Fri, Mar 09, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Wikipedia contributor flaunts fictional credentials

The fake identity of an editor contributing to Wikipedia first drew support for his right to anonymity, followed by accusations of fraud


In the blink of an eye, 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.

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.

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.

Jordan's deception came to public attention on Feb. 26 when The New Yorker published a rare editors' note saying that when it wrote about Essjay as part of a lengthy profile of Wikipedia, "neither we nor Wikipedia knew Essjay's real name," and that it took Essjay's credentials and life experience at face value.

In addition to his professional credentials and work on articles concerning Roman Catholicism, Essjay was described in the magazine's article, perhaps oddly for a religious scholar, as twice removing a sentence from the entry on the singer Justin Timberlake that "Essjay knew to be false."

After the article appeared, a reader contacted The New Yorker about Essjay's real identity, which Jordan had disclosed with little fanfare when he recently accepted a job at Wikia, a for-profit company.

In an e-mail message last Friday, The New Yorker's deputy editor, Pamela Maffei McCarthy, said: "We were comfortable with the material we got from Essjay because of Wikipedia's confirmation of his work and their endorsement of him. In retrospect, we should have let our readers know that we had been unable to corroborate Essjay's identity beyond what he told us."

The New Yorker editors' note ended with a defiant comment from Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia and the dominant force behind the site's growth.

"I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it," he said of Jordan's alter ego.

On Thursday, Wales, who is traveling in Asia with intermittent Internet connections, stuck by that view.

In a statement relayed through Wikipedia's public relations officer, he said that at that time, "Essjay apologized to me and to the community at large for any harm he may have caused, but he was acting in order to protect himself."

"I accepted his apology," he continued, "because he is now, and has always been, an excellent editor with an exemplary track record."

But the broad group of Wikipedia users was not so supportive. Mounting anger was expressed in public forums like the user pages of Wales and Essjay. Initially, a few people wrote to express support for Essjay, along the lines of WJBscribe, who left a message saying: "Just wanted to express my 100 percent support for everything you do around here. I think you were totally entitled to protect your identity. Don't let all the fuss get you down!"

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