Sex, lies, videotape, and Wikipedia


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.

10 thoughts on “Sex, lies, videotape, and Wikipedia

  1. Hum, whilst I can definitely empathize with a desire for honesty and integrity, I’d suggest that an ability to think critically and judgmentally about any information a person absorbs is one of those skills that will become increasingly important in the 21st century…

    Wikipedia is a great example – even though I know the information contained in it is completely and utterly subjective, it has the veneer of honesty and authority, and it’s easy to forget this. I forgive it because it’s just sooo damn handy.

  2. It’s an excellent point Stephen, though I fear that “critical thinking” is at risk of becoming something of a lost art in our age of sound bytes and grade inflation.

    I’d be more comfortable with this Wikipedia challenge if that community wasn’t so supportive of his behavior. The next time I use Wikipedia I’ll be likely to view the entry more skeptically than before.

  3. The idea that most Wikipedians still support Essjay is not particularly accurate. Rather, Essjay enjoys a great deal of loyalty and support from a very vocal contingent of high-ranking Wikipedians with administrator privileges who are still stuck in denial and have been very effective at censoring any and all criticism of Essjay on Wikipedia since Essjay’s semi-involuntary “retirement.” As I stated in a previous blog post – http://blog.xodp.org/2007/03/credentialists-and-impostors.html – I would like to see Essjay make a fresh start at Wikipedia under the protection of a new, anonymous pseudonym. However, that’s not possible unless Essjay retracts his rather bizarre claim about Stacy Schiff offering him compensation for his time. And given the fact that a substantial number of high ranking Wikipedians remain stuck in denial and steadfast in their support of Essjay, it is highly unlikely that he will ever offer a retraction or an apology.

  4. Thanks Kelly, corrected. Be assured that accuracy is sacred here at Joe Duck, guaranteed by by my 5 PhDs in History, Philosphy, Internetology, and WikiWikkiologiki.

    David I did use hyperbole up there because I was surprised by so little criticism on the Wikipedia “talk” page.

    would like to see Essjay make a fresh start at Wikipedia under the protection of a new, anonymous pseudonym

    Nope, I think it’s about time (we) new media people started understanding that regular people don’t trust anonymity. This is a perfect example of how anonymity was abused to further a personal agenda. This was intellectual spam and it should piss people off.

  5. I have been conducting some user research for a client during the past few weeks – and talking to regular people about how they use our client’s community space. Interestingly, in the context of this issue, during several of the interviews, the participants suggested that it wasn’t important to know who the people they were interacting with. They likened it to the sitcom ‘Home Improvement’ where the main character has extended dialogues with another character through the garden fence…it doesn’t matter who the person is, just as long as what they’re saying rings true…

  6. Stephen – very interesting finding. As a quatragenarian maybe I’m old school, but in any social context I sure prefer knowing at least the basics about a person before I trust that they are providing me with good info. I’m noticing on MyBlogLog that I have a lot more initial distrust for people who have misleading icons and automatically assume somebody with their own mug on the icon is a straight shooter.

    However if I trust the *source* I don’t need to know the author, and despite this current WikiFiasco I still trust that Wikipedia’s as good as most other authoritative reference works.

  7. I’m not quite sure what the issue is here.

    There are oodles of articles about bad medical advice on the internet, but darn few comparisons to the bad medical advice from doctors.

    Apparently this guy at Wikipedia didn’t walk on water. Well, who thought he did and why did they think that?
    He gave fake credentials to NYMagagzine and it was they who did the fact checking that no one else had done? Well kudos to them. However, what is the relevancy to what he wrote for wikipedia? Its true that he was dishonest but one wonders what the significance is, other than that he has some personal flaws and is now viewed as less than trustworthy.

  8. I wonder if the word ‘internet’ evokes some sense of mystery or an aura of acceptability.

    What I would just love to have happen now is for some investigative reporter to get hold of the resumes for the senior editorial staff of the Encyclopedia Britanica and expose some poor soul who fudged his credentials… and see if that incident even gets the slightest mention in the press!

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