Meet Martin Rulsch, the longest-serving Wikimedia steward

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Martin Rulsch, the longest serving Wikimedia steward. Image by Sandro Halank (WMDE) (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and the 5th most visited website on the internet. It’s a volunteer-driven, user-generated encyclopedia. The English-language Wikipedia, which is the most popular language version of Wikipedia, has more than six million articles, and Wikipedia exists in more than 300 languages.

Users who have registered as contributors on Wikipedia are frequently regarded as editors, with varying levels of access. These access levels are also known on Wikipedia as “permissions.”

Some permissions, such as “rollbacker” and “pending change reviewers,” may be granted by any administrator, whereas others, such as “administrator,” “checkuser,” “oversighter,” “bureaucrat,” and “steward,” are only granted to users who have earned the community’s trust. They are granted by community consensus achieved via a structured or semi-structured process.

Wikipedia administrators have the technical tools to delete and undelete pages, block and unblock users, and protect pages. They can grant certain permissions, such as “rollbacker,” “file mover,” and “pending change reviewers,” to other users.

Wikimedia stewards are users who have been granted access to the interface of all public wikis operated by the Wikimedia Foundation..

They are elected annually between January and February by the global Wikimedia community and must have a minimum of 80% support from the voters.

Users who are elected as stewards are highly trusted users who are required to disclose their identity to the Wikimedia Foundation and must sign a confidentiality agreement governing their access to the private information of other users. In the past, stewards were officially confirmed by the WMF Board of Trustees after the community selection.

They have the ability to perform a variety of functions on Wikimedia Foundation public wikis. This includes granting user rights, fighting vandalism and spam, performing checks on projects without local checkusers, globally blocking and locking IPs and users, and implementing global ban requests and other matters of global consensus.

Most of these technical tasks are carried out by stewards behind the scenes and are thankless. Currently, there are a total of 37 stewards.

Recently, one of the stewards, Martin Rulsch, posted on Facebook about his 15-year anniversary as a Wikimedia steward. He is the longest-serving steward on the Wikimedia project.

It would be interesting to learn about his journey as a Wikipedia contributor and steward for more than 15 years.

Q. How long have you been a Wikipedia editor?

Funnily, I cannot remember having used Wikipedia before my first edits in the German Wikipedia in August 2005—but some presentations at school that I recently discovered prove my mind wrong. A month later, I registered my user account and kept that name until today. Slowly, I started with editing some articles about music and chemistry, my favorite subjects at the time.

When one of the articles I had listed on my watchlist got vandalized, I was looking for help from other users with advanced rights, the administrators. I couldn’t cope with other people destroying the work of other volunteers who worked for the greater good. So I decided to help out in this field in order to assist my fellow Wikimedia colleagues.

Curious as I am, I wanted to learn about these processes in other Wikimedia projects, too. In 2007, I started editing English Wikipedia, but soon after I realized that more help was needed with supporting the hundreds of smaller Wikimedia wikis. Although we didn’t have many tools that could help us back in those days (some of them I had to code myself), the best way to accomplish that was as a Wikimedia steward. So I applied for that role, received the needed support, and was finally approved by the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees.

In December 2022, I became the first Wikimedia steward to serve for 15 consecutive years.

Q. Being a Wikimedia steward comes with a lot of responsibility. How do you manage your time volunteering as a Wikimedia steward?

Over the years, you will get some experience on how to handle the many different roles you have had. Aside from my work as a Wikimedia steward, I’ve been a local administrator on German and English Wikipedia, as well as the media archive Wikimedia Commons, and I have some global user rights. On Wikipedia, I wrote some articles that were evaluated as good or featured articles, embedded thousands of my photos, coded some scripts, served on various juries, organized some events (from local community meetups to larger conferences or photo sessions with stakeholders in politics or the cultural sector), and did a lot of outreach to the press.

My standard quote in press interviews is that “Wikipedia is the best hobby in the world”. Not because we are amateurs (many of us really dive deep into their topics and become professional-likes), but because of the freedom we have in using our time for Wikipedia and its sister projects. There is no deadline and no pressure from some higher hierarchy on how to spend your time on the projects. Accordingly, I do what I can to support my fellows, have some fun, or clean up the mess. There aren’t many stewards around, but I’ve gained some experience and now try to assist where I can. 

Q. How do you deal with harassment relating to your work as a Wikimedia steward?

Most of my stewards fellows contribute to global Wikimedia projects under a pseudonym, which keeps harassment out of our personal lives the majority of the time. We are, however, all accustomed to onwiki harassment, particularly from vandals, whom we combat in our global or local activities. There were times when I was attacked on a daily basis on the English Wikipedia. Back then, I used my real name more often, but when I got a disgusting phone call, I decided to remove it from the most obvious places.

