March 01, 2007
What The New Yorker Article Fraud Tells Us About Wikipedia
Executive summary: This is the delusion Wikipedia fosters - it's
what it is, how it runs.
As I read further about the scandal where Wikipedia administrator
and now Wikia employee "Essjay" / Ryan Jordan pretended to be a
"a tenured professor of religion at a private university" with "a
Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.", I ended up feeling more
sadness for him than anger. In fact, I think some of the fury at him
from critics, while very understandable, is a bit misplaced.
One of the points I try to make about Wikipedia, and am usually
ignored because one type of pundit wants to sneer at Wikipedia's large
amount of pop-culture, while another type of pundit wants to hype it as
the self-emergent ubermind, is that it 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"). It won't
deliver. All that'll happen is those citizen-lunchmeats will work for
free, while the Wikia investors will reap the rewards. But it's a
And "Essjay" / Ryan Jordan is that dream's poster child:
Yes, I'm a professor.
I am a tenured professor of theology at a private university in the
eastern United States; I teach both undergraduate and graduate theology.
My Academic Degrees:
* Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (B.A.)
* Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.)
* Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology (Ph.D.)
* Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD)
That's what he wants to be. That's what he wishes he was.
And Wikipedia gave him the opportunity to represent himself as this fantasy.
Part of his pattern of misrepresentation includes a letter to a professor (my emphasis)
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 (linked below) to gain an idea of my background
and credentials. ...
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.
This is a fascinating letter to read, especially with
knowledge that the writer is a fraud. The themes just leap out at you:
1) I am academically respectable
2) Wikipedia should be academically respectable
3) We're wonderful people, the God-King has "amazing ability for clarity".
(ironically used to describe a passage which is a model of smoke-blowing!)
And it's a very nice letter too. The sort of thing written either by a slick
con man who is cleverly utterly false, or a delusional personality who
is playing a role so deeply as to believe it with every fiber of his being.
It's no surprise that he was
to be "community manager". This is exactly the sort of
person they want for their community!
I'm tempted to go to certain A-listers and ask them, "NOW, with this
blatant example right in front of you, do you
understand my argument about what's wrong with Wikipedia?".
But I know better, and in their way, I suspect they know better :-(.
[Credit where due: Some references publicized by
UPDATE 3/1: Jimmy Wales comments on the controversy:
In his "talk page" discussion, Wales
By Seth Finkelstein |
posted in wikipedia
on March 01, 2007 12:56 AM
EssJay has always been, and still is, a fantastic editor and trusted member of the community. He apologized to me and to the community for any harm caused. Trolls are claiming that he "bragged" about it: this is bullshit. He has been thoughtful and contrite about the entire matter and I consider it settled. -- [[User:Jimbo Wales|Jimbo Wales]] 14:40, 1 March 2007 (UTC)
What I've found interesting is that far from considering that he did anything wrong in lying to the press and others about who he was and what he did, Jimbo has rewarded Essjay. He is an arbitrator now, considered fit by Jimbo to sit in judgement over his fellows. Clearly, integrity is not considered a prerequisite for the wiki aristocracy!
See, I told you Wikipedia needed a reputation system. :-p
Wikipedia is a trainwreck. If this guy remains in the encyclopedia's management after perpetrating a fraud on the media, there's no accountability there at all.
I think you're drastically oversimplifying what's going on here, Seth. Have you ever considered that online communities should encourage this sort of identity play? That it's a *good* thing that Essjay was able to create this online identity for himself and share his knowledge with the Wikipedia "community"? (I put scare quotes around community because, like you, I have big doubts about whether Wikipedia is a community or a system of control.) Anyways this is not as cut and dry as you imagine.
"Have you ever considered that online communities should encourage this sort of identity play? That it's a *good* thing that Essjay was able to create this online identity for himself and share his knowledge with the Wikipedia "community"?"
