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Essjay's world

March 03, 2007

Head Wikipedian Jimmy Wales, having previously defended the Wikipedian administrator Ryan Jordan, who faked an elaborate online identity - "Essjay" - as a distinguished religion scholar, has this morning asked his beleaguered colleague to resign, saying that his "past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on."

Writes Wales:

I have been for several days in a remote part of India with little or no Internet access. I only learned this morning that EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes. I understood this to be primarily the matter of a pseudonymous identity (something very mild and completely understandable given the personal dangers possible on the Internet) and not a matter of violation of people's trust ... I have asked EssJay to resign his positions of trust within the community ... Despite my personal forgiveness, I hope that he will accept my resignation request, because forgiveness or not, these positions are not appropriate for him now.

Wales also offers fatherly counsel to other Wikipedians: "In terms of the full parameters of what happens next, I advise (as usual) that we take a calm, loving, and reasonable approach ... Wikipedia is built on (among other things) twin pillars of trust and tolerance. The integrity of the project depends on the core community being passionate about quality and integrity, so that we can trust each other. The harmony of our work depends on human understanding and forgiveness of errors."

There's something poignant about this whole episode, as Seth Finkelstein points out: "As I read further about the scandal ... I ended up feeling more sadness for [Jordan] than anger. In fact, I think some of the fury at him from critics, while very understandable, is a bit misplaced. [Wikipedia] fundamentally runs by an extremely deceptive sort of social promise. It functions by selling the heavy contributors on the dream, the illusion, that it'll give them the prestige of an academic ('writing an encyclopedia')." Finkelstein notes that Jordan's alter ego - a tenured professor of theology with four degrees - represents "what he wants to be ... what he wishes he was. And Wikipedia gave him the opportunity to represent himself as this fantasy."

Finkelstein points to a remarkable letter that "Essjay" wrote to a real college professor, defending the integrity of his beloved encyclopedia. It reads in part:

I am an administrator of the online encyclopedia project Wikipedia. I am also a tenured professor of theology; feel free to have a look at my Wikipedia userpage to gain an idea of my background and credentials. I am contacting you because I was contacted by one of your students concerning an email you sent to one of your classes ... I find it very disturbing that you included the statement "it is my understanding that anyone can put anything there, and it is not vetted for accuracy." ... Well credentialed individuals (myself included) participate in the project in the hopes that our involvement will help to make Wikipedia a better source, and dispel the misconceptions held by the public ... Let me leave you with a quote from our founder, Jimmy Wales, which puts our mission into words with Jimmy's amazing ability for clarity: "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing."

It would take someone wiser than I to peel back all the layers of self-deception found here. Marshall Poe, who wrote a long and rather starry-eyed article on Wikipedia for the Atlantic last year, suggested in an interview that the Wikipedia phenomenon has its roots in the craze, during the 70s and 80s, for the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons. "Wales and all of these guys were involved in that stuff," Poe said. "They loved playing those games." In Dungeons & Dragons, he continued,

you took on a new identity, you inhabited a different world, you could act in ways you’d never acted before, ways that weren’t consistent with your real-life community but were consistent with that new world. It was really very liberating, a vessel for your imagination and also for your intelligence. Because a “world” had to be consistent. That was one of the rules. You couldn’t just do anything. So it could become very Byzantine, very complex.

In the byzantine world of Wikipedia, with its arcane language, titles, and rules and its multitude of clans, Essjay wore the robes of a wizard. He was allowed to stand beside - and to serve - Jimbo the White. Together, they would bring "knowledge" to the unenlightened masses. But then the Wizard Essjay tried to slip through the gates of the real. Now the game is up.


Very good analysis on what went wrong. My question is: can you play that long without turning somehow knowledgeable? Theology doesn't rely on arcane documents, does it?

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 3, 2007 12:46 PM

Fantasy world is spot on, see this, which I don't believe is quite as parodic as Jordan claims.

It is fascinating that the only problem Wales sees is that Jordan broke internal rules (see "WikiSin", linked above). Lying to outsiders is of no consequence; they are seen as ignorant and undeserving of respect.

Bertil, autodidacticism doesn't create authority.

Posted by: evan [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 3, 2007 02:12 PM

Marshall Poe -

"I wanted to be Warrior-Priest. I always liked that."

Naturally! This reminds me of a joke one of our freelancers made recently -

"Has anyone ever created a Second Life character for themselves which has a smaller penis?"

