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"Assigning permissions" means granting users extra rights within the wiki software (or revoking these rights). This is done by going to the Special:UserRights page, and adding users into a "group" which has specific rights. The first thing to note however, is that this action requires special permissions itself!
By default, you will need to be a 'Bureaucrat' (in the 'Bureaucrat' group) before you can access the Special:UserRights page. The first user created when setting up a MediaWiki installation is a bureaucrat. Other users can always contact one of the bureaucrats to request a change of permissions. Find out who these people are at Special:ListUsers/bureaucrat. In a small wiki there might typically be only one such user or maybe two.
Promoting users to sysops and bureaucratsEdit
The Special:UserRights page allows you (if you have access) to set which groups a user is in. A common task would be to put a user into the 'sysop' group. This will grant the user various extra rights, such as deleting pages, and blocking users. See Help:Sysops and permissions for more details.
Obviously giving a user such rights implies that you trust the user, both in terms of being non-malicious, and also as somebody with sufficient competence in using the wiki software, and in dealing with the wiki community. People hoping to become sysops should read Help:Sysops and permissions. However it should be noted that actions of a sysop user are (almost) entirely reversible, by other sysop users, and so it can be a good idea to dish out these extra permissions to a number of users in order to
- spread the workload of day-to-day sysop operations such as blocking vandals and deleting pages.
- make things more democratic, and decrease any perception of a single dictator running the community
- allow competent users the power they need to make progress with wiki refactoring.
- reward valued contributors/community members