I'm all ears. How exactly does lying about ones credentials translate into being "good" for a resource that at root is *supposed* to be based on factual information? I'll hang up and take my answer off the air, should one be forthcoming.
Dr. Zen: It's the specific kind of lack of integrity that's so interesting. Many organizations have a "lying to outsiders is OK" belief - and this says something profound about the organization.
Crosbie: It *does* have a reputation system. The system is very much internal though, that's the problem. The point is that Essjay is a *GOOD* Wikipedian!
Rogers: Welcome to Web 2.0. Accountability is an old-media concept. Web 2.0 organization are only accountable to their "customers".
ocean: Yes, I've considered it. I'm against it. This is not identity-play like pretending to be a lesbian Furry in some role-playing game. This is the real world, where the name for identity player is confidence hustler.
For a moment, let me come to Essjay's defense. He said he needed to create this alternate persona in order to hide from online "trolls" and "stalkers" who (in his words) are:
"people right here on this website who derive sick pleasure from tearing apart the lives of people who have never done anything to them at all: People have lost thier jobs, have been harassed by the police, have had thier lives torn apart because they dared to help write an encyclopedia."
Okay, if we take that at face value, we might understand the need to hide one's identity. I'm not sure it defends creating a whole list of fake credentials, though. Couldn't the same anonymity (actually BETTER anonymity) have been achieved by writing, "My name is Mickey Mouse, and I have an advanced degree in Cheese Consumption Studies"?
But, looking back to Mr. Jordan's justification for lying, is even THAT statement the least bit true? Is there any documented evidence whatsoever that (other than vandals/pranksters like Brian Chase and the eventual Fuzzy Zoeller culprit at Josef Silny Associates) anyone has lost a job because of Wikipedia? Is there any evidence that someone has been harrassed by the police because of Wikipedia? I won't even ask to show how any Wikipedia contributor's life has been "torn apart", because it's just so outlandish. The only person whose life might be "torn apart" right now is Ryan Jordan's -- and that's because he lied to avoid having his life "torn apart".
I have led a very open, transparent discussion on Wikipedia, using my real name, my real e-mail address, my real home address (is easily found), and even leaving my cell phone number in numerous dialogues, and I can tell you that hundreds of people disapprove of me.
I have never once felt threatened.
I've felt defamed. I've felt misunderstood. But never threatened.
After reading your post Seth and the post at Hacking Cough it struck me. Forget about what this says about the veracity of their entries.
What does this say about Wikipedia's hiring practices?
You would think they would check the backgrounds of employees?
Who is their CPA?
A bookie who always dreamed of being an accountant?
If it was revealed an editor at Britannica lied to get the job, and the management of Britannica said "we don't care", one can only imagine the consequences to their bottom line, but the prospects would be very poor indeed. Fortunately(?), we don't have to imagine outrage from the nitwits at Wikipedia at such an exposure.
I concur with Seth: confidence trick. All the symptoms are present. The denial from the marks -- Wales and his sycophants -- would be hilarious if this trick was not so mean. "But he was sooo nice!" It is a common refrain from the most sycophantic boobs at WP that Brandt is an on-going bleed, harming the project, etc. Yet anything he may have done is a tiny particle compared to this.
"This is the real world, where the name for identity player is confidence hustler."
Um, no. Wikipedia is not by any stretch of the imagination the 'real world.' In the real world Essjay's lying wouldn't been immediately obvious. Wikipedia is a virtual community and thus its subject to those forces that guide all virtual communities. One of these forces is the ability for members to create their identity from scratch.
"How exactly does lying about ones credentials translate into being "good" for a resource that at root is *supposed* to be based on factual information?"