But as you can imagine, for some of my activities like event management, outreach to the press (or here on diff), etc., I still use my real name. For my work at Wikimedia Deutschland, the German chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation, I use a staff account with my real name. All in all, I don’t want to make it too easy for vandals to try and annoy me. Fortunately, I haven’t had major issues recently.

Q. You recently celebrated your 15-year as a Wikimedia steward. What are your challenges as a Wikimedia steward?

Sadly, the challenges haven’t changed much over the years: We are a very small group of highly specialized (often technical) individuals who are loosely connected for that reason. Most of us are lone fighters who must rely heavily on good tools in order to serve the large global community efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, there is not as much support as we would need, despite the impact our role has. I’ve already mentioned my own involvement in creating some of the tools more than a decade ago. Of course, the situation has changed much over the years, but we could have the potential to help much better and avoid trouble resulting from our impactful activities. I like to deal with challenges, find solutions, and help out when I am needed. I often move along with good memories, friends, and countless experiences when I find everything working in a good way.

Nowadays, this lack of governance within the stewards group is tackled in various ways: our group gets support from the Wikimedia Foundation with direct contacts, manages monthly digital meetings, occasionally collects technical needs, and so on. But our group also takes further steps forward: Members of our group and supporters have been assembled in the Wikimedia Stewards User Group, which has been recognized by the Wikimedia Foundation as a Wikimedia affiliate, which will allow us to ask more formally for grants and allowed us to participate in the annual conference for Wikimedia affiliates, the Wikimedia Summit, for the first time. Within our group, new processes for decision-making have been introduced for testing. We will see in the future if these steps will show some further improvements.

Q. Has there ever been a time that you considered quitting as a Wikimedia steward? If yes, did it result from an incident that you can remember?

Finally, an easy question to be answered: No, I still enjoy helping out in this group with my experiences and filling some of the gaps. But I notice that in recent years, some fellows have joined the group who might be more effective in supporting the group internally as well as externally. As long as I still enjoy it and the fellow community entrusts me to fill out this role, I am happy to offer my time and experiences and continue to serve.

Q. You are one of the most experienced Wikipedia editors and functionaries. Do you have someone within the Wikimedia movement you would consider a role model?

The Wikiverse is a giant cosmos with countless dedicated people who spend their time for the greater good. I have found my best friends here; I have grown from the responsibilities I was entrusted with, and I am grateful that I can give back a little. But I know very well that others are so much better at writing articles, creating new technical solutions for long-standing challenges, encouraging people to join, lobbying for our needs, and many other activities than I am.

Over the years, I tried out most of what you can do in the Wikiverse and met many impressive volunteers, as well as staff members from various Wikimedia affiliates. I hope I showed my gratitude wherever I could, and I hope the people I’m thinking of right now know they are remembered. We are all pieces in this puzzle, and I hope that I also play my part here and can be a role model for somebody else, too.

Q. Do you have any advice for Wikipedia contributors who are aspiring to volunteer as a Wikimedia steward?

Stewards have collected suggestions on a metawiki page. In a nutshell, we are looking for experienced, active community members who hold or have held administrator rights. For global and internal conversations, a minimum knowledge of English is helpful, but we also look for missing languages in the group. In more recent years, many successful applicants had a technical background, which helped them as individuals in their global tasks but also as group members through the tools they might be able to develop. However, as indicated before, some applicants with a background in community governance who want to strengthen the entire group are also very welcome.

As with many new roles, beginners often don’t know where the journey will lead them but later find their place where they can be of help. Therefore, I want to encourage those who have not decided to apply yet to talk with current stewards about their thoughts (because my understanding of the role is just my individual one) or to be bold and just give it a try. More helping hands are needed in order to further the group.

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I remember me sitting in the main audience of Wikimania 2015. Presentation of the “Wikimedian of the Year”. I knew, after all he had done (among 3 others of the core team) to fix all the problems with the SUL finalization, it only could be my friend Martin & Co. But no. Nothing. Not even a honorable mention. He was not female. He came from an european community. He saved the Foundations ass, but was not worth to be mentioned, because he was not part of a special, supported group. He just was a supporter by himself.And I can remember… Read more »

The genders and ethnicities of the Wikimedians of the year before 2015 were:
2011 – male, Khazak
2012 – unknown (pseudonymous)
2013 – male, European
2014 – male, European