The MMORPG analogy is an excellent one, and I was merely expanding Bob McHenry's description -

"It's got the public playing the encyclopedia game. To extend the analogy, it's also like playing a game in the sense that playing it has no consequences. If something goes wrong, you just restart. No problem!"

Wales' latest explanation defies belief. If he only just discovered Ryan Jordan's Wikipedia persona today, then he appointed him to Wikia Inc. without doing the most basic fact-checking or due diligence.

But then I guess that's the Wikipedia Way.

Posted by: Andrew Orlowski [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 3, 2007 03:51 PM

Poe's take on wikification is plainly at odds with fact. He contends in the Atlantic interview that "Before the Internet emerged, there was no way for far-flung groups of people to collaborate on any one project." Apparently the mechanism by which the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled is unknown to him. A strange lapse that would be if it weren't explainable by Poe's having deliberately turned a blind eye to history that he finds inconvenient. It's far simpler to pretend that the mail, telegraph, telephone, and fax never existed as means for large groups of people to work together across distances.

Posted by: marianc [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 4, 2007 12:45 PM

This is a very thoughtful post from the point of view of "insiders", however I think mom, pop, and academics will view this in simpler terms and see it as yet another indication that "the internet can't be trusted".

I love Wikipedia as an info source but think the "moral" of this story is that the new web ethic - one that suggests it's fine to practice various forms of personal deception as long as you don't send spam emails or bother other online insiders, is very misplaced. I almost get the idea from Wales and others that "being part of the team" is more important than being straightforward. The extension of this logic creates a world of hidden identities, personal deceptions, and many avenues for illegal and unethical online activity. As for me - I want the old conventional handshake and honest talk morality back ASAP.

Posted by: Joe Duck [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 4, 2007 12:55 PM

As you may know, much of the history of Essay was deleted by Wikipedia administrators. Here is the info, archived by webcitation.org, before it was taken down:

http://www.webcitation.org/5N2MZaMWP - Letter by Essjay to an academic in which he falsely claims academic credentials and accomplishments.

http://www.webcitation.org/5N2Me17ss - Edit in which Essjay claims to a user that he had a PhD and students under his charge

http://www.webcitation.org/5N5OP3eo3|title=Deletion - log 1

http://www.webcitation.org/5N5OoHOaJ|title=Deletion - log 2

http://www.webcitation.org/5N5Omv1vA|title=Deletion - log 3

http://www.webcitation.org/5N5PRq444 - User:Essjay/History1 (the "bio")

Posted by: C.M. Jones [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 4, 2007 07:56 PM

all that wikipedia bashing, but where is the context? it is understandable that anyone who´s education is based on a private investement into Harvard needs to treat capitalism as a second thermodynamic natural law. nevertheless we live in a post-cybernetic age, information is information not matter or energy. problems ahead like global warming need knowledge systems which are more effective than US/Wipo scientific politics which focus on intellectual property protectionism.
the knowledge economy of wikipedia is so brutally effective BECAUSE of the absence of money. it is a new type of human organisation which is there to stay, as an alternative to national institutions such as the library of congress or its private counterpart google.
why this tunnel vision when it comes to economic systems? (look on china or the british public train network) some flows of information, as the communication between people, the care for children or parents, brain activity and even this commentary do not directly involve economic activity, right?
information/knowledge as well as human enthusiasm does not always come with a price tag. that`s why some people fear wikipedia. did they also despise Diderot and D´Alemebert back in the early days of enlightment? Dungeons & Dragon`s? Hey old media PR business, give us a break!

Posted by: pitsch [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 04:30 AM

Pitsch's putsch. I like it.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 08:27 AM

The Essjay debacle reminds me of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz:

"Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma."

Now the Tin Man turns out not to have a diploma (or four). So what? If the articles he wrote don't stand up now, well guess what, they didn't stand up back when he was Ph.D^4.

Wikipedia isn't an encyclopedia. It's the world's largest peer-reviewed journal. Implicit in peer-reviewed journals is the credo that nothing is right until proven so, regardless of the author's pedigree. Generally speaking, if an "authority" hoodwinks the readers of Wikipedia for long, it's because we didn't do our jobs, perhaps because we were dazzled by some fancy abbreviations.

Don't get me wrong, I love Wikipedia and use it all the time. But when my information must be right, it is my FIRST source, not my last, and I treat its articles the same way I treat email attachments from strangers.

Posted by: Joel P [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 11:30 AM

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