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Wikipedia's Top Editor Steven Pruitt Shares His Motivational Quote

I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage.”


February 15, 2020

Steven Pruitt is the most prolific contributor to the English language version of Wikipedia with more than 3 million edits to the online encyclopedia to his credit. According to the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, out of the encyclopedia’s more than 5.9 million pages, Pruitt has edited a staggering one-third. He’s been profiled by Time, the Washington Post Magazine, and CBS, and has become a popular internet meme. Pruitt’s fellow Wikipedia volunteer Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight said of him, “Steven is not only a ‘super star’ Wikipedian but a really nice guy; kind and an interesting conversationalist.”

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This print interview has been edited, condensed, and annotated.

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Stephen Harrison: So what quote will we be chatting about today?

Steven Pruitt: It’s a quote from Samuel Barber, the 20th century American composer. He once said, “I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage.”

I’m not very familiar with Samuel Barber other than that he was a composer. Anything else we should know about him?

First of all, since I'm a classical music geek, and especially an American classical music geek, Barber is one of the lions of the 20th century as far as American music goes. A wonderful, wonderful composer. He wrote the “Adagio for Strings,” a fine and beautiful work that is often played in times of national tragedy.

Barber stood apart from the American mainstream, which included people like Copland, Bernstein, and certainly Gershwin, who were looking to marry American ideas like jazz and folk music alongside European classical music. The musical establishment was embracing twelve-tone music. But Barber didn't do that. His outlook was almost entirely European. And he paid the price for that to a certain degree. Critics came to be very unkind to the point that when he wrote Antony and Cleopatra, his last opera, the critics savaged it.

You’re best known for being the most prolific contributor to the English version of Wikipedia, with over three million edits to your name. I expect some readers would have guessed that you’d pick a quote from a fellow encyclopedist, like Diderot, or perhaps a tech figure, like Steve Jobs. Why did you go with a composer?

Well, I’m a choral singer. I’ve been in my current choir now for ten years. I grew up in a musical household. My father has a silk program that was produced for Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra that he had framed and is hanging in his den. I saw that for years when I was a kid.

Your Wikipedia username is Ser Amantio di Nicolao, which has an opera origin.

Yes. It’s a minor character in one of my favorite operas, Gianni Schicchi by Puccini. I chose it because of the way it sounds. Not that I’m a professional, but I could never sing Ser Amantio because I’m a tenor and he’s a baritone. And I have no connection to the law, but the character of Ser Amantio is a lawyer.

Barber’s musical style was described at the time as old-fashioned and conservative. What do you think?

I've always been interested in some of the more conservative composers. They’re melodic. They're tuneful.  They’re more easily accessible than the moderns, which to me is what music ought to be about.

I also particularly love this quote of Barber’s because it’s in keeping with what I know of his character. He was not very outré. He was not very flamboyant. He was a very quiet, solid, middle-of-the-road guy who knew his own worth.

This quote also reflects one of the principles of Wikipedia: “Be bold.” Go off! If you’re going to do it, do it, as long as you're sure that you know what you want to do. And to me, Barber is saying, in essence, the same thing.

In the quote, Barber says he just goes on doing his thing. When did you first realize that editing Wikipedia was your thing?

That’s a tricky question. I remember when I started, but I can’t remember when I felt like it was something that fit for me. You see, I had a couple of usernames before I got my current account simply because I kept forgetting the passwords. Story of modern life!

I was sort of active, here and there, for about a year after I graduated from college. One day I was patrolling the new pages queue, seeing whatever new stuff was being written, and I remember this editor who was creating articles about the communes of France, one after the other, in very quick succession. I looked at that and I said, “Hey, this is something I can do. It doesn't take too much effort. But it’s important groundwork to be done. And I think it’s very useful.” Before long, we covered pretty much the entirety of France.

I realized there was a lot of potential to build content and that I could be at home doing this. For somebody with an academic bent like mine, it’s a really great way to scratch that academic itch without actually having to worry about publication or a thesis committee. It’s lower stakes.

Steven Pruitt. Photo credit: Harrison Killefer.

You’ve been building content on Wikipedia for over fifteen years now.

My first edits were in the summer of ’04. I had found Wikipedia doing research for papers in college my freshman year. And I kept reading about it and crossing its path. People were scoffing, "The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Sure, like I’d ever believe that!” But the thing is: it didn’t go away from the search results, and it slowly started to climb higher and higher.

Finally, I decided to go all-in and write an article. So I wrote an article about one of my ancestors. Perhaps that’s nepotism, but I make no apologies for it. The American revolutionary war figure Peter Francisco was my great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather. I wrote an article about him. It went live. I kept coming back to it for a couple of days. Nobody seemed to have any problems with it. And I think that was when I was sold that maybe this isn’t such a harebrained idea after all. The bulk of that article, as it stands, is still there now, about 15 years later. I should probably go back and revise it, but that’s another matter.

I’ve been looking at the types of articles you’ve edited on Wikipedia, and there’s just a ton of variety: revolutionary war figures, lighthouses, various composers, biblical subjects, Nigerian artists, the communes of French Martinique. I even saw that you did a long project on the different provinces of Lesotho. Is there a common thread to the types of articles you work on?

Well, I'm a generalist, and I've always been a generalist. I think right now Wikipedia is still in its generalist phase. But if I had to pick a thread, one area that I've tried to help along is covering things that don’t necessarily get a lot of coverage in the Western press or in traditional Western encyclopedias. Talking about Lesotho, for instance, there’s just not that much written, and it’s certainly not fodder for a general interest encyclopedia.

