March 07, 2007

My _Guardian_ Column on "Essjay" / Ryan Jones Wikipedia Editor Fraud,,2028328,00.html

"One of Wikipedia's major public relations successes has been in misdirecting observers into a narrative of technological miracles, diverting attention from analyzing its old-fashioned cult appeal. While I don't mean to imply that everyone involved in Wikipedia is wrapped up in delusion, that process is a key factor. A charismatic leader, who peddles a type of spiritual transcendence through selfless service to an ideal, finding a cadre of acolytes willing to devote their lives (without payment) to the organization's projects - that's a story worth telling. But not abetting."

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on March 07, 2007 08:07 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Fascinating article. You raise an interesting point: Was Wikipedia the first online cult?

Posted by: anon at March 7, 2007 08:11 PM

I doubt it was the first. But it's notable for being very successful. Geeks don't make good large-scale cult leaders. It's a tough mix to get right to make it work, which is one of the aspects of Wikipedia I sincerely find fascinating.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 7, 2007 08:30 PM

What is also interesting about this affair is the complete lack of comment by "futurists".

You'd think this would be their brief and they'd be all over it. But so far, silence. (Nothing at Boing Boing, Wired, etc. -- and these sites chronicle every online burp and fart).

But then they make their money as boosters of the web -- and increasingly the capital-rich Web 2.0 -- _not_ as critics.

Posted by: anon at March 7, 2007 08:39 PM

Ironically enough, your article has many factual errors. Essjay disclosed his true identity before he was hired by Wikia, and then he outed himself, prompting Daniel Brandt and company at the Wikipedia Review to contact The New Yorker, insisting that they post a correction. As for this being a huge hit to Wikipedia's credibilty, I wholheartedly disagree. For a longer tome on my views, please seem my recent blog post.

Posted by: Internet Esquire at March 7, 2007 08:54 PM

Esquire: I think you're misreading what I wrote. He seems to have disclosed his true identity because in order to be hired by Wikia, they'd need that real identity, since the IRS requires an identity for tax purposes, and given your name, I assume you also know there's various validation requirements for an employee. Look where my first link in the article leads, a history of the questions raised about his identity.

I don't agree with the reasoning you advance in your blog post. I think you omit the crucial aspect of Wales' first no-big-deal response. It's one thing to be fooled. It's quite another to seem to be telling the people upset at the fraud that it's no problem, come drink the Kool-Aid with us. That's what's done another order of magnitude reputation damage to Wikipedia.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 7, 2007 09:29 PM

Anon -

Patience, my dear. John C Dvorak should take the honor for being the first to illuminate the connection between the New Age "empowerment" Cults and Utopian web rhetoric of the early Noughties.

You Just Don't Get It!"

In the mean time, you can read The Register, Seth's excellent columns, or simply wait for my book.

Posted by: Andrew Orlowski at March 7, 2007 10:10 PM


I look forward to your book.

I just searched Boing Boing looking for posts regarding Wikipedia to gauge their coverage. What I found was an extremely long post by Doctorow attacking your journalistic professionalism in covering a previous Wikipedia fiasco (the Seignthaler affair?). Then, added at the bottom in an update, there was a correction, saying he'd checked with your paper, and he'd gotten it wrong. Sorry for the error!

Thanks for the link to Dvorak. I just never got this "Cluetrain" stuff. Now I understand why.

Posted by: anon at March 7, 2007 10:30 PM

The very perceptive Jaron Lanier wrote a piece on what he called the "digital maoism" of Wikipedia in 2006. This occassioned some interesting responses from the usual suspects (Benkler, Doctorow, Jimbo, Dan Gillmor, Rheingold).

Interestingly, Larry Sanger comes out like a voice of sanity in the replies.

Posted by: anon at March 7, 2007 10:46 PM

Seth, how do wikia's investors benefit from wikipedia?

Even if they were, your criticism sounds exactly like a mid-90s putdown of open source software. ("People being ripped off by corporations by doing their work for free!") Do you have as dim a view of motivations in the open source and general volunteer/nonprofit world as you do of wikipedia contributors?

Posted by: Firas at March 8, 2007 01:40 AM

C'mon. Wikipedia acts as Wikia's biggest brand identification, public relations firm, marketing research, and venture-capital credential. And that's just to start.

[DO NOT STRAWMAN THIS! I didn't say Wikia pays Wikipedia for anything - I said acts that way].

