Steven Pruitt has more than 2.5 million edits to Wikipedia articles to his credit. Yes, 2.5 million. That’s a lot of editing to a lot of articles, so you’d understand if he couldn’t come up with the one that he most enjoyed working on. But ask, and he answers instantly: “Pohick Church.”
This is partly because the Episcopal church in Lorton, Va., is right in his neighborhood, and partly because it’s a piece of Virginia history, which is important to someone whose family roots in the commonwealth reach back to 1635. But mostly, it’s for the kind of nerdy reason you’d expect from someone who spends a lot of his spare time editing an online encyclopedia for free. “I wanted to set myself a challenge,” Pruitt says. “I wanted to expand an article from scratch.”
Back in 2009, the Wikipedia entry on Pohick Church was what editors call a stub, with only rudimentary information. Pruitt, already an avid Wikipedian, as editors of the digital reference work call themselves, got to work, uploading detail reflecting many of his personal interests. There’s a tie-in to the Founding Fathers — both George Mason and George Washington were parishioners. There’s the highlighting of lesser-known historical figures, like the Rev. Charles O’Neill, remembered for preaching in an ill-fitting hand-me-down suit of Washington’s. More recently — he’s still tinkering with the entry — Pruitt has been adding photos, the latest showing the Civil War graffiti on the exterior church walls.
Thanks to Pruitt, the Pohick Church article now includes 122 notes and references to external sources, including records of the Fairfax Genealogical Society and a digitized version of the Truro Parish Colonial vestry minutes. “My interests are maybe not the most ordinary,” concedes the 34-year-old, “but I have them, and I follow them.”
According to the Wikimedia Foundation, Pruitt is the most prolific contributor to the English version of the digital encyclopedia. Of its nearly 5.7 million pages, he has edited a staggering one-third. “The articles that you read on Wikipedia are made possible entirely by the generous work of volunteers like Steven,” says Kui Kinyanjui, the Wikimedia Foundation’s vice president of communications.
Founded in 2001, Wikipedia famously allows anyone to edit its content. More than 34 million people have registered a username, but only a little more than 100,000 regularly contribute to the site. Pruitt is one of just seven who have reached more than a million edits, and he’s the only editor over the 2 million mark.
Moreover, in the past 13 years, he has generated more than 31,000 original articles, conducting his research via books, newspapers, online sources and occasional field excursions. Want to know about the United States Lighthouse Society, the biblical figure of Omar, the composer Margaret Bonds, the Nsukka group of Nigerian artists, the communes of French Martinique? Pruitt — or Ser Amantio di Nicolao, the Wikipedia handle he took from a minor character in the Puccini opera “Gianni Schicchi” (naturally, he’s an opera lover) — has an entry for each.
Chalk the wide range up to what Pruitt calls his “agglomerative personality,” a characteristic he shares with many of his early-American heroes, about whose Renaissance-man qualities he can discourse at length. “Jefferson played the violin,” he notes. “Francis Hopkinson, the designer of the Great Seal, was at one time playing organ for three churches in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin, of course, no more needs to be said. And Patrick Henry, I could go into him for hours.” In the Colonial era, “it was expected that you have a finger in many pies.”
Pruitt has his finger in so many pies that if you do the math, you realize he has averaged more than 540 edits per day. You score an edit whenever you save your changes, so one edit could be anything from fixing a typo to overhauling an article. Pruitt considers himself a WikiGnome (according to Wikipedia, “a wiki user who makes useful incremental edits without clamouring for attention”), and he works the gamut, though much of his recent focus is on “authority control” — linking entries to worldwide library catalogues — and especially on categorizing articles. “It keeps me out of trouble more than anything,” he says of his time-consuming hobby. “It allows me to scratch the scholarly itch.”
He was a sophomore art history major at the College of William & Mary when he composed his first article in 2004. Researching an ancestor, Peter Francisco, he decided that the Revolutionary War soldier known as the “Virginia Hercules” should have an entry in the then-3-year-old Internet encyclopedia. And he was hooked.
Occasionally unemployed during the recession, he spent most of his waking hours working on Wiki. (Sometimes he had trouble landing job interviews because prospective employers thought he worked on that other Wiki site run by Julian Assange.) There’s no money in it, but the work itself, he says, “gives me a high.” Nowadays, he typically gives the encyclopedia three to four hours a day — wedged in around his day job as a federal contractor for information management with U.S. Customs and Border Protection — and maintains a running list of somewhat esoteric projects: How about original articles on all 129 of the local community councils of Lesotho?
A Wikipedia administrator — a volunteer community-approved position that gives him special technical capabilities — since 2015, Pruitt works mostly alone but does belong to a few virtual Wikipedian teams: “WikiProject Virginia,” centered on the commonwealth, and “Women in Red,” launched in 2015 to increase the number of biographical entries about women. Pruitt aims to create hundreds of pages about lesser-known female artists, like 19th-century sculptor Joanna Quiner. In Wiki-speak, he’s an inclusionist, believing that information should be liberally added and retained, as opposed to deletionists, who focus on removing content that doesn’t meet Wikipedia’s “notability” standard.
Any Wiki-gripes? Well, yes: editors who’ll create vanity pages for payment, and people who edit entries about themselves. “I’m against anything that will lead to conflict of interest,” he says. As for conflict with other Wikipedians, he steers well clear of that, even when his edits get reversed. “Life’s too short to open myself up for an edit war,” he says.
Coming up, Pruitt wants to work on an article about the Fairfax County library system and has begun a lengthy authority-control project regarding international musicians and poets. “I always have projects going,” he says. He knows, however, that he can take his hobby too far, neglecting more important things in the process. “You don’t get numbers like mine without being a bit obsessive,” he admits. “I probably edit a bit more when I should be cleaning my room.”
Stephen Harrison, a writer in Dallas, is working on a book about the Wikipedia-editing community.