This is the interesting thing about Wikipedia but see this isn't exactly the case either. ANYBODY can edit Wikipedia. There is no regard for author's as 'authorities' in any sense. What exactly are you supposed to think when you see that 'Anonymous' edited an entry? How is this different from what you see when you see that 'Essjay' edited the entry? Essjay's identity was not intended for the readers of Wikipedia at all (who generally have no regard for individual authors) but for other Wikipedians. It doesn't matter *who* writes Wikipedia articles--that's the point. It's quite difficult to go through an article and determine who said what... and people never ever take the time to do so. So any author should feel free to say most anything about himself since in the end they are all essentially 'anonymous.'
This affair says nothing about the factual accuracy of Wikipedia but it does highlight the fact that Wikipedia authors aren't persons the way we imagine authors should be. There is a kind of human impersonation going on here. And this is the scary part. Wikipedia, like a lot of major institutions and corporations, pretends to speak in a single voice. This does lead to false sense of authority, exactly the authority we reserve for real authors.
"I have led a very open, transparent discussion on Wikipedia, using my real name, my real e-mail address, my real home address (is easily found), and even leaving my cell phone number in numerous dialogues, and I can tell you that hundreds of people disapprove of me."
Could you do the same thing if you were 14? You do realize that lots of Wikipedia authors are young men (14-24, like Ryan) who are rightfully insecure and have a vested interest in protecting their real world identity as their career is not firmly established?
Anyways the issues raised by this episode are important but the blanket condemnation is useless. Preach against Wikipedia all you want if it makes you feel good but know that preaching, as a rule, is rarely very enlightening.
ocean: Wikia is a corporation with $14 MILLION DOLLARS of venture capital investment. Wikipedia is held out as proving all sort of nonsense about a New Era, by academics who should know better, but are seduced by the concept, or worse, the attention and even the money. This is not a MMORG (World Of Warcraft, etc.), even if it sometimes looks like one. You don't get to say, what character-class will I play today, I know, let me choose Professor Of Theology. The fraud was used in a major media article, not just a discussion on an IRC channel.
/me coughs up hairball in disgust
[That's MUD-style emoting, for people who don't get the joke]
"Wikipedia is not by any stretch of the imagination the 'real world.'"
Terminal denial. You may wish to play games with identity inside your little universe, but when these are played outside there are consequences that all your little ArbCom rulings, RFC's and related bureaucratic bafflegab can not repair.
I'm quite happy to recognise that Wikipedia has a lousy (if not corrupt) reputation system. When I said it needed one, I meant it needed a GOOD one (not centralised and corruptible).
Wikipedia gives us a glimpse of the potential for completely decentralised, public works. That Wikipedia isn't decentralised may well reveal the doom of Wikipedia, but it does not doom all similarly collaborative works by the public.
As for identities, these do not need to be personally identifiable (relate to real persons), but that doesn't mean they're exempt from veracity, e.g. pretending to have law degrees, etc.
There's a difference between a dissociated identity and a fantasy persona.
'Alpha49' may evince expertise in a particular area and become regarded as a foremost expert in their field, without anyone needing to know their human identity (if there is a good meritocratic reputation system to record and authenticate this).
Essjay claimed to have qualifications from academic institutions in the "real world", drew on those qualifications to ask a "real world" professor to give Wikipedia more respect, and confirmed these qualifications to a "real world" magazine reporter. All of this was apparently in pursuit of a goal that many Wikipedians share: to get people in the "real world" to trust Wikipedia as an authoritative information source. In the "real world", when people in positions of trust are caught flagrantly lying about themselves or tolerating subordinates who do, they lose credibility, even when the things lied about are not directly related to the job the liars were trusted to do.
There are plenty of collaborative sites on the Internet that are thoroughly self-referential and make no serious claim to be relevant for anything more than the entertainment of their participants. (E.g., Uncyclopedia and Agora.) Wikipedia has never been one of them.
"You don't get to say, what character-class will I play today, I know, let me choose Professor Of Theology. The fraud was used in a major media article, not just a discussion on an IRC channel"
I don't see how you can say that. The case of Essjay proves that Wikipedians create their identities just like other members of virtual (and real) communities do. Whether you think they should do that is irrelevant. Your 'don't's and your 'should's' are of zero importance to the Wikipedia community which has developed its own morality that emphatically states that who you are in the "real world" doesn't matter.