Generally, I think Open Source participants are involved in a fairer exchange. Please note that credit among the participants is often a deeply respected part of open source practices. I'd say there was a certain amount of attempt at exploiting people at the height of the bubble, but it's much harder to really make that work. Some corporations would indeed like to pull that sort of scam. But since the key people they'd really need to bamboozle are almost always highly technical - and highly compensated - it's very difficult.

The distinction is shown by how little traction the similar excuse has gottten, of "So what if our Open Source product has bugs? You can Fix It Yourself! And it's ALL *YOUR* FAULT YOU LAZY BUM BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T FIX IT!!!". I mean, sometimes that approach is tried - but it's not hailed as excusing the bugs.

That's a difference. The real world is full of them.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 8, 2007 02:05 AM

"People being ripped off by corporations by doing their work for free!"

Straw man.

Most of the open source developers doing the heavy lifting are _paid_ by these corporations -- Red Hat, IBM, MySql or the corporate-funded lab where Torvalds works.

There are lots of tiny hobby free software projects out there -- but stuff that makes wealth for corporations are the big apps like databases, kernels, networks etc. All this stuff is made and maintained by hackers on the corporate payroll.

Posted by: anon at March 8, 2007 03:10 AM

Also, even unpaid contributors to open-source projects can leverage those contributions to get paid employment: "If you want a demonstration of my programming skills, just download the source code for FooApp and look at the Mumble module--just about all the graphics code there is my work." Or, even better: "Hey, since you did all this great work on the Mumble module, you should know about this job that's going to be opening up soon at my company." This is especially useful in the programming job market, since there is a wide range of skill among programmers and most of the things one sees on a resume have only a weak correlation with skill.

By contrast, "I made 5,000 edits to Wikipedia" or even "I wrote about half of a Wikipedia article that eventually became one of their featured articles" is not going to impress very many employers...except for Wikia.

Posted by: Seth Gordon at March 8, 2007 09:29 AM

'Tiny hobby apps' vs. mysql is a false dichotomy. There are lots and lots of apps that generate wealth for hundreds of small businesses deploying them, that have many people following along making edits and contributions (I'm thinking WordPress here as an example). WAY more people contribute to open source apps than those being directly paid to do so. It's true that everyone contributing has an employment status *somewhere*, ie. if you're contributing full-time then someone's likely paying you to contribute full-time. The same is the case with Wikipedia; people are *volunteering*, and are employed elsewhere. In fact it's a bit opposite to the open source dynamic because most of the original ('valuable') content in wikipedia comes from hit-and-run style contributors: Who Writes Wikipedia?

I agree that the more 'concentrated' your contributions to an open source project are, the more likely you're hired by a corporation involved with the project in some manner. And that rising through the ranks of an open source project can provide professional benefits that rising through wikipedia's ranks doesn't.

What gets me is the amateur mass-psychoanalysis at play here. It's titanically hubristic to assume that people contributing to wikipedia are all being conned by someone and not aware of the terms and context they're contributing in. I know it may come as a shock to the Dvoraks and other gutter-scum of the punditry world, but sometimes people spend time in group activities *without* necessarily desiring riches as a result of their participation. Don't you get it? For some people, the calculation that 'if my contribution is going to be licensed under a copyleft regime then I'm fine with contributing it' is good enough.

Posted by: Firas at March 8, 2007 02:50 PM

The way you're framing 'cult' here is ridiculous. Any civic organization is a cult if all that's required is a charismatic leader motivating people to chip in for the larger organization's goals! Time to rail against the local book club?

Specifically, while I agree that Essjay was probably involved in self-deception/wish-fulfillment as much as plain misrepresentation to outsiders, I'm saying that this is a an inaccurate claim: "The lifeblood of Wikipedia is selling heavy contributors a dream that their donated effort will give them the prestige of an academic."

This statement is falsifiable. It's easily testable, one just needs to do a poll of representative Wikipedia contributors about their motivations. I'll bet you anything that the majority are in no conceit of suddenly becoming treated as academics/researchers. They may be seeking *status*, sure, within the organization itself--this happens in any sociological context. But the nature of the status they seek is power over wikipedia, not the power of leapfrogging into academia.

Posted by: Firas at March 8, 2007 02:58 PM

Firas, you would do well to not misrepresent the argument. There is a difference between "the prestige of an academic" and being able to "leapfrog into academia". I'm sure more Wikipedians will discover the distinction on their own in the future ... to Wikipedia's detriment.

