February 28, 2007

Wikipedia New Yorker Article Misrepresentation Exposed

The New Yorker Wikipedia article now has an update of how the Wikipedia site administrator "Essjay" "was described in the piece as "a tenured professor of religion at a private university" with "a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.", but in reality he "now says that his real name is Ryan Jordan, that he is twenty-four and holds no advanced degrees, and that he has never taught. He was recently hired by Wikia - a for-profit company affiliated with Wikipedia - as a "community manager"; he continues to hold his Wikipedia positions."

Seth Gordon has a hyperlinked version, Nick Carr publicized it first Stephen J. Dubner at Freaknomics notes "This is hardly a felony, but it does make you wonder about what else happens at Wikipedia that Jimmy Wales doesn't have a problem with."

The obvious snark here is that his biography was like a Wikipedia article - if you don't like it, you can edit it to suit yourself. But the changes may not stick (still, it might have an effect in the time period before it's reverted ...).

But more seriously, I think the "what else happens" question is the most relevant point. Remember, Wikipedia's main innovation is not knowledge generation, but deflecting criticism of bad quality control (and that's not a joke).

As an even slightly "respectable" (using the term generously and very loosely ...) critic of Wikipedia, these days I'm walking a fine line vis-a-vis harsher Wikipedia critics, on various topics. I don't have the heart to write public posts on where I think they're very wrong, because I don't like kicking underdogs. So I'm finding myself in the middle in trying to say, these people may not be completely right, but they're working off real problems. Basically, the harsh critic says roughly "Something doesn't add up here - it must be a [CIA operation|radical agenda|plot to take over the world ...]". Most people's reaction is "That's nuts! CIA? What nonsense!". But I find myself in the unhappy position of writing privately to the critic, "Well, it's really, really, unlikely to be the CIA, you definitely shouldn't talk like that, but, hmm, that stuff sure does sound odd, not sure what it all means though", and then getting irritated when the Wikicultians are bleating "Problem? What problem? Join us and drink the Kool-Aid of glorious free work!"

Sadly, there's so much money in Kool-Aid sales, and none in skepticism of any sort :-(

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on February 28, 2007 05:30 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

Subscribe with Bloglines      Subscribe in NewsGator Online  Google Reader or Homepage


I believe the appropriate Wikicultian response is "But look at all the hundreds of Wikipedia contributors who haven't lied about their credentials! And contributors to print publications sometimes inflate their resumes, too! Look, a monkey!"

Posted by: Seth Gordon at February 28, 2007 08:18 PM

Allow me to provide some background links. The situation with Essjay is flagrant, and The New Yorker really had little choice but to run a correction. The new information from The New Yorker is that Jimmy Wales is okay with the whole thing. That makes it a story, not a mere correction.

First of all, I'd been trying to find Essjay for months, and nothing about the biographical details he had reported checked out at all. Then all of a sudden, he got hired at Wikia and offered his name and completely new details:


This was in stark contrast to previous details, going back more than a year, before I ever became involved with Wikipedia:


I started complaining to The New Yorker last month, but even before they took action, Essjay started bragging about the success of his deception. He said he spent six hours in interviews with the author, and two with TNY's fact-checker, and bamboozled them both:


As you can imagine, this made my job easier with The New Yorker. They ran their blurb on page 10 of the March 5 issue ("The Mail"), where every subscriber will see it. I then asked them to append it to the online version of the original article, because this article is in all the search engines, and you should post corrections of fact where they are most relevant. Today they did this.

The point is that Essjay did this to himself, and all Wikipedians deserve an apology. Instead, Essjay bragged about it, and a couple of Wikipedians said, "Good boy Essjay, that's the way to handle the stupid mainstream media."

Jimmy Wales compounded the situation when he threw out a glib comment about how it was just a pseudonym, and he had no problem with it. Now the whole thing has escalated into a story.

Some doubt that we have the real name of Essjay and his real personal details even today. But somehow that no longer matters. One story is all anyone needs.

Posted by: Daniel Brandt at February 28, 2007 09:31 PM

Apparently the actual Wikicultian response is to say that it's OK to lie about one's credentials because (a) it makes it harder for The Forces of Darkness to find out your Secret Identity; (b) since all Wikipedians are equal regardless of how many formal degrees they have, it's OK for a Wikipedian to lie about the formal degrees that he has.

Posted by: Seth Gordon at February 28, 2007 10:25 PM

Regarding the first point, yes, Essjay has hyped the Forces of Darkness angle. But get out your calculator and see if you even come close to believing his numbers. Remember, Essjay is known for basically staying away from controversial articles, and just doing the high-level maintenance work. Either Essjay is delusional, or he's still lying:

"Perhaps my skepticism with the 150 emails I get each day comes from two years and 10,000 checkuser's worth of death threats (~10 a week), torture monologues (~5 a week), and legal threats (~40-50 week), added on top of the remainder that are only generally belligerent and filled with personal attacks. With the myriad of venues available to blocked users, including contacting the blocking admin, unblock-en-l, editing thier talk page, emailing the Arbitration Committee or Jimbo (who unsurprisingly gets several thousand emails each day; I don't think I saw him ever stop going through emails today), I feel I'm justified in answering clearly on my talk page and archiving the emails. Essjay (Talk) 03:02, 8 February 2007 (UTC)"

Posted by: Daniel Brandt at February 28, 2007 10:45 PM

I hate to agree with an arsehole like Danny Brandt but Essjay is straight out lying about the death threats etc. I know far more controversial admins than Essjay who wouldn't have had ten death threats in their entire time at WP.

In any case, the bottom line is you don't have to say anything about yourself on your user page. I don't and neither do many others. Even if you do, you don't have to give personal details that would allow you to be identified.

Essjay simply lied to big himself up. He wasn't hiding from stalkers like Danny. There aren't really many people who would go to the trouble Danny goes to in pursuing a vendetta, and there was no hint of stalking when he started the lie up. Lotsa people lie on the interwebnet. It's just thoroughly interesting that Jimbo not only did not censure a guy who lied when he represented Wikipedia in the press, he hired him! Shows what skills our Jimbo values!

Posted by: Dr Zen at March 1, 2007 02:44 AM

This isn't the first time Jimbo's shown some very questionable ethics in protecting his valued wiki editors. Especially those who are published authors and former reporters for Business Week.

See this: http://antisocialmedia.net/?p=37

Posted by: Eliot Ness at March 2, 2007 12:54 AM

The scandal is bigger than this. Essjay was only a victim of his own stupidity. Daniel Brandt outed his real credentials cause Wikipedia refuses to take down defamatory smears in the Public Information Research entry at Wikipedia. The smears (1) violate policy with guilt by association smears on living persons; (2) stem from a self-published source, another violation of policy. (3) the self-published source is a "questionable source", another violation; (4) the self-publishing questionable source is cited by a mainstream reputable publisher as "extremist".

This isn't half the scandal, plus all the coverups. The question is, why does Wikipedia refuse to correct the libelous smears against Daniel Brandt? Stay tuned.....

Posted by: nobs at March 9, 2007 01:01 AM