"Essjay claimed to have qualifications from academic institutions in the "real world", drew on those qualifications to ask a "real world" professor to give Wikipedia more respect, and confirmed these qualifications to a "real world" magazine reporter."
This isn't true at all. You're intentionally twisting the facts to make it look like there was a willful deception here. Essjay created his online identity, began contributing to Wikipedia, and 16,000 articles later some reporter decided to do a story on him. The fact that he turns out to be some kid in the middle of nowhere is just cream on cake since it demonstrates how strange Wikipedia really is. Again, to the extent that there was deception here, it wasn't aimed at the "real world." It was very much a form of roleplay that you find all over the internet.
Why lie, ocean? Especially when the lies are trivially exposed? When the lie has no purpose whatsoever? Seth Gordon accurately describes Essjay's actions:
If you are unable to see the deep problem, then you just aren't reading English as it is normally understood.
Essjay created his online identity, began contributing to Wikipedia, and 16,000 articles later some reporter decided to do a story on him.
Even before he was contacted by the press, Essjay represented himself as "a tenured professor of theology" in a letter to a college professor. And when he was interviewed by the New Yorker, he vouched for the accuracy of the biography on his user page (instead of telling the reporter "actually, it's accepted practice for Wikipedia editors to fib about their biographical details, so you shouldn't trust what I say there"). Neither the (real) professor or the reporter saw themselves as involved in some kind online role-playing game. They were in the "real world" and Essjay lied to them, knowing that his lie would enhance his status in their eyes.
If all the role-playing had stayed within the Wikipedia community--if, say, one editor posing as a Doctorate in Canon Law was involved in an extended edit war with another editor posing as an Archbishop--then nobody outside the Wikipedia community would have cared about it.
"Um, no. Wikipedia is not by any stretch of the imagination the 'real world.'"
This has already been addressed upthread, but this got a small chuckle out of me as I recalled a friend of mine who was having "troll" problems on her site. When confronted, the troll said "this isn't the real world, it's a freakin' blog!" That spoke volumes.
Ah, you got me there. Sorry about that. I wasn't aware of that letter. That was a scummy thing to do and yes, it does cross the line.
"contributing... 16,000 articles"
Sifting through the shades of grey here, I can see why Jimmy Wales may have some respect for Essjay's
He thought he was pranking the main stream media but he did do some good work for Wikipedia... and Jimmy is standing by the quantity and the quality of the guys work taken as a whole.
He's going to learn something about the wrath of the media when you expose your "world changing" project to ridicule for doing something ethically questionable. Welcome to the world of politics, dude. Be prepared to be sacrificed due to forces beyond your control. The shitstorm commeth.
This is somewhat like the Edward's blogger connections. When there's this much money and power involved there are consequences to being caught lying or using poor judgement.
What typically follows is some legal actions (follow the money) and some really bad legislation. And we'll have Essjay to thank for giving them the stick to beat wikipedia with.
Set your timer for Jimmy Wales reversing his support due to political pressures. I'll respect him more if he sticks by his employee. But I think it's OK to screw up if your heart is in the right place. Who was harmed, I ask myself. The real harm seems yet to come.
Forgiveness and redemption can follow a transgression. That would be my positive outcome.
We need more people to admit that they screwed up and step down or be admonished by their organization and not given a "trial by blogs".
" All that'll happen is those citizen-lunchmeats will work for free, while the Wikia investors will reap the rewards. "
Wikia is a company separate from Wikipedia. Wikipedia is hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit.
The only relationships between the two:
* The former chair of the Wikimedia board of trustees (Jimmy Wales) is now working for Wikia.
* Wikia hires people with experience dealing with wikis, thus tends to hire people who worked on Wikipedia.
