Sunday, March 11, 2007

Essjay's world

Essjay's world
March 03, 2007

Head Wikipedian Jimmy Wales, having previously defended the Wikipedian administrator Ryan Jordan, who faked an elaborate online identity - "Essjay" - as a distinguished religion scholar, has this morning asked his beleaguered colleague to resign, saying that his "past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on."
Writes Wales:
I have been for several days in a remote part of India with little or no Internet access. I only learned this morning that EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes. 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 have asked EssJay to resign his positions of trust within the community ... Despite my personal forgiveness, I hope that he will accept my resignation request, because forgiveness or not, these positions are not appropriate for him now.

Wales also offers fatherly counsel to other Wikipedians: "In terms of the full parameters of what happens next, I advise (as usual) that we take a calm, loving, and reasonable approach ... Wikipedia is built on (among other things) twin pillars of trust and tolerance. The integrity of the project depends on the core community being passionate about quality and integrity, so that we can trust each other. The harmony of our work depends on human understanding and forgiveness of errors."

There's something poignant about this whole episode, as Seth Finkelstein points out: "As I read further about the scandal ... I ended up feeling more sadness for [Jordan] than anger. In fact, I think some of the fury at him from critics, while very understandable, is a bit misplaced. [Wikipedia] 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')." Finkelstein notes that Jordan's alter ego - a tenured professor of theology with four degrees - represents "what he wants to be ... what he wishes he was. And Wikipedia gave him the opportunity to represent himself as this fantasy."

Finkelstein points to a remarkable letter that "Essjay" wrote to a real college professor, defending the integrity of his beloved encyclopedia. It reads in part:
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 to gain an idea of my background and credentials. I am contacting you because I was contacted by one of your students concerning an email you sent to one of your classes ... I find it very disturbing that you included the statement "it is my understanding that anyone can put anything there, and it is not vetted for accuracy." ... 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 ... Let me leave you with a quote from our founder, Jimmy Wales, which puts our mission into words with Jimmy's amazing ability for clarity: "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing."

It would take someone wiser than I to peel back all the layers of self-deception found here. Marshall Poe, who wrote a long and rather starry-eyed article on Wikipedia for the Atlantic last year, suggested in an interview that the Wikipedia phenomenon has its roots in the craze, during the 70s and 80s, for the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons. "Wales and all of these guys were involved in that stuff," Poe said. "They loved playing those games." In Dungeons & Dragons, he continued,
you took on a new identity, you inhabited a different world, you could act in ways you’d never acted before, ways that weren’t consistent with your real-life community but were consistent with that new world. It was really very liberating, a vessel for your imagination and also for your intelligence. Because a “world” had to be consistent. That was one of the rules. You couldn’t just do anything. So it could become very Byzantine, very complex.

In the byzantine world of Wikipedia, with its arcane language, titles, and rules and its multitude of clans, Essjay wore the robes of a wizard. He was allowed to stand beside - and to serve - Jimbo the White. Together, they would bring "knowledge" to the unenlightened masses. But then the Wizard Essjay tried to slip through the gates of the real. Now the game is up.

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