Wikipedia‘s latest mini scandal involves an editor “essjay”, real name Ryan Jordan, who faked some academic credentials both in his Wikipedia work and in an interview with New York Magazine. After considerable debate over the issue Jordan has resigned from his (high level) volunteer Wikipedia work and his new, paid position at Wikia.
New York Magazine conspicuously failed to find the deception in their fact checking, leading some critics to suggest this episode is best seen as an example of how mainstream media fails to get the story right even while complaining about internet inaccuracies. Others focus on this as yet another example of how the internet space is filled with deception, even in what is arguably the most authoritative encyclopedia ever developed – Wikipedia. A recent study compared the accuracy of Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia and concluded they were roughly equivalent in accuracy. Wikipedia’s much greater depth of coverage means that it “wins” in my book, and I noted the other day that I have not cracked open any of the volumes of my Encyclopedia Brittanica in years.
Nicholas Carr has a thoughtful post about the mini-wiki-scandal. Unfortunately I think many other onliners reflecting on this the analysis, including founder Jimmy Wales, are talking the point of view of “insiders” who are very sympathetic about the nuances of how online identities and anonymity have become accepted aspects – some would say necessary parts – of the online experience.
Active Wikipedia folks seem to have nothing but glowing praise for Jordan’s substantial contributions to the project and don’t seem very interested in the deception issues, which itself is very interesting since Wikipedia prides itself on seeking unvarnished intellectual integrity. Apparently insiders are allowed quite a bit of varnish? Where will these people draw the lines on truth? A very slippery slope in my opinion, and in general I object to the notion that anonymity serves the community well – on the contrary it’s generally harmful and unnecessary and in cases like this provides detractors with a lot of ammunition to shoot down the idea that the wisdom of crowds is superior to the wisdom of “experts”.
This despite the fact you could suggest that what is remarkable here is that Wikipedia is so very accurate *in spite of* the many deceptions. This suggests that accuracy can spring from the wisdom of the crowds even when that crowd may be engaging – at an individual level – in deceptive behavior.
I think mom, pop, and most outsiders will view this in simpler terms and see it as yet another indication that “the internet can’t be trusted”. This is unfortunate because 1) the right decision was made here – Jordan resigned. 2) Wiki is very authoritative in many areas. Like many onliners I turn first to Wikipedia for many research topics, always cautious about accepting it as the last word but generally pleased at how well it stands up for many topics as a quick and accurate introduction.
I love Wikipedia as an info source but think the “moral” of this story is that the new web ethic – one that suggests it’s fine to practice various forms of personal deception as long as you don’t send spam emails or bother other online insiders, is very misplaced. I strongly get the idea from Wales and others that “being part of the team” is more important than being straightforward. I see this ethic in some of the activity I’ve observed in Silicon Valley as well. As an “insider” at conferences folks will share information about all kinds of deceptive stuff they’ve done online. The extension of these new Web 2.0 ethical standard creates a world of hidden identities, personal deceptions, and many avenues for illegal and unethical online activity.
As for me I’d just like the old conventional handshake and honest talk morality back, and make that ASAP if you please.