point, if you’ve ever gone online to look anything up, from the periodic table of the elements to the works of Jackson Pollock to that producer/host at the center of the Jeopardy! scandal. Created in 2001 from the Hawaiian word wiki (meaning “quick”), the nonprofit, free online encyclopedia ranks as the No. 9 most-visited website in the U.S. and No. 13 in the world and has a pretty solid case for being the greatest repository for humanity’s knowledge, discoveries, and information in the history of civilization.
The key to its success? You don’t need a special account to edit most Wikipedia entries—anyone can make changes to pretty much anything. The exceptions are a few select articles on topics of particular controversy, including Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Jesus Christ. Those can only be edited by people who have reached certain milestones—for example, at least 30 days active with at least 500 edits.
“Who belongs in the encyclopedia? Who has a seat at the table? We’re figuring these questions out as we’re going, but we’re doing it in such a way that it becomes available to the rest of the world,” says Pruitt, with a trace of wonder in his voice. “It’s incredible to me to think about that. That’s what academia should have been all along. We’re just a bunch of random people in a bunch of random houses around the country, and we’re able to do that. It just blows my mind.”
To find out about Pruitt, sure, you could watch his CBS News segment, with more than 2 million YouTube views, or look up his Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session. But come on. Realistically, what’s the first source with which you research any public figure?
Pruitt does indeed merit his own Wikipedia entry, which lists his date of birth as “1984.” Most public figures—every president in American history, every A-list celebrity—have their full date of birth listed. Why not Pruitt? “I suppose the exact date can’t be publicly sourced from a reliable source,” he admits.
Of course, it can be privately sourced, by the man himself. So why doesn’t he just add it? That would take a mere five seconds. “I have never edited my own Wikipedia entry,” Pruitt maintains. “It would be a conflict of interest. But if you put it in your article, I believe that would mark the first time the information would publicly appear in a reliable source.”
For the record, his date of birth is April 17, 1984, making him 37. Don’t be surprised if somebody has added that tidbit to Wikipedia by the time you read this. Pruitt also wants to publicize one other minor quibble with his entry: He’s categorized under “Writers from Washington, D.C.,” when in reality he’s only lived near the nation’s capital, in Northern Virginia suburbs, but never exactly in the district proper. Somebody get on that, too.
Born in San Antonio, where his Soviet-immigrant mother and father, a native of Richmond, met while teaching at Lackland Air Force Base, Pruitt grew up in the Mount Vernon area of Southern Fairfax County and graduated from St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School. Pruitt credits his mother’s stories of growing up in the Soviet Union with inspiring in him a love of knowledge.
“Sometime in the mid-’70s, she got a hold of the first copier in the whole city,” says Pruitt. “To use that copier, you had to go through a secretary. The secretary would follow you, unlock the copier, stand with you while you made the copies, then lock it up and leave. There were only two people allowed for the process at one time. [My mother] took a look at it and said, ‘This is the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.’ Because this thing can copy knowledge. And if you can copy knowledge, you can distribute it. It took 20 years, but she was right.”
As an art history major at the College of William & Mary in 2004, Pruitt discovered Wikipedia when the website was still relatively little-known. (Its subsequent breakthrough would arguably come in 2006, the year it was name-checked in both a Time cover story and the lyrics of a Billboard top 10 single.) He’d heard about Wikipedia and started using it a bit, but he never thought about editing it himself.
Until one day in June 2004, when he looked up one of his ancestors, Peter Francisco, an at best moderately important Revolutionary War figure. Pruitt had been thinking of the nascent Wikipedia as something akin to a digitized and editable version of entries that might be found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, long considered the world’s most authoritative.
“So I wrote an entry for him, thinking it would be deleted after about 48 hours,” says Pruitt. “When it wasn’t, I thought, There might be something to this.” Suddenly, Pruitt realized that Wikipedia could be like the entire Britannica, plus the entire Encyclopedia of Virginia, plus every other state or regional encyclopedia … plus everything noteworthy in the history of human civilization that wasn’t in a print encyclopedia for some reason.
That first edit, along with his other early ones, was made under Wikipedia accounts for which Pruitt kept forgetting the passwords. Finally, in January 2006, he registered the account username Ser Amantio di Nicolao, named for a minor notary character from Puccini’s 1918 opera Gianni Schicchi. That day in 2006, Pruitt made some edits to the entry for 15th-century painter Michael Pacher. His official lifetime edit count starts from that moment. That means his supposed 4.4 million lifetime edits is actually an undercount.
To be clear, Pruitt has not literally pressed the “edit” button 4.4 million times. One method he has used to achieve his astonishing numbers is a software tool that allows a user to make numerous identical edits simultaneously. For example, he could italicize every mention of Northern Virginia magazine across Wikipedia where it currently appears in standard font. Yet it’s hardly as though he “cheated” his way to the top spot, since that software is also available to others.
And make no mistake: His edits hardly consist of merely italicizing and capitalizing. He has also created more than 33,000 articles, ranking him No. 7 of all time by that metric. The longest he’s gone without editing Wikipedia is two or three weeks. His most recent lengthy break was a 10-day sojourn to the nation of Georgia with the Capitol Hill Chorale, for which he sings first tenor.
Those near-ceaseless editing efforts have earned him a grand total of zero dollars. As a nonprofit, Wikipedia—or, technically, its parent charitable organization, Wikimedia Foundation—does have employees, who work in roles like fundraising, communications, legal, and accounting. Pruitt doesn’t work for Wikipedia, but for Chenega IT Enterprise Services, a contractor for the Defense Health Agency.
He spends roughly three hours editing Wikipedia each weeknight when he comes home, with more time devoted on weekends. Asked in his Reddit chat how much Wikipedia would owe him for his work if he charged, Pruitt replied, “Good Lord … I’ve never given it much thought. I’ll call it even if they buy me lunch.”
Asked to name his favorite Virginia-related edits, Pruitt cites his work on entries about the first two women elected to the state’s legislature, both in 1923—Helen Timmons Henderson and Sarah Lee Fain—both of whom also tie into one of Pruitt’s biggest current collaborations: Women in Red, a collection of Wikipedia editors and volunteers aiming to add more biographies of women.
“Women were excluded from records and from scholarly work for centuries,” Pruitt notes. “So this is only adding women who should have been there all along.” At the project’s inception, women comprised 1 out of every 6.4 biographical articles. Today, they comprise 1 out of every 5.2—a substantial shift, considering Wikipedia’s almost incomprehensible enormity. Pruitt hopes for women to ultimately make up 30 percent of biographical entries.
Pruitt’s single most famous edit came in January, when he added a hyperlink to the entry about 1998’s electronic album Death Breathing by DJ 6666 featuring The Illegals. Though that may not sound particularly noteworthy, it garnered worldwide headlines because it marked Wikipedia’s one billionth edit.
Ironically, Pruitt disdains music sounding anything like that album. Asked if his incredibly wide knowledge base includes the title of the current week’s No. 1 song, Pruitt, primarily an opera and classical music aficionado, replies, “Emphatically not.”
Several of the other top 10 Wikipedia editors agree that Pruitt’s contributions have been remarkable.
“What I can say about Steven is that in my interactions with him, he has always been all of the positive things you would associate with a Southern gentleman: kind and genuine, classy without being snooty, refined but popular,” says Justin Knapp, Wikipedia username Koavf, the No. 3 editor of all time and prior record-holder until Pruitt surpassed him in November 2015. “He’s a real asset to the community, and I’m happy to have had him working beside me to spread free culture and knowledge for over a decade.”
Pruitt has another ardent fan in colleague Rich Farmborough, the No. 6 editor of all time.
“Ser Amantio, as I will always think of him, is a phenomenon not so much for the number of his edits, but for the breadth and depth of his editing, having created over 30,000 articles on the English Wikipedia,” says Farmborough. “He will be celebrated, no doubt, mainly for his number of edits. But I suspect that those of us who have been at the top of the list all feel that while we have put a massive amount of work into Wikipedia, including creating articles, we have huge respect for those who create significant amounts of the content that we mainly curate. Ser Amantio has done both! He’s also a great collaborator, which is a crucial attribute in a Wikipedian.”
Seeing the room where Pruitt works feels like glimpsing behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain.
On the third floor of his Alexandria townhouse is a room with turquoise walls, a Pavilion PC with a Firefox browser, a window overlooking some trees, and several hundred classical CDs for background music. The collection of reference works in the bookcase ranges from Encyclopaedia of Chess to Women Silversmiths, 1685–1845 to Milton Berle’s Private Joke File. In the corner sits a 1980s Quasar television on which Pruitt occasionally breaks out his old Super Nintendo.
It is in this room that Pruitt answers one of the most common questions he receives, the one hovering over humankind nonstop for a decade and a half and counting: Is Wikipedia trustworthy? Elementary-school librarians worldwide say no, but Pruitt says, for the most part, yes. Don’t cite Wikipedia as definitive if you’re working on, say, a work of legitimate academic scholarship. But there are so many editors and so many sets of eyes on everything that nothing false remains up there for long.
“If I were teaching, I wouldn’t ban students from using Wikipedia. It’s a potential source just like any other,” Pruitt answered in his Reddit chat. “Wikipedia’s fine as a source, but it’s not fine as the ONLY source. I would always look for whatever other sources [Wikipedia itself] can offer.”
What’s his advice to that vast majority of Wikipedia users who may know a fact or two, whether from their own expertise or their profession or an article they once read, but are apprehensive about making an edit themselves? Surely that’s for other people to do?
“Take the plunge,” Pruitt urges. “The editing interface isn’t that difficult. I mean, I was the last household in my fifth-grade class to get a computer. I barely know any coding. If I can do it, anyone can.”
More important, he says, is the impact you just might have, even on people you may never meet.
“Sure, it’s great that I wrote an article in English. It’s so much more incredible to me that the things I’ve written have been translated into so many different languages,” Pruitt says. “One of my neighbors works for an African development project. He said people over there are all using mobile to access the internet. They’re seeing the stuff I’m writing, on mobile, throughout the continent. It’s giving them access to a world of knowledge they never had.”
In the 1970s, it was a copying machine. In the 2020s, it’s Wikipedia. Perhaps even edited by you.
This story originally ran in our November issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.
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