A Wikipedia Reversal

In the recent dustup over a Wikipedia administrator dubbed Essjay who lied about his academic credentials in a New Yorker profile, here’s how Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales responded when The New Yorker recently ran a correction:

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.

It is unclear from this quote whether Wales was responding generally to Essjay’s use of a pseudonym or the fact that Essjay lied about his credentials. Regardless, Wales’s response struck me, and many others, as stoutly tone deaf.

Here, now, is Wales’s current thinking on the subject, posted on Wikipedia. An excerpt:

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 want to make it perfectly clear that my past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on. Even now, I have not been able to check diffs, etc. I have asked EssJay to resign his positions of trust within the community.

Hmm. Did Wales really not know the scope of Essjay’s deception when he gave the quote to The New Yorker? Did The New Yorker contextually make Wales look more unbothered than he actually was in order to punish him for the original deception? Or has Wales simply seen that the blowback to Wikipedia was greater than he imagined it would be, and decided to reverse course?

(Hat tip: Amit Orit)


Seth Finkelstein

Internet Esquire

Now that Essjay has "retired," many bytes of virtual ink are being spilled on what Jimbo knew and when. I respectfully submit that such questions are wholly irrelevant in light of Jimbo's subsequent remedial measures. Of serious concern is the fact that a significant number of Essjay's supporters are Wikipedians with administrator privileges who are still stuck in denial and are doing their level best to censor any criticism of Essjay from appearing on the Wikipedia website. In a previous blog post - http://blog.xodp.org/2007/03/credentialists-and-impostors.html - I stated that I would like to see Essjay make a fresh start at Wikipedia under the protection of a new, anonymous pseudonym. However, that's not possible unless Essjay retracts his rather bizarre claim about Stacy Schiff purportedly offering him compensation for his time. And given the fact that a substantial number of Wikipedians remain stuck in denial and steadfast in their support of Essjay, it is highly unlikely that he will ever offer a retraction or an apology.

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phineasgage

I wrote something about this last time you linked the story:

http://phineasgage.wordpress.com/2007/02/28/the-good-the-bad-and-the-wikipedia/

To summarise: not caring about deceptive identities is entirely in line with the Wikipedia credo that it is the content, not the signature that matters. As the New Yorker article you linked previously pointed out, Wikipedia puts the well-read 15-year-old on the same level as the Ph.D.

So by that logic, you could argue that it doesn't really matter if EssJay has tenure at a fancy university or not, as long as his contributions are on the mark. He's met with the same trust (or distrust) as any other contributor on Wikipedia, presumably.

As for EssJay's admin positions at Wikipedia, that side of things may be more problematic. You can't check sources on administrative decisions.

RandyfromCanada

Wow talk about dragging a story on ..
1st off honestly what percentage of information on the internet is 100% accurate ? Remember someone must type it in or feed the computor the information .
Secondly and most important who does OVER Value their worth to a successful company ? Even if it means fudging credentials ?

As for the New Yorker all they want is to try to create a "buzz" until the the next ANNA N Smith story comes along

badlydrawnjeff

For Wales to have known at the time of the New Yorker piece is small. Chances are, Wales wasn't even consulted to talk to Jordan when the New Yorker decided to do their piece.

Wales should have known the depths of it when he promoted him to run Wikia things, and later as an arbitrator (one of the most trusted positions) on the English Wikipedia. He had met Jordan at that point and knew that the credentials were false. Wales certainly didn't see the fact that Jordan lied about his PhD and tenureship as a problem, and it only came out in the last week that Jordan was using those falsified positions as leverage in discussions and in letters to off-wiki academics.

So that's where the line is, I think.

Seth Finkelstein

The last paragraph is generating much debate. The critic's theory is that Jimmy Wales regarded lying about credentials to the New Yorker as no big deal, but lying in the Wikipedia community was unacceptable. Thus he keeps saying that until this weekend, he didn't realize how much Essjay was lying in Wikipedia, which is probably true, and deliberately passing over the charge that he did know for weeks that Essjay had lied to the New Yorker, but his attitude was "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it.".

