It turns out that the utopian dream, Wikipedia, has a problem. And I don’t just mean the consistent subtle, and at times, blatant leftward tilt. Wikipedia is an “open-source” encyclopedia—an online encyclopedia created by users instead of contributors who are chosen for their expertise. The idea is that “the community” can do just as well or better than the professionals. The anonymity of the Internet and the lack of oversight on Wikipedia means that all contributors may not be who they seem. A prominent and influential editor, “Essjay,” lied about his credentials and education, exposing one of the problems with the open-source encyclopedia model. (A Wikipedia editor isn’t the same as an editor for Encyclopedia Britannica; everyone who contributes material is called an editor) The New York Times describes who this Wikipedia editor said he was, who he really was and what he did:
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.)
Essjay worked on articles about Roman Catholicism and used Catholicism for Dummies to correct articles. While arguing about Catholicism on Wikipedia, and using a layman’s book in place of one that is more academic, he wielded his “authority” as a "Ph.D." like a baseball bat to forcefully influence and end debate as well as settle disputes:
In a discussion over the editing of the article with regard to the term “imprimatur,” as used in Catholicism, Essjay defended his use of the book “Catholicism for Dummies,” saying, “This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it’s credibility.”
Some Wikipedia users argued that Essjay had compounded the deception by flaunting a fictional Ph.D. and professorship to influence the editing on the site.
“People have gone through his edits and found places where he was basically cashing in on his fake credentials to bolster his arguments,” said Michael Snow, a Wikipedia administrator who is also the founder of The Wikipedia Signpost, the community newspaper for which he is covering the story. “Those will get looked at again.”
Jimmy Wales, co-founder and face of Wikipedia, also hired Essjay as a community manager for sister site Wikia, who says that he no longer works there. At first, Wales supported Jordan and his fraudulent identity:
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 Mr. Jordan’s alter ego.
On Thursday, Mr. 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.”
Not all Wikipedians are as kind to Jordan, and after furious debate at the site resulted in subject lines like "Essjay Must Resign" and comments calling Jordan's behavior "plain and simple fraud," Wales changed his mind after apparently learning more about the situation:
(Jordan) cleared off the “talk” section of his own Wikipedia user page — usually cluttered with personal requests, policy debates and compliments — so that “this statement gets adequate attention” and announced that he had “asked Essjay to resign his positions of trust within the community.” He said “that my past support of Essjay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on.”
The incredibly popular Wikipedia, which recently cracked the Web top ten, now has millions of entries and has become a go-to site for information, but not everyone trusts it. ABCNEWS.com writes about the distrust of the one of the most popular sites online:
The encyclopedia also made headlines last month when the history department at Middlebury College announced that it had banned students from citing articles found on the Web site in academic papers.
Don Wyatt, chairman of Middlebury's history department, said he was not surprised to learn of the scandal at Wikipedia.
"The main reason we distrust it," said professor Wyatt, "is that it's an open source. It's subject to too many hands in its editing and, as such, errors abound."
"People like Jordan," he said, "can create whole personas that are distortions and misrepresentations of who they really are. Hopefully, this sort of incident will lead to greater professionalization in terms of screening individuals."
The website has had quality issues before. In 2005, the co-founder and face of Wikipedia, in response to an Internet technology blogger’s revealing expose, Jimmy Wales, admitted that there were serious problems with the site’s quality. Fellow co-founder Larry Sanger, who is no longer involved with Wikipedia any more begged his former associates to improve the content by reaching out to experts. Former RFK assistant, John Seigenthaler, criticized the site’s accuracy and legitimacy for portraying him as a suspected assassin.
In what is hopefully an understatement, Sandra Ordonez, a spokesperson for Wikipedia told ABC News, "In the future, we will do more inquiring into the identity of people of trust." Does that statement indicate that Wikipedia will alter its anonymous, open-access philosophy? Time will tell.