Posted by: taiwopanfob at March 8, 2007 03:23 PM

"There are lots and lots of apps that generate wealth for hundreds of small businesses deploying them, that have many people following along making edits and contributions (I'm thinking WordPress here as an example)"

Ahh, suddenly we are talking about "small businesses" here, _not_ corporations. The original argument was big corps ripping off developers, not plucky mom and pop operations doing more with less.

In any event, your mention of Wordpress undermines your assumption.

The big content management apps like Wordpress, Drupal etc. have a substantial corporate presence. They don't fund it directly (CMS are not "mission critical, but they are usefu) -- but their web people actually contribute their inhouse improvements back to the project. Just spend some time reading the forum at Drupal, and you'll find this to be the case.

Posted by: anon at March 8, 2007 04:25 PM

The EFF gives its 2007 Pioneer Award to the usual suspects:

"Yochai Benkler, Cory Doctorow, and Bruce Schneier Win EFF Pioneer Awards

Mark Cuban to Keynote Award Ceremony in San Diego"

Schneier should be careful about who he's seen with.

Posted by: anon at March 8, 2007 05:50 PM

Firas, you're smearing the Free Software movement by associating it with Wikipedia.

Posted by: Andrew Orlowski at March 8, 2007 07:47 PM


Have you read your entry on Uncyclopedia? Its quite funny.

Posted by: anon at March 8, 2007 08:41 PM

Andrew, it should be obvious that I see them as part of the same sorts of trends. I'm a big fan of any and all copylefted efforts.

I think hoary Wikicritics should sometimes actually hint at what they want Wikipedia to do. I don't think Jason, Seth etc. actually want Wikipedia to just 'stop' because they dislike it and/or expect it to fall apart right? I think criticism is a healthy (necessary?) part of any ecosystem, but seriously--what? The thing isn't going to shut down just coz somebody thinks it'll end up going off the rails eventually.

Posted by: Firas at March 8, 2007 11:43 PM

Firas: Well, the first thing I'd like Wikipedia to do, is to let marginally notable living people opt-out of having biography articles on themselves. If they won't even do that, it seems a bit futile to propose anything grander.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 9, 2007 01:46 AM

Firas, you need to use your noodle a bit.

You're paying too much attention to abstractions and theoreticals, and not enough to consequences and outcomes.

Let's say I start a Global Terror Network, and disseminate my loony manifesto, hate speech and bomb making material using a CopyLeft license? Am I part of the "same trend", then too? I don't see why not - as it's "commons based peer production" too.

Would you applaud, and support me - regardless of the implications?

Posted by: Andrew Orlowski at March 9, 2007 09:39 AM

I'm not sure I can be considered a "hoary Wikicritic", but I think that one of the fundamental problems of Wikipedia is that for many many many topics, "neutral point of view" cannot be defined objectively. As long as the people running Wikipedia believe that they are contributing to a thoroughly "neutral" encyclopedia, some articles will be the subject of interminable disputes and name-calling among editors. But if they ditch neutrality as one of their fundamental principles, then they would just be one encyclopedia among many that reflect the biases of their core contributors.

Posted by: Seth Gordon at March 9, 2007 09:53 AM

Regarding the question about on-line cults in general, I believe "The Well" was the first on-line cult of any significance. Several of its founders and chief administrators were former members of a real-life cult called "The Farm" run by a Stephen Gaskin in Tennessee and the typical cult practices, shaming, shunning, adherence to dogma, suspicion of outsiders, and hierarchy are evident on The Well.

Not surprisingly, Jimbo Wales is a long-time member of The Well.

Posted by: Richard Bennett at March 9, 2007 02:06 PM

Firas: Also, while I understand your objection to the word "cult", I think you're minimizing the aspects of Wikipedia which do fit - there's the external ideological enemy, the hierachy based on dedication, the personal elevation of The Leader, the group cohesion from The Mission, the *ability* to suck up the entire life of the unfortunate, etc. While it's not a violent, apocalyptic, organization, it's pretty far from the local book club (the book club doesn't have 14 million dollars of venture capital in an associated company).

Other points have been answered by others above (hmm, maybe there's something to this data-mining thing :-))

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 9, 2007 11:34 PM

Wikicritics need to set up a wiki of their own, from which will emerge a consensus of why Wikipedia is wrong, and this consensus opinion must be the truth...

Posted by: Seth Gordon at March 11, 2007 06:59 PM


Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 12, 2007 01:00 AM