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Bogus Wikipedia Prof. was blessed then promoted

The Counterfactual History Man

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It's been a busy week for the pipeline that connects the consensus-reality wonderland of Wikipedia with Planet Earth.

You won't believe what's just tumbled out at this end.

Wikipedia's Maximum Leader Jimmy Wales, it transpires, has blessed an identity fraudster who bamboozled journalists last year, by rewarding him with a full-time job and promotion to Wikipedia's politburo. Wales said he had no qualms with the deception. His comments follow an apology issued by The New Yorker magazine this week, after a bogus Professor who claimed to have four degrees, tricked a Pulitizer Prize winning journalist commissioned by the publication.

In her glowing feature about Wikipedia published last year for the weekly magazine, Stacy Schiff failed to check the credentials of one her sources. Schiff reported that a Wikipedia contributor who identified himself as "Essjay" was a "tenured professor of religion at a private university in the eastern United States" - as he claimed on his user page - who taught "both undergraduate and graduate theology".

He claimed to have a BA and MA in Religious Studies, and Doctorates in Law and Philosophy, and used the fictional credentials to pimp up his reputation, and intimidate adversaries.

But the Walter Mitty character turned out to be 24-year old Ryan Jordan, who had no such credentials.

That's par for the course for the site where truth is decided by a show of hands, and most contributors cloak their identities. It would have served as a minor cautionary tale for journalists who let their evangelical inclinations get the better of them; many articles about the phenomenon are little more than puff pieces. Both Schiff, and New Yorker fact-checker Jessica Rosenberg - daughter of Harvard's new President, apparently - took the Wikipedian at face value.

Catch as Catch Can

Even Jordan himself professed to astonishment at Schiff and Rosenberg's credulity:

"Actually, I did six hours of interviews with the reporter, and two with a fact checker, but I was really surprised that they were willing to do an interview with someone who they couldn't confirm; I can only assume that it is proof I was doing a good job playing the part," he wrote.

(This and more Jordan quotes were culled from the site by Wikipedia Watch, and can be found here.)

In all likelihood, the story would have been quickly forgotten, had it not been for the reaction of Wikipedia's figurehead and uber-leader Jimmy Wales.

Wales not only defended the identity fraudster, but promoted him to a salaried position on Wikia. Wikia Inc. is the corporation co-founded by Wales, which has to date received $14m of investment capital from a VC firm and Amazon.com. Wales also promoted Jordan to the creepy sounding "ArbComm", or Arbitration Committee, which is the next-to-final adjudication panel at Wikipedia. (The final panel consists of the Maximum Leader himself).

"I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it," Wales told the New Yorker.

Wales' insouciance left onlookers amazed.

"It does make you wonder about what else happens at Wikipedia that Jimmy Wales doesn't have a problem with," wrote author Stephen Dubner.

Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger correctly describes it as an 'identity fraud'. And quite brilliantly, Sanger also gets to the core of the problem - the alternative reality, created by the Wikipedians cult-like devotion to the cause. (As with many cults, failings are attributed to outsiders).

"Wikipedians have plainly become a very insular group: they have their own mores and requirements, which are completely independent of the real world," writes Sanger.  "Indeed, that's what this story is about, after all: real-world identities and credentials are rejected as unnecessary by Wikipedia.  How could Wikipedia fail to become insular with that attitude? "

When your reporter first started to chronicle Wikipedia, it was because it so perfectly embodied so many utopian aspects of technology discourse. But perhaps we missed the biggest: its ability to generate an alternative reality, something that strongly characterized the "Net Neutrality" debate.

If this was a movie, it would be a very modern comedy. ®

Bootnote Once again credit goes to Daniel Brandt for uncovering the scandal. Brandt was responsible for discovering the identity of John Seigenthaler's defamer, after Wikipedia administrators declined to get involved. Watch how this story unfolded in the days after Jordan was appointed to WIkia, on January 11 this year, here - it's a fascinating read.

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