Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Friday, March 02, 2007

Oy. There's a complicated, messy scandal unfolding.

Update: Wales has asked Essjay to resign his positions at Wikipedia. Wales was in rural India when the scandal broke and didn't have reliable internet access.

Essjay, one of the most powerful admins on Wikipedia, presented himself for years as a 40-something "tenured professor of religion at a private university with a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law" (on his user page and to the New Yorker magazine -- scroll to the bottom for their correction)

In fact Essjay is a 24-year-old from Kentucky. At first this story seems like a standard case of con-artistry, and I wasn't going to cover it because it looked like someone self-destructing. But I don't think that's what's going on. Let's count the unexpectednesses:

1. Essjay outed himself.
2. He outed himself quietly * on his Wikia profile page after Wikia hired him. (Wikia is Jimmy Wales' wiki-community startup.)
3. Talking to the New Yorker, Jimmy apparently stood behind Essjay: 'Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikia and of Wikipedia, said of Essjay’s invented persona, "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it."' **

To paraphrase Neal Stephenson, this story is fractally weird: each microscopic part of it is just as weird as the whole thing.

So what gives? Essjay says he invented the persona to protect himself from "trolls, stalkers, and psychopaths who wander around Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects looking for people to harass, stalk, and otherwise ruin the lives of" -- wikipedia-watch's Daniel Brandt (who claims to have dug up the story, though as far as I can tell he just found the Wikia profile and contacted the New Yorker) seems crazy enough *** for me to sort of believe it. After years deep in the Wikipedia trenches, conducting the sort of business that has to be conducted (like banning spammers and neonazis) maybe you're exposed to lots of dangerous characters. You don't have to look hard for people who've gotten death threats.

But with some perspective: this is a big deal. Essjay's apparently used his fake credentials to influence wiki content, for one. I don't know who can read this without feeling a twinge of betrayal, even if Essjay did donate thousands of hours of his time to Wikipedia and is by all accounts a really cool guy.

The whole thing plays into the worst generalizations about Wikipedia and scares off the real academics it needs to attract. Wikipedia is self-reinforcing: it works best when its contributors take it seriously. Thankfully, they do. Cyde Weys sez:

...for every page I mentioned here, there was an active talk page full of people arguing that I didn’t link. So double the number of pages devoted to this one incident.

Wikipedians aren’t taking this one lying down. They’ve already written over a megabyte of text on the incident. Wikipedians are, if nothing else, creators of voluminous amounts of text. They also realize the importance of what Essjay did and how bad it makes Wikipedia look, and most of them want some action taken to rectify the situation.

* Essjays says most of the Wikipedians he knows well already knew he wasn't a professor. But (charitably) he obviously got carried enough away with his persona to pass himself off to a New Yorker editor. (This story hurts them, too: "It only took the magazine's vaunted fact-checking department seven months to discover that Essjay is actually a 24-year-old named Ryan Jordan who has never taught anything and holds no advanced degrees.")

** Wales was in India when he talked to the New Yorker, and perhaps not adequately informed.

*** Brandt devotes himself to exposing the real-world identities of Wikipedia admins. An understandable goal, I guess, but "abrasive and paranoid" doesn't begin to describe him. I haven't been following his hijinks closely, but I get the feeling that a lot of people spend a lot of energy trying not to interact with him.

Bonus: A commenter at Freakonomics points out that in academic arenas, words sometimes speak louder than actions:

One of the major contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary only corresponded by letter (and did so for free, I believe). He had plenty of time to write up his letters, because he was locked up in one of England’s Asylums for the Criminally Insane. The guy running the project didn’t know this for quite some time, and it doesn’t change that even while mad, he contributed something valuable. (Check out which seems to be a book on it for confirmation) I’d be worried much more about the pretentious mediocrities than the simply lying, criminal, or crazy types.

And here's an interesting comment from digg, of all places:

The demand for knowledge is being catered by wikipedia and as usual demand fuels supply thus the only way forward is for authoritative academics move on to the virtual world and take advantage of the medium. Maybe citizendum might fill in gaps however, wikipedia should always exist as a glorified sandbox. The bottom line is this is no big deal. Jimmy Wales did the right thing.. a 24 year old spent a major part of his life building up knowledge. i understand him.. i hope you too

Also be sure to read Kelly Martin's commentary (one, two, three), which is much less forgiving than mine.

Finally, Andew Lih has the clearest summation I've seen.

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