I had earlier sent Jimmy Wales some email to check the accuracy of the quote. He replied last night, but his reply didn't help much in disambiguation.

It's hard to pin him down, since he's not stupid, and it's very understandable that given the firestorm, he'd never want to come out and blatantly admit he didn't care about fraud to the New Yorker.

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william

For what it's worth, Essjay didn't just lie about his credentials. He also had a second string of lies about why he lied and why it was ok. See, for example, this comment from Essjay (the text in green). A reasonable explanation of Jimbo's actions is that he swallowed the cover-up, and that his "no big deal" comments were based on that.

tim in tampa

I questioned the characterization of Wales' quotation from the moment I read it. It just didn't sound like the kind of response a person would make to a background debate. Immediately, I said to myself, "Wales thinks the controversy is that the guy doesn't use his real name when he makes edits," and his more recent response would seem to back that up, if you believe it.

Joe Duck

Subjective insider/outsider ethics seem to be an accepted internet standard of behavior. The problem extends throughout the online world as indicated by the spirited defenses of Jordan's Chicanery over at Wikipedia's talk pages. However, perhaps the big story here is how accurate Wikipedia remais *in spite of* the acceptance of certain types of deception. It's almost a double standard where the article's integrity is important but the author's is not.

Tim C

As long as Jimbo remains the head of Wikipedia, no one will be able to fully trust it.

pkimelma

I hesitate to even comment on this, since it is so "inside baseball" in many ways. But, I think you need to remember the intent of Wikipedia. The original idea was that a generalist writes an article covering some subject, say the Country of Scotland. The article will be broken up into sections covering different aspects. That person cites other works (such as Atlases, Almanacs, and the country's own information on the web). Then, some expert on say Scotch whiskey will go in and add or improve the section on Scotch whiskey. Another expert, on say Scotland during the Dark Ages, will add or improve that section. And so on.
This was a laudable goal. The wisdom of a group, or rather the wisdom of a panel of experts.
The problem has been that there are many malicious people, there are controversial subjects, there are people who think they know more than they do, and so on. So, they have had to refine and revise the model quite a bit. From that has come the problem of how disputes get resolved (to avoid endless mods). My guess is that many of the editor and arbitration level people have chosen to exaggerate their CVs to add authority to settle disputes. In many cases, the disputes are over points that cannot be settled, as they are not settled among experts anyway. Not to excuse his actions, but this is still early days in citizen reference material, just as blogs are early days in citizen journalism.
That said, it is notable that all commercial encyclopedias suffer from many of the same problems, only we do not know why or how they settle anything. If I read an article in a commercial encyclopedia on String theory or Palestinians, I do not know how they settled the natural disputes.
Unless you are an expert in a field, you are at the mercy of whoever is providing the reference source of any material. If you read an article on String theory, what it says will almost assuredly represent one "camp" vs. the other. You may not even know that there is hot debate going on. This is the same discussion we have had about Global Warming. If someone just provides all the opposing views, are you more knowledgeable or less? I would argue less because you have no context. Much of the data provided will be very raw or just arbitrary correlations, but you likely cannot tell which is which.

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egretman

Very nice, pkimelma. I read what you say so cogently and think....well, there is benefit in seeing how the sausage in made in an encyclopedia.

If someone just provides all the opposing views, are you more knowledgeable or less?

Exactly. I want to see the pig squealing and the sausage made. Sometimes I love wikipedia because I can look at the edits. They tell me where the disagreements really are.

Minor Wikipedia contributor

As a minor contributor, I am quite familiar with the original purpose and carefully cultivated culture of the Wikipedia community. I suggest that one weigh the odds of two propositions:

1) The strange idea that the founder of a community intended to advance knowledge would gladly and publicly approve of fraud, vs.

