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Essjay disrobed

February 27, 2007

Last July, the New Yorker ran a long article on Wikipedia. At one point, the author, Stacy Schiff, told the story of a particularly dedicated and well-qualified contributor to the popular online encyclopedia:

One regular on the site is a user known as Essjay, who holds a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law and has written or contributed to sixteen thousand entries. A tenured professor of religion at a private university, Essjay made his first edit in February, 2005. Initially, he contributed to articles in his field - on the penitential rite, transubstantiation, the papal tiara. Soon he was spending fourteen hours a day on the site, though he was careful to keep his online life a secret from his colleagues and friends ...

Essjay is serving a second term as chair of [Wikipedia's] mediation committee. He is also an admin, a bureaucrat, and a checkuser, which means that he is one of fourteen Wikipedians authorized to trace I.P. addresses in cases of suspected abuse. He often takes his laptop to class, so that he can be available to Wikipedians while giving a quiz, and he keeps an eye on twenty I.R.C. chat channels, where users often trade gossip about abuses they have witnessed.

Essjay is also, it now appears, a particularly accomplished liar. In an editor's note in this week's edition, the New Yorker reports:

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 ... 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."

If credentials don't matter, why bother faking them? Ah, well, Schiff put it best in the final line of her article: "Your truth or mine?"


Credentials probably helped add credibility to his earlier work on the site, but over time, his cred was likely attached more to his work than his faked credentials. Sounds a lot like the real world to me.

Posted by: Ed Kohler [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 27, 2007 03:33 PM

"other than by confirming the biographical details that appeared on his user page"

It was in Wikipedia! That makes it truthy ...

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 27, 2007 04:12 PM

Aw, come on now..don't you think it's getting a bit old, bashing Wikipedia? Let's bash Second Life instead, this magnificent bonfire of vanities deserves it so much more

Posted by: darkobserver [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 28, 2007 05:39 AM

A liar is a liar is a liar. No excuse for it.

Posted by: Windwing [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 28, 2007 10:40 AM


What The New Yorker Article Fraud Tells Us About Wikipedia

"Executive summary: This is the delusion Wikipedia fosters - it's what it is, how it runs."

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 1, 2007 08:18 AM

I am one of the people who Essjay lied to on a regular basis. I found him to be, in general, insightful. However, I cannot forgive that he lied to me, or his lies to the Wikipedia community and the public. It is a disgrace that Jimbo's response to being informed of Essjay's lies was to promote him, and his choice to do so sends a clear message about Wikipedia.

Wikipedia's credibility as an information source is bad enough without having to deal with having documented fraudsters as leading contributors.

Posted by: Kelly Martin [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 1, 2007 01:40 PM

For Jimmy not to "have a problem with" Essjay’s identity fraud is essentially for him to declare: you can falsely claim all sorts of credentials you like on Wikipedia, and not have them. Truth-telling about yourself really doesn't matter on Wikipedia, and credentials (of course) don’t matter either. Perhaps we already knew this. But nothing has ever more eloquently illustrated it.

Posted by: Larry Sanger [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 1, 2007 08:27 PM

I just thought for other people reading this blog they should know who Larry Sanger and Kelly Martin are. Larry was one of the cofounders of Wikipedia, essentially the COO to Wales' as CEO. Many of the early policies are Sanger's. Kelly Martin is a long time contributor whose held an 2 dozens offices on wikipedia and has founded many of the committees and structures that exist today. While both of them are in some sense "exiles" these a people who really understand wikipedia.

Posted by: JeffB [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 2, 2007 03:16 PM

To be frank, I'm a little ashamed of the New Yorkers initial reporting on this. The journalist couldn't have taken the simple step of finding out where Essjay apparently got his degrees from or where he taught? A phone call would have disproved the sentences concerning Essjay.

Essjay is honestly the embodiment of Wikipedia -- anyone can write over someone else's history, including their own. He just happened to invent his up completely.

Posted by: PBH [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 6, 2007 10:54 AM

Wikipedia IS fraud. The whole idea of free editing means nobody takes responsibility for the content.
So propagandists and all sorts of jokers, along with racists, religious bigots and the like are able to plant their lies at leisure. Wikipedia provides them with a platform and a training ground.

Essjay was not a sophisticated liar, there are many much better than him doing nicely from academic and journalistic fraud. Indeed, we should be grateful to Essjay for exposing the true nature of Wikipedia.

Please see my comments on the article about Roger Casement in the discussion page of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a disgrace to those involved in it. It should go offline until it sorts out the quality problem. The editors of articles should have the guts to put their names to what they write. kevin.mannerings@vr-web.de

Posted by: lugboy [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 12, 2007 05:14 PM

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