Wikipedia Oops

For the record, I do not hate Wikipedia, as I tried to make clear here. As a showcase of communal knowledge, it is astonishingly interesting and useful. But it is also, alas, a showcase of communal knowledge, which can lead to complications.

There are other issues too. Back in July, Stacy Shiff published a really interesting piece about Wikipedia in The New Yorker. This week’s edition of the magazine carries an editor’s note (which can be found at the end of the article online) about one of the main sources in the Schiff article, a Wikipedia site administrator and contributor known as Essjay, described in the piece as “a tenured professor of religion at a private university” with “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.” But — well, oops. Here’s the bulk of the editor’s note:

Essjay was recommended to Ms. Schiff as a source by a member of Wikipedia’s management team because of his respected position within the Wikipedia community. He was willing to describe his work as a Wikipedia administrator but would not identify himself other than by confirming the biographical details that appeared on his user page. At the time of publication, neither we nor Wikipedia knew Essjay’s real name. Essjay’s entire Wikipedia life was conducted with only a user name; anonymity is common for Wikipedia administrators and contributors, and he says that he feared personal retribution from those he had ruled against online. Essjay now says that his real name is Ryan Jordan, that he is twenty-four and holds no advanced degrees, and that he has never taught. He was recently hired by Wikia-a for-profit company affiliated with Wikipedia-as a “community manager”; he continues to hold his Wikipedia positions. He did not answer a message we sent to him; 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.

This is hardly a felony, but it does make you wonder about what else happens at Wikipedia that Jimmy Wales doesn’t have a problem with. For me, a more interesting question is the degree of Schiff’s error: should she, e.g., have insisted on some verification of Essjay’s credentials, or at least omitted his academic claims. This illustrates, if nothing else, how journalists get lied to, pretty regularly.

Also, FWIW, has anyone else noticed that Wikipedia entries often exhibit a rather serious interest in a subject’s religious background — particularly if the subject is Jewish? It turns out that Sergey Brin of Google has also noticed this. (I am about to get on a plane so I do not have time to look, but I am curious to know how Brin’s Wikipedia entry has changed since the article linked above was published.)


In the real world, on this planet, people get fired for misleading colleagues about their professional credentials. In a workspace defined by mass collaboration, we readers and writers alike are his colleagues, not just his co-workers at the company. You get fired if you lie on your resume, because it makes you a liar. Integrity should mean something. Lying and justifying it through a cynical, obligatory apology isn't honorable - it's and convenient.


All that Brin's Wikipedia entry now says about his religion is that he was born in Moscow to a Jewish family.


Wikipedia just reflects the contributer's interests and prejudices. This is entirely to be expected. I feel the problem is really in those people who expect it to be fact-checked and even-handed.


I've noticed that a lot more wtih articles written about Americans. If you look at the articles written about minor British celebs (articles more likely to be written by Brits) it mentions their religion/ethnicity far less regularly.


So what are you saying?

Are the evil celebs listed as jewish more often than the good celebs? In other words, is someone trying to denigrate jews?

Or are all the good jewish celebs being clearly denoted as such? So someone is trying to show how great jews are?


I had to laugh at the “a tenured professor of religion at a private university” with “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.

Any 24 year old could immitate one of those!


American seem caught up in silly things , who really cares what this guy passes himself as , if those who like him believe him , thats ok
we all need to believe in someone and we all have been duped ....
what difference between this and people who believe they are pyhcics? if no one ever believed in Pychics no one would ever claim to be one ....


Wikipedia articles routinely show significant bias, especially in issues related to religion. Not much of a surprise, really. The only people motivated enough to perform the labor of love that is editing and writing articles without compensation tend to populate the extremes of the religious and/or political spectrum.


Steven, Did you happen to catch the article in the WSJ yesterday (Feb 27th) titled "Is an economist qualified to Solve Puzzle of Autism" - just wondering what your thoughts are. Seems like a case of correlation versus cause as you talked about in Freakonomics. Leaving this on the most recent autism comments post(Nov 06)as well.


No matter what you read, there is going to be some degree of bias because no one is immune. For the most part, Wikipedia provides what people need, provided it is not taken as gospel.

That said, the anonymity that Wikipedia provides makes it easier for someone to give a false resume, gain some power, and then use their supposed pedigree to intimidate others from questioning their facts.

As CEO of a new human-powered search engine, Bessed, I am seeing that our editor reviews sometimes make Webmasters angry because we say things about their sites that they don't like or that theyfeel are inaccurate. But we are doing so honestly and not under cover of anonymity, and we encoyrage them to engage us and let us know of their issues with our content, and we hope that makes us more credible.


Its sweeping statements like "American(s) seem caught up in silly things" that make me ill. For one just because you (Randyfromcanada) think something is silly doesn't mean it is. And two how do you know the nationality of the editor. We know the world tends to think of Americans as superfluous. Maybe if Canada would get off their beer swollen butts instead of pointing out others possible downfalls the world would be a tiny bit better.


Jews are the great evil of the world. And they killed christ.

How do I know? Because as a kid growing up in the south, I attended some of the numerous "Passion Plays" that showed to us kids in a quite graphic and even lurid style just what the jews did to christ. Believe me, based on these plays, it was no picnic for him.

