March 03, 2007

Wikipedia's Value System

I started to write a letter to Jimmy Wales about all the fabrications in this scandal. But I decided to dump it after re-reading his statement. At best, he'd just delete it, at worst, it would be another item added to my already disqualifying weight of political "baggage" :-(. I've got to stop shouting to the wind.

This was the key sentence that convinced me I'd already wasted my time:

I only learned this morning that EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes.

It doesn't matter that Essjay lied to the New Yorker reporter about his credentials, making Wikipedia look good to the media - a matter Wales has known about for weeks. No mention of the dishonesty of using degree falsification to endorse Wikipedia in a letter to a professor. That's lying to those outside The Family.

But he used his false credentials in content disputes. That's serious! It's an IN-WORLD offense! It's inside The Family.

Go read Jason Scott's essay on Wikipedia's values

What is going on in all this, and which I am fearful is going to be missed, is how Wikipedia's Value System functions. "Honor Killings", "Circumcision", "Dog Shows", "Child Soldiers", "Abortion" ... there are thousands of events and values that people engage in every day that are completely inscrutable to a good portion of the rest of the people on the Earth. Sometimes you can see the logic and decide it's just not your cup of joe, but other times you see things that are allowed in one jurisdiction that would have "those people" turned into organ donors anywhere else.

Wikipedia's value system is not obvious to "outsiders", that is, the millions who now browse the articles and don't do much editing (which is the vast majority of people). But those values are there, and they're sometimes not as obvious as you think. ... [snip]

It's too easy, when you run into these clashing value systems, to get hung up on the differences between the system and your own. That's basically what people are doing right now, wondering why this Jimbo guy gets to shut down discussions or marvelling over the tortured lyrical games being played to justify Essjay's behavior. What I think is in danger of getting lost here, though, is the level of corruption even within the value system.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on March 03, 2007 11:36 AM (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


Probably the strongest analogy here is with the Scientologists (Seth frequently compares Wikipedia to a cult).

The whole Scientology organization was basically run by the free labour (as well as the donations) of the cult members. Scientology members made the e-meters that were sold, staffed the store-front bookstores, manned the Sea Org etc. They made the wealth the cult executives exploited.

The Scientologists also had a nasty attitude towards outsiders. Cult leaders could label an outsider (usually a critic), "fair game" -- which meant the cult members had free reign to destroy his/her life.

The L. Ron Hubbard bio Bare-Faced Messiah is online, and fascinating reading on these sorts of dynamics. (Hubbard himself was kind of an Essjay, claiming all sorts of military honours, scientific credentials he didn't have).

Posted by: anon at March 3, 2007 03:20 PM

Essjay is now actually lying about what the reporter said to him. In his message, he actually says the reporter offered to pay him for his time:

"Further, she made several offers to compensate me for my time, and my response was that if she truly felt the need to do so, she should donate to the Foundation instead."

Andrew Lih contacted the reporter, Stacy Schiff, who said this was "complete nonsense."


Isn't paying sources unethical for a journalist?

Posted by: anon at March 3, 2007 10:34 PM

The whole Scientology organization was basically run by the free labour (as well as the donations) of the cult members.

I'll do you one better: They actively seek out and recruit the "A-List" for their own ends. Not that Scientology is alone in this, of course.

Posted by: Ethan at March 3, 2007 11:18 PM

I was one of the people interviewed for well over 8 hours by Stacy Schiff. Never did we discuss me being compensated, of course she didn't send me an advance copy of the article.

Posted by: Jason Scott at March 3, 2007 11:27 PM

Geez, what a useless post. I came here from Felten's "Freedom to tinker"; the post there (written by David Robinson) states that "Jimmy Wales, who is as close to being in charge of Wikipedia as anybody is, has had an intricate progression of thought on the matter, ably chronicled by Seth Finklestein."

Ably chronicled? I don't know what post David read, but it can't have been this one. All I can see here is a more eloquent version of "waa waa Jimbo changed his opinion, so all of Wikipedia is teh suxx0r!"

Wikipedia has many flaws indeed, and Jimbo's reaction here would deserve closer scrutiny as well, but quite frankly, Seth, your post was worthless.

Posted by: Bunny at March 5, 2007 05:24 AM

Is it possible that the change of mind has nothing to do with in-world vs. out-world, but with the ends and intentions of the lying? Lying about who you are (or how accomplished you are) is stroking the ego - so while it's no doubt still wrong, it's still more forgivable, than lying to get your way, push through your agenda baselessy (or rather based on fabrications). Is it possible that this sort of differentiation is an equally valid explanation of the observations compared to your inworld/outworld inferences?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward at March 5, 2007 08:09 AM

I can't condone Bunny's tone, but I also came in from Freedom to Tinker and was disappointed by this posting - I was hoping for something like a timeline of the events. However, Jason Scott's analysis, linked from the above, is very good, and so I'm glad I came.

To Anonymous Coward who asks "Is it possible that this sort of differentiation is an equally valid explanation of the observations compared to your inworld/outworld inferences?" No, that kind of differentiation is not equally valid. Essjay lied about his qualifications to the *entire world* to make his opinions look good, and that was okay. He lied about his qualifications *to other Wikipedia editors* to make his opinions look good, and that wasn't okay. It's not a difficult question, or open to reasonable alternate explanations, what the difference is between those two lies.

It wasn't a different lie - it was the same lie to different people. It wasn't a lie with different ends and intentions - it was the same lie for the same purpose, to different people. The only difference is who was deceived, and if Jimmy Wales thinks that makes a difference to whether the lie was acceptable, then Jimmy Wales has values incompatible with mine.

Posted by: Matthew Skala at March 5, 2007 09:59 AM

David Robinson mistakenly linked to a specific post when I imagine he meant to link to:
and refer to the posts from 28th February on.

Posted by: Michael Walsh at March 5, 2007 11:26 AM