Submitted by Mathew Ingram
Hardly a month goes by without some new dustup involving Wikipedia — either because someone edited their own entry, or because someone bitched about not being able to edit their own entry, or because someone paid someone else to edit an entry.
The latest brouhaha concerns a New Yorker piece that quoted a senior Wikipedia administrator named Essjay, a person described as a tenured professor of religion at a private U.S. university.
As it turns out, Essjay is no such thing. His real name is Ryan Jordan, and he doesn’t have a degree in theology or canon law (as his Wikipedia profile claims), nor does he teach at any kind of educational institution. He is 24, and works for Wikia, the for-profit company started by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. And what was the response to the New Yorker piece? Jimmy Wales told the New Yorker that he regards Essjay’s fake profile as “a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.” On his talk page at Wikipedia he says:
“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.”
There is much discussion on the talk page about how Ryan Jordan maintained a fake profile under a pseudonym because he wanted to protect himself from “stalkers” such as Daniel Brandt, who runs a site called Wikipedia Watch that is critical of the open-source encyclopedia and regularly reveals the identities of Wikipedia editors. Others such as Chris Edwards point out, however, that Jordan was using his fake profile before Brandt started becoming a nuisance, not to mention the fact that fear of stalkers doesn’t explain why Jordan regularly cited his fake credentials.
Others at Wikipedia are arguing that Essjay was a valuable contributor to Wikipedia, that none of the editing he has done is being questioned (although perhaps it should be), and that a person’s actual biographical details should be irrelevant. Even Jimmy Wales seems to feel that Jordan’s misinformation was a harmless mistake, since he has appointed him to the arbitration committee.
I would argue that both Wales and Jordan’s supporters are wrong. Whether Essjay’s work at Wikipedia is above reproach isn’t the point. The point is that Wikipedia already has people questioning its credibility right and left, and the fact that a supposed expert — one who was put forward by Wikipedia itself as an authority on the project, not to mention a shining example of how it works — would effectively lie to the New Yorker is beyond the pale. If Wikipedia wants to have any claim to credibility at all, Essjay should be fired.
Essjay has made a statement on his talk page, and still maintains that he disguised his identity to protect himself from trolls and stalkers. Why he made up the credentials is not explained, although he says that the New Yorker never asked him about his profile or mentioned his qualifications from his profile page, and that he expected the magazine to check those facts. He says it was his impression that it was “well known that I was not who I claimed to be.”