2) The ordinary idea that an out-of-context quotation (published in a relatively unaccountable medium) would give a wrong impression.

Rejecting (2) in favor of (1) seems both absurd and nasty.

Seth Finkelstein

Internet Esquire

Now that Essjay has "retired," many bytes of virtual ink are being spilled on what Jimbo knew and when. I respectfully submit that such questions are wholly irrelevant in light of Jimbo's subsequent remedial measures. Of serious concern is the fact that a significant number of Essjay's supporters are Wikipedians with administrator privileges who are still stuck in denial and are doing their level best to censor any criticism of Essjay from appearing on the Wikipedia website. In a previous blog post - http://blog.xodp.org/2007/03/credentialists-and-impostors.html - I stated that I would like to see Essjay make a fresh start at Wikipedia under the protection of a new, anonymous pseudonym. However, that's not possible unless Essjay retracts his rather bizarre claim about Stacy Schiff purportedly offering him compensation for his time. And given the fact that a substantial number of Wikipedians remain stuck in denial and steadfast in their support of Essjay, it is highly unlikely that he will ever offer a retraction or an apology.

Read more...

phineasgage

I wrote something about this last time you linked the story:

http://phineasgage.wordpress.com/2007/02/28/the-good-the-bad-and-the-wikipedia/

To summarise: not caring about deceptive identities is entirely in line with the Wikipedia credo that it is the content, not the signature that matters. As the New Yorker article you linked previously pointed out, Wikipedia puts the well-read 15-year-old on the same level as the Ph.D.

So by that logic, you could argue that it doesn't really matter if EssJay has tenure at a fancy university or not, as long as his contributions are on the mark. He's met with the same trust (or distrust) as any other contributor on Wikipedia, presumably.

As for EssJay's admin positions at Wikipedia, that side of things may be more problematic. You can't check sources on administrative decisions.

RandyfromCanada

Wow talk about dragging a story on ..
1st off honestly what percentage of information on the internet is 100% accurate ? Remember someone must type it in or feed the computor the information .
Secondly and most important who does OVER Value their worth to a successful company ? Even if it means fudging credentials ?

As for the New Yorker all they want is to try to create a "buzz" until the the next ANNA N Smith story comes along

badlydrawnjeff

For Wales to have known at the time of the New Yorker piece is small. Chances are, Wales wasn't even consulted to talk to Jordan when the New Yorker decided to do their piece.

Wales should have known the depths of it when he promoted him to run Wikia things, and later as an arbitrator (one of the most trusted positions) on the English Wikipedia. He had met Jordan at that point and knew that the credentials were false. Wales certainly didn't see the fact that Jordan lied about his PhD and tenureship as a problem, and it only came out in the last week that Jordan was using those falsified positions as leverage in discussions and in letters to off-wiki academics.

So that's where the line is, I think.

Seth Finkelstein

The last paragraph is generating much debate. The critic's theory is that Jimmy Wales regarded lying about credentials to the New Yorker as no big deal, but lying in the Wikipedia community was unacceptable. Thus he keeps saying that until this weekend, he didn't realize how much Essjay was lying in Wikipedia, which is probably true, and deliberately passing over the charge that he did know for weeks that Essjay had lied to the New Yorker, but his attitude was "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it.".

I had earlier sent Jimmy Wales some email to check the accuracy of the quote. He replied last night, but his reply didn't help much in disambiguation.

It's hard to pin him down, since he's not stupid, and it's very understandable that given the firestorm, he'd never want to come out and blatantly admit he didn't care about fraud to the New Yorker.

You might enjoy these posts:

Wikipedia's Value System

Wikipedia's values

Read more...

william

For what it's worth, Essjay didn't just lie about his credentials. He also had a second string of lies about why he lied and why it was ok. See, for example, this comment from Essjay (the text in green). A reasonable explanation of Jimbo's actions is that he swallowed the cover-up, and that his "no big deal" comments were based on that.