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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.)