The plays worked as intended. Not one of us kids ever allowed the many jews of the area to convert us to their evil jewish religion.

Then growing up, I tried to get my many friends to go see Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. I told them they would learn everything they needed to know about the world from this one movie.

One by one, my friends reported back that yes indeed it was bad for the poor fellow. The movie was very graphic. But in their minds, they could not believe that Mel meant this to be an anti-semitic movie.

I bided my time. Soon, liquor loosened his lips. The truth will out. And it did. Mell shouted to the world, "jews are responsible for all the wars in the world".

So there, I thought. My world view as learned as a child has been vindicated by a true hero. The world was safe again.

The End.



Now here's the really strange thing about Wikipedia.

Under "Antisemitism", Wiki describes quite correctly the role of Passion Plays. But under the topic "Passion Play", it never mentions a link to antisemitism.

These kind of missing cross links, I think, accurately describe what is troubling most about Wikipedia. Maybe you could just call it lack of consistency.


To me the most important part of this post is Dubner's astute remark, "it does make you wonder about what else happens at Wikipedia that Jimmy Wales doesn't have a problem with."

Whether editorial/mainstream press likes it or not, and despite valid criticism, Wikipedia seems to have cemented its spot as the de facto source for "all things true."

Given this position of power, keeping Wales as a final arbiter and policy maker (or any single person for that matter) presents a serious problem.

A better solution would be to have a "wise committee" that is elected (and impeached) on a regular basis (e.g. month-long terms) from their performance as site moderators. Moderators should be just as easily demoted as promoted, with the top-level committee being the supreme court, deciding only issues that are constitutional w.r.t. wikipedia as an institution.


Here's what stinks about this whole incident: Jimmy Wales (and other senior admins on Wikipedia) frequently wring their hands when "mainstream reporters" with a critical view of the project OBVIOUSLY came to that conclusion because they DIDN'T FIRST CONSULT an authority within Wikipedia to obtain "the truth".

Well, here we have a case of a reporter who did just that, and she was lied to. Blatantly. And now her own and her publisher's reputations suffer. Little reputation damage seems to swing back to Wales and Wikipedia, though.

It's also really interesting that within just a couple of weeks, "Essjay" was personally appointed by Jimmy Wales (without a community vote) to the Arbitration Committee on Wikipedia -- just about the most inner of inner circles among volunteers in that organization; AND "Essjay" (a.k.a. Ryan Jordan) was hired by Jimmy Wales to work at the for-profit affiliate of Wikipedia, Wikia Inc.

The way "process" is being run over roughshod at the Wikimedia Foundation, one could possibly even speculate (SATIRE ALERT) that Essjay has incriminating photos of Jimbo with an amorous donkey -- and we'd never be able to tell the difference, based on the actions thus executed.

I'm sure a prominent Wikipedia admin like David Gerard or Guy Chapman will be along shortly to tell us to "Move along, nothing to see here."

I hope they'll point out the page in Essjay's talk archives where a few prominent Wikipedians called him to task for lying, but the hive scrambled to defend -- no, praise! -- his obfuscation.



The problem is that people take wikipedia as absolute fact even though it should just be a reference. The great part about it is that they cover such a wide range of subjects. The dead tree version of encyclopedias could not fact check the number of articles listed in wikipedia.

We can't have a perfect world (for free). You either get a smaller toolset that's fact checked by paid fact checkers, or a wider toolset that may be filled with errors or author-bias written by volunteers. The internet has proven it's not about promoting the smaller toolsets, and I think that's a good thing. There is great responsibility on the reader to be aware, just like the way Sergei Brin is aware.


I am curious as to what you think about the non-anonymous, expert-edited Citizendium?



The internet can be a very cruel place, and harassment of persons in real life is a serious it is not unusual that some people have decided to post information about themselves that is not factual, in the hopes that their real life identities won't be subject to real life harassment. In the case of Wikipedia, most administrators use a psudonem and hide their real life identities to protect themselves from harassment and identity theft, but mainly just because they enjoy their privacy. Anyone who posts on the web should be careful about reveiling their real life names and other information. I have to honestly state that Essjay probably misrepresented his credentials to protect himself from harassment. If I had a dollar for everytime a politican also misrepresented information to the press, well, I'd have a lot of dollars. Essjay is one of the finest contributors to the Wikipedia project and as someone who has been stalked, had death threats emailed to them and has been involved in assisting others defeat harassment online, I don't see any real issue here.



Everyone take a deep breadth and count to 10.

Now, ask yourself three questions:
1) Do I use Wikipedia? Answer: Yes.
2) Do I rely on it for anything truly important? Answer: not if I am very smart.
3) Do these answers change if you asked them 15 years ago about your favorite book type encyclopedia? Answer: No.

So what is the big deal?

P.S. Was the book encylopedia biased and at least somewhat anti-semetic? Answer: Sadly, it was.


A general note on Wikipedia (and wikis in general):

Discussing and questioning the entire process (as seen here and in many other print and online sources) helps to improve Wikipedia's product. Everytime "the problem with Wikipedia is..." is written, it moves us closer to finding solutions to improve upon what currently exists.