March 05, 2007

Scandal Kabuki, Compassion vs. Cover-up in the Wikipedia Deception

I may soon have to rename my blog to Wikipediathought, but I suspect the "Essjay" scandal has peaked now, and we're entering the mop-up phase. Obligatory New York Times link: "A Contributor to Wikipedia Has His Fictional Side"

I've got to give Wales credit for being willing to respond to my emails. I don't want to ask him about posting them, I think it'll give the flavor to note his most recent public comment

It was a scandal. And I have apologized for my role in it. I made several mistakes of judgment at various points along the way, and I am very much in favor of reforming our processes so that we are not so vulnerable. I am spending a lot of time reflecting carefully on my role here. The primary mistake that I made is one that I have trouble condemning myself for, because I think that one of my personality flaws is actually a strength for Wikipedia: a willingness to trust people and assume good faith even in difficult times. That caused me to wrongly minimize the importance of this, and to make bad decisions for a time. I am very sorry for that, and the only solution I know of is to work for positive change. -- [[User:Jimbo Wales|Jimbo Wales]] 11:09, 5 March 2007 (UTC)

This is also, however, a standard scandal script. All the troubling details can be brushed aside with the claim that he's a busy man, he was just too nice a guy to ask hard questions, his trusting nature has been taken advantage of, by an immoral subordinate, let us now move on to Morning In America ....

I joked, isn't this pretty much what's being played out now in the "Scooter" Libby trial over the Valerie Plame CIA case? And pleading it was how Karl Rove avoided being indicted himself?

The problem is that unless some very hard evidence to the contrary is leaked, this sort of defense is nigh-impossible to disprove. We can't subpoena the other senior members of the Wikia corporation. And they'd probably all have lapses of memory anyway ("Sorry, I was so overworked, I just can't remember the details of that meeting when it was decided to hire Essjay ..."). See also Jason Scott: Another Essjay Essay.

Elsewhere, discussion on Wikipedia is in a full-force firestorm over people who want to be compassionate and delete "Essjay"'s old material and comments about him, now that's he's retired, and others who argue this is a cover-up in practice if not in intent. Round and round the "wheel-warring" goes, and where it stops, nobody knows. This is not a good model for society, though the law/policy pundits who need to hear that aren't listening (link omitted for self-preservation).

I have to side with those in favor of keeping the material online and available. Combing through it all helped establish the truth. And it's possible more information may come out. Look at it this way: It's always different when it's you. The history is unquestionably "notable" under a public-interest standard in regard to investigating the scandal, and, institutionally, Wikipedia doesn't exactly place a huge value on people's privacy. There's too much of an appearance of impropriety, of using privacy as an excuse to destroy embarrassing documents, even if some people have generous motives.

History, I think from Daniel Brandt:

Some of us expected this and archived some things with

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on March 05, 2007 08:44 PM (Infothought permalink)
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Seth, I hope you can write an article for the Guardian (or similar venue) reflecting on this episode; you said alot of interesting things.

Posted by: anon at March 5, 2007 10:02 PM

We'll see. I'm actually feeling like I wasted a lot of time on this. Same problem, the tiny audience heard it, but that's small and preaching to the choir. I ran some website stats yesterday, and the results were disappointing. The top post, the one about "What [This] Tells Us About Wikipedia", got around 1,000 hits, since it was echoed to a bunch of second-tier websites. And that was the highest result. Objectively, it's a drop in the bucket. The drive to be heard is quite powerful, and I am not immune.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 5, 2007 10:35 PM

as the owner of one of the 'second tier websites' I would also like to thank you for your thoughtful words on this matter.

Posted by: fordie at March 6, 2007 12:57 AM

"My main problem is that I'm just too good a guy." -- Jimbo.

His bigger problem is that he gets behind the "gang" without any consideration of the facts of the matter.

Posted by: Dr Zen at March 6, 2007 01:15 AM

fordie: You're welcome. No offense intended, I often talk of my blog as "Z-list".

Dr Zen: Factual analysis is for wonks :-).

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 6, 2007 01:48 AM

I don't often do linkposts, but I've finally blogged about this at my fourth-tier blog, pointing to the most recent eight of your posts... that should easily bring you, oh, five or ten more readers (well, 15 if Bloglines starts picking up posts again).

Posted by: walt crawford at March 6, 2007 10:58 AM

Seth, you should probably read this:

Posted by: Jason Scott at March 6, 2007 12:12 PM

walt: Thank you - so far today, *three* (3) readers. All gratefully accepted, but ...

Jason: Thanks.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 6, 2007 02:55 PM

One of the other blogs, not sure if it was Scott, Carr or Freakonomics, posted a quote saying Wales was to start "vetting credentials."

Now think about that. That's very interesting. Why vet? If on Wikipedia it doesn't matter who you are, just your work matters -- wouldn't the consistent approach be to ban all mention of credentials? No use of credentials in content disputes, on your user page etc. A level playing field.

"Vetting credentials" just shows the inconsistency, the delusion, was there in Wikipedia from the beginning. The place is just as venal as everywhere else, except they were dishonest about it.

Posted by: anon at March 7, 2007 12:09 AM

If, on Wikipedia it doesn't matter who you are, why is there a whole Wikipedia category of pages needing expert attention?

Posted by: Seth Gordon at March 7, 2007 08:22 AM

You can read Wales' proposal at:

As noted in the thread above (and the replies to Wales), it flies in the face of everything else Wales and company says, so it is only reasonable to conclude that it was raised more as an exercise in PR than any expectation it would be taken seriously.

Posted by: taiwopanfob at March 7, 2007 08:59 AM