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Essjay scandal

Posted by Richard on March 6, 2007

I like Wikipedia, use it, and consider it a valuable online resource. But I’ve always remained aware of its limitations and appropriately (IMHO) cautious about relying solely on it as a source of information. I’m not as skeptical as some people — such as this contributor to the Techwr-l list:

Did you really say Wikipedia? 😉 It’s like a classroom without a teacher… fun, but no authority.
— Johan Hiemstra

I think that was a bit harsh. Funny, but harsh. But Hiemstra’s skepticism is certainly vindicated by stories like this one:

In a blink, the wisdom of the crowd became the fury of the crowd. In the last few days, contributors to Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, have turned against one of their own who was found to have created an elaborate false identity.

Under the name Essjay, the contributor edited thousands of Wikipedia articles and was once one of the few people with the authority to deal with vandalism and to arbitrate disputes between authors.

To the Wikipedia world, Essjay was a tenured professor of religion at a private university with expertise in canon law, according to his user profile. But in fact, Essjay is a 24-year-old named Ryan Jordan, who attended a number of colleges in Kentucky and lives outside Louisville.

Mr. Jordan contended that he resorted to a fictional persona to protect himself from bad actors who might be angered by his administrative role at Wikipedia. (He did not respond to an e-mail message, nor to messages conveyed by the Wikipedia office.)

The Essjay episode underlines some of the perils of collaborative efforts like Wikipedia that rely on many contributors acting in good faith, often anonymously and through self-designated user names. But it also shows how the transparency of the Wikipedia process — all editing of entries is marked and saved — allows readers to react to suspected fraud.

Nothing better illustrates the flip side — the transparency and its benefits — than this Wikipedia entry about the scandal. Note, however, that the entry is itself embroiled in controversy. Interesting idea, this Wikipedia.
 

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