" It's no surprise that he was hired to be "community manager". This is exactly the sort of person they want for their community! "
He has been hired at *Wikia*. Essjay has no management position in the Wikimedia Foundation. Wikimedia Foundation employees and board members are listed on www.wikimediafoundation.org
Just to make it clear: Essjay was hired by Wikia, not by Wikipedia. Wikipedia doesn't have employees, or even any legal existence. The Wikimedia Foundation, which publishes Wikipedia, did not have a qualified accountant until a few months ago, when they hired a part-time bookkeeper. The prior CFO was, as I recall, a biologist.
Essjay's offenses seem minor until you start digging. The more you dig, the more you find that he used his fraudulent claims constantly to build himself up to be more and more important. The only thing that I think we can be thankful for is that Essjay did it in a relatively low-consequence forum (Wikipedia) and didn't hurt anyone too badly. He could just as easily have been using his particular talent for prevarication to have bilked people out of their money, or something equally criminal. Of course, if he gets away with this set of lies, how are we to know that he won't do again (or even that he isn't already doing it again somewhere else)?
David, I know the difference. But Wikia is, for all intents and purposes, the commercial arm of Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation). As in, the way the various people involved are attempted to monetize what they can't monetize due to nonprofit 501(c)(3) status.
Yes, I know there's technical legal separation. The disclaimer is noted, like the people who run around saying "It's Google-brand searching", not "Googling it".
I meant what I wrote - the Wikia managers WANT someone who believes in dream-selling, because that's the fuel which makes Wikipedia and Wikia products all run.
David's pretending that Wikia doesn't sell itself off the back of Wikipedia in a "Brought to you by the people who brought you..." way.
Seth, perhaps you'd blog about what you think about the lying to outsiders issue. I'd be interested to read that. There is certainly an "insiders can do no wrong" mentality, most often displayed in flexibility over the "rules". I was surprised though that Jimbo actually *rewarded* the guy! John Ralston Saul talked about the amorality of corporations -- that corporate employees would do bad things because "it is my job". I think this is somewhat true of Wikipedia. It's not that the people in it are *bad*. They just don't make moral judgements.
Jimbo’s (predictable) real concern in his recent response on his talk page http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:Jimbo_Wales&diff=112270687&oldid=112270647
is that Essjay “used his false credentials in content disputes”, pointing to his concern to further “check diffs” of Essjay.
Also see http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Community_noticeboard&diff=112278999&oldid=112274795
Jimbo claims he did not understand this matter to be one “of violation of people’s trust” and that his “past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on”.
And this seems to point to something indicate otherwise: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:Jimbo_Wales&diff=112282076&oldid=112281864
And when Jimbo claims he did not understand this matter to be one “of violation of people’s trust”, which “people” is he talking about? Only Wikipedians who may have been bluffed by a pull of false credentials? Apparently so, which only confirms the insularity of the system.
Does Jimbo feel Essjay violated the trust of The New Yorker reporters to whom Essjay lied? On this he is silent and it speaks loudly. How about to The New Yorker’s many, many readers? Again, on this he is silent and it speaks loudly.
Wow -(coining?) the term "Citizen Lunchmeats" so cleverly deserves considerable praise.
And I don't say this lightly, I have a bunch of PhD's in Etymology from Oxford, Harvard, and a few other places too.
But aren't you missing the key point about Wikipedia? It's accurate *in spite of* the deceptions. It suggests that accuracy can spring from the wisdom of the crowds even when that crowd may be engaging - at an individual level - in deceptive behavior.
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")
> David, I know the difference. But Wikia is, for all intents and purposes, the commercial arm of Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation).
No, it is not
> As in, the way the various people involved are attempted to monetize what they can't monetize due to nonprofit 501(c)(3) status.
Some of the people in Wikia are people who are involved with Wikipedia. Note, however, that all of Wikipedia's current management is not also at Wikia. Most conspicuously, note that the chair of the current board of trustees has no relationship with Wikia.