I am also passionate about WikiProject Women in Red which aims to decrease the gender bias in content on the encyclopedia. I’m proud to say that we have increased the number of biographical on the encyclopedia to 18% whereas it was only 15% as recently as a few years ago. That might not seem like a big increase but its two to three thousand biographical articles every month. So we are making progress though we still have some work to do.

One topic that I was working on when you called for this interview, actually, is the field of American folklore. It’s fascinating to me that even at this point in the 21st century, there are still large swaths of the American experience that are being left out of general interest encyclopedias. If you extrapolate that to non-English speaking countries or non-Western countries, you will find that we still have so much work left to do.

We’re chatting on a Saturday afternoon, and just before this interview you were editing Wikipedia in your free time. You’ve volunteered countless hours to Wikipedia, which amounts to something like 3-4 hours per day and a daily average of 540 edits. But you’re not financially compensated for this work. Why do you dedicate so much time to this?

There are micro and macro reasons. Let’s start with the micro. I am amazed at the things that I learn poking around with this, even if I'm not editing actively. I’ve learned fascinating things about Virginia history, American history, and world history. Just recently, I’ve learned a good deal about the Sámi people from editing Wikipedia. They’re a native community of northern Finland and Norway. Reading so much is absolutely fascinating to me, and I think it makes me a more well-rounded individual.

The macro reasons: My mother grew up in the Soviet Union. One story she tells is when the university in Leningrad got its first Xerox machine. It was the first Xerox machine in the city, and one of the first in the country. Before this, everything had to be mimeographed. The university knew how dangerous the Xerox machine could be to the highly-censored regime, so they kept it under lock and key. A secretary had to watch you every time you made copies. But my mother knew, right when she saw the Xerox machine, she sensed that this was the end of the Soviet Empire.

I first heard that story when I was a lot younger, and it showed me the power that knowledge can have, and what an engine of change free knowledge can be. Yes, Wikipedia is still censored in some countries, like China and Turkey. But to put it bluntly: the bigger Wikipedia is, the harder it is to ignore. The more knowledge is out there, the more likely it is that something is going to leak through the cracks. And I think the power of free knowledge cannot be overstated.

Clearly, you’re passionate about this. But you’ve now spent more than fifteen years dedicating countless hours to Wikipedia. So I’m curious: Has burnout ever been a concern?

Not really because the stakes are not that high. It’s a volunteer thing. The only person setting a goal for me is myself. Which means at some point I can always step back. And I do step back, though not completely. I always try to make at least one edit a day. But there are patches—like when I’m traveling—when I am quite happy to be disengaged.

Do you not edit Wikipedia while you are traveling?

Sometimes. On a recent trip with my choir in Kazakhstan, I wrote an article from my hotel about a Georgian painter. Her name was—let me quickly check to make sure I get it right—Ketevan Magalashvili. Wonderful paintings. And honestly, the reason I wanted to write the article when I did is because we had just gone through Georgia and her work was fresh on my mind. It was a quiet evening, and nobody else needed the hotel computer. So I wrote the article on her.

In the second part of the quote, Barber says that continuing to do his thing takes a certain courage. Do you think you’ve been courageous in editing Wikipedia?

Well, again, not really because the stakes are so low. And by that I mean, the stakes are not very high for me personally. If I disappear tomorrow, there are other people who are doing the same thing that I'm doing. I've just been at it longer and have had a chance to do it more than other people.

I suppose I’m thinking about courage in terms of tradeoffs. Has your Wikipedia passion caused you to tradeoff other parts of your life? Or perhaps sacrifice would be the better word.

Sometimes I wonder. I try not to make sacrifices. But I am by nature a homebody. I think that’s one of the reasons this suits me so well. I am by nature the sort of person who will look at a Saturday calendar and see three options and rule them all out because I’d prefer to stay at home.

Sure, I can get a bit obsessive about editing Wikipedia now and then. That’s why I sometimes need to step back. And while I sometimes I wish I did more with my weekends, that has very little to do with Wikipedia and more to do with who I naturally am as a homebody.

I do think knowing who you are is critical, which is the point Barber is making in the quote. I sometimes feel like going to a classical music concert every week to get out of the house. But I also know from experience that three to four weeks into a regimen like that, and I’m really going to want a night by myself at home.

I wanted to tell readers a bit about the circumstances under which we met. I was curious for a long time about Wikipedia, and this larger idea of whether we can trust crowdsourced information online. So I reached out to meet you, the mysterious Ser Amantio di Nicolao, in person, even though at the time you hadn’t talked much to the press. We met at this little Greek restaurant in Washington D.C. called Zorba’s for an interview. And our conversation eventually evolved into my profile story about you for The Washington Post Magazine. But before we met at Zorba’s, I was a little nervous because I had no idea what to expect of the most prolific English Wikipedia editor. What was that experience like on your end?

I honestly didn't quite know what to expect. And nothing against you; it’s just that I'd not been interviewed, at that point, very much. But my feeling is that if you give me an opportunity to talk, I'll talk. I'll always talk . . .

Overall, it was a very, very pleasant experience. Thank you very much for the opportunity. It’s led to some good things for me.

The pleasure was all mine! After our interview, you appeared on CBS, hosted a Reddit AMA, and have even become an internet meme. Do you think that fame has influenced you?

Well, I hope it hasn’t. You’d really have to ask people outside of me. I try not to let it change me. Because again, I’m just one of many. There are many other people who are doing many other things to further the goals of the Wikimedia movement. They’re just as interesting and worthwhile. I've just been lucky to get a bit of notice for it.

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