Web Masters

The Indian stewards of Wikipedia

01 May 2015
Shanmugamp7, one of only two Indians among Wikipedia’s 37 stewards, has been involved in Tamil Wikipedia since its very first page appeared, in 2003.

WIKIPEDIA’S first Tamil-language page was created in September 2003. Almost immediately, a fight broke out behind the scenes, on an associated discussion page. Tamil-speaking users, from among the global community of volunteers that edits and maintains all of the site’s content, began arguing over whether Wikipedia should use modern Tamil, with grantha letters adapted from a historical Sanskrit script, or a more traditional, “pure” form. The user Shanmugamp7 was “sweeping” the site of trolls and false information when he noticed the debate brewing, and stepped in to moderate. By the end of the day, the page ran over 6,000 words long.

“We had long, long discussions, and we still have not arrived at any conclusions,” Shanmugamp7, whose real name is Shanmuguram Pachamuthu, told me via online chat—his preferred method of communication. “We decided for now that those who want to use grantha letters can use grantha letters.” Pachamuthu is a prolific Wikipedia editor, and has helped manage disputes on the site for years. Last February, aged 25, he became one of Wikipedia’s 37 current stewards—volunteers at the top of the site’s bureaucracy of editors, with exclusive power to access all pages and respond to crises at a moment’s notice, most of whom are notoriously media-shy. Thousands apply for the posts, but only a few are elected by the Wikipedia community, in votes held once or twice a year. The stewards work to create a world where, in the words of Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, “every single person ... is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” But this boldly internationalist project is struggling to recruit an equally international volunteer force. Pachamuthu is one of only two Indian stewards on a list where users from Europe and the United States prevail—a symptom of a wider lack of Indian volunteers on the site.

Western languages largely dominate Wikipedia. English is ranked the most popular, with over 4.7 million pages in it, followed by Swedish, German and Dutch, which are all approaching 2 million. Hindi, the site’s most popular Indian language, lags behind in fiftieth place, with roughly 117,000 pages. Another 20 Indian languages are already in use—most notably Tamil, Urdu, Telugu, Marathi and Malayalam—and another 20 are being tried out in “the incubator,” a hidden experimental space. The Wikimedia Foundation, the site’s parent body, set up an India chapter in 2011 as part of efforts to diversify Wikipedia’s volunteer base and content. The two projects go hand in hand, since creating pages in any language requires a community of volunteers dedicated to it. The lack of pages in Indian languages, numerous people connected to Wikipedia told me, is down in good part to the shortage of Indian volunteers.

Pachamuthu’s only Indian peer is the user Jyothis—who offline is Jyothis Edathoot, a native of Kerala now based in the United States. Both are exceptionally engaged with the Wikipedia project, and as the site’s first ever Indian stewards could serve as examples for other volunteers. But it is not their job, as stewards, to promote linguistic diversity. “Just being from India does not automatically make you want to improve Hindi articles and Indian languages,” Edathoot wrote over email. “We get requests from communities inside and outside of India, and we treat them alike.”

Still, Edathoot, a self-described “non-alcoholic workaholic,” has been heavily involved in the Malayalam Wikipedia since 2009. He started out writing chapters in Malayalam for Wikibooks—a free online library of volunteer-created textbooks—and then inched his way into the Malayalam Wikipedia crowd. “We had some severe vandal attacks,” Edathoot wrote, “and that is how I started interfacing with the larger Wikimedia organisation.” He became a “regular listener” and volunteer on a monitoring team fighting spam and trolls on the Malayalam Wikipedia, and eventually applied for stewardship. He was elected in 2011.

Pachamuthu is most active on the Tamil Wikipedia. He joined the site in 2010, while studying at Coimbatore’s Kumaraguru College of Technology, and was 20 years old when he authored his first page, about his 27,000-person hometown of Sankagiri, in Tamil Nadu. Over the last five years, in addition to other work managing the site, he has translated an average of two Wikipedia pages a day into Tamil.

But the largest hurdle in India might not be recruiting volunteers to match Pachamuthu and Edathoot’s enthusiasm so much as their ability and judgment. Shyamal, another dedicated Indian editor and administrator, whose real name is Shyamal Lakshminarayanan, described a 2011 initiative in Pune, funded by Wikimedia, to train contributors at three private universities. Most of the students, he wrote, “had never heard of terms like plagiarism and copyright violation, and were banned for copying and pasting content that was lifted from various websites.” Since “critical thinking, research, synthesis and writing are not skills taught routinely except in a few higher-level institutions,” he lamented, “most Indians are limited in their potential ability to contribute.”