Wikia is basically Jimmy Wales' "I'll make a profit out of this Wiki thing" company. However, not everybody involved in Wikipedia, or the Wikimedia Foundation, shares his objectives.
Did I make myself clear?
David, let me put it this way - what short phrase would you suggest to convey IN A WORD TO TWO, to a the general reader, the complicated interrelationship between Wikipedia and Wikia? As in:
"hired at Wikia, the [BlANK] to Wikipedia ..."
associated corporate venture?
The constraint is that it must be a few words, because a dissertation on the topic is a distraction from whatever point being made.
Seth, the relationship between Wikipedia and Wikia is not THAT simple. "Affiliated" could even be close, if Wikipedia were just the English Wikipedia.
But there are a bunch of Wikipedias in other languages (some very large). They don't all use the same "social" model as the English Wikipedia - in fact the English Wikipedia is the only one with a "godking".
I'm not aware of many users from other Wikipedias that got a job at Wikia.
I think in this context "Wikipedia" is taken to imply "English-language Wikipedia" if relevant.
Again, suggested rewrite is?
Essjay's Response Soon After The Controversy Broke Out!
I would like to clear up an oversight on my part. I was, until this morning, under the impression that in my initial post on this subject (in response to a question from Dev920 made some weeks ago) I had made an apology for anyone who felt they were hurt by my decision to use misinformation. In speaking to various different people, including Jimbo, I did make it known that I was sorry that anyone felt hurt by my actions, and I believed I had done so in my initial statement. On re-reading that, I find I did not; it was a rather lengthy statement I had been thinking about for some time, and I seem to have left out a rather critical element of it. So, I rectify that now, with further apologies that it was not included originally, as I pointed people back to that statement in the belief it was complete.
I *am* sorry if anyone in the Wikipedia community has been hurt by my decision to use disinformation to protect myself. I'm not sorry that I protected myself; I believed, and continue to believe, that I was right to protect myself, in light of the problems encountered on the internet in these trying times. I have spoken to all of my close friends here about this, and have heard resoundingly that they understand my position, and they support me. Jimbo and many others in Wikipedia's hierarchy have made thier support known as well. I'm also sorry the New Yorker chose to print what they did about me; there seems to be a belief that I knew they were going to print it, and that is not the case. I spoke with Stacy Shiff for over eight hours; in that time, she asked me about a variety of subjects related to Wikipedia and I have her much to write on. (Those who know me will know I am rarely ever brief in my comments.) That she chose to focus on two rather trivial reverts to [[Justin Timberlake]] and what my userpage said came as a complete surprise to me; it was, quite honestly, my impression that it was well known that I was not who I claimed to be, and that in the absence of any confirmation, no respectible publication would print it. I did not have an advance copy of the article, and indeed, didn't even get the complimentary print copy that others were given when it was published; I asked Stacy to send it to the Foundation for thier use instead. 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.
For two years, I have poured my life into making this site a better place. That many people feel hurt by my decision pains me greatly, and to them I am genuinely sorry. To the stalkers, the trolls, and the vandals, I am not sorry; they are abusive, hateful people, and they have done far worse things than those whole of the Wikipeida Community, myself included, have ever thought about doing. Now, I am going back to what I have always done: Making Wikipedia a better place. (In the immediate present, I'm going to bed, as I've been up for quite a long time.) Tonight, I will be back to my normal routine: Blocking vandals, closing RFAs, tending to the mailing lists, etc. I have no intention of going anywhere, because to do so would be to let the vandals, trolls, and stalkers win.
I have no doubt that others will continue to debate this matter; I have no intention to say anything further, as I have made my statement complete. If anyone needs me, look where the work of keeping the encyclopedia running is being done, and you'll probably find me there. [[User:Essjay|'''Essjay''']] [[User talk:Essjay|(Talk)]] 16:06, 1 March 2007 (UTC)
Here is the website address below to verify the text: