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Farewell, Wikipedia?

Bogus boy's departure puts trivia at risk

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Comment After pressure over the weekend from Wikipedia's Il Duce Jimmy Wales, the encyclopedia's most illustrious fake professor Ryan Jordan has resigned his post at Wikia Inc.

An assiduous editor with the nickname "Essjay", the 24-year old Jordan passed himself off as an older and more mature character: a Professor of Theology with two PhDs - these impressive credentials even winning him fame in a New Yorker feature. The deception did little to stop Jordan's meteoric ascent. Wales appointed Jordan to "ArbCom", Wikpedia's Supreme Court, and even found him a position at his own commercial venture, Wikia Inc.

The deception was initially unearthed by Daniel Brandt in January, and has been simmering since early February, when Wikipedians themselves put two and two together: the Essjay that Wales had blessed couldn't be the character that Essjay claimed to be. It breezed into public view last week, with a short disclaimer on the New Yorker's website. (The magazine has also printed a hard-to-miss explanation in the current issue).

Wales initially said he was happy with Jordan's deception, but changed his mind over the weekend, inviting Jordan to resign his positions of responsibility on Wikipedia. The 24-year quit Wikia Inc. yesterday.

(We don't know if Jordan detached himself from the project completely, however - one blogger advised him to rejoin using a different pseudonym, and, presumably, a new fictional identity. What will it be this time?)

The incident raises more questions than it answers, as neither Wales, Jordan, nor the editors at the New Yorker appears to show a shred of regret for their behavior. And this is what turns a dull story about the procedures of a tediously procedural website into a kind of modern morality play.

We're so busy being sorry, we've no time to apologize

It's also one that's thrown up some moments of comic relief.

In its account of the episode today, the New York Times cites Jordan, in his professorial disguise, defending his use of the seminal IDG philosophy textbook, Catholicism for Dummies, explaining —

"This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it’s [sic] credibility."

(And er, we all know what that's worth).

On Saturday, Wales said that the fictional persona Jordan had invented, had been used to deceive Wikipedians — a bad thing!

For Wales' explanation to be plausible, we must therefore assume he hadn't checked Essjay's credentials when he promoted him to Arbitration Committee, and was ignorant of the background of his newest staffer when Jordan was employed by Wikia Inc. And he never read the New Yorker...

All these things are possible - but even with the presumption of innocence, it does leave you wondering what goes on in Jimbo's head.

As for Jordan, he was anything but contrite. He expressed regret only for hurting his fellow Wikipedians' feelings — not for doing anything wrong — which as Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger recounts, is a defiant non-apology.

And the New Yorker, after being alerted to the deception by Brandt, conducted a thorough investigation — which miraculously exonerated its internal fact-checker and star writer!

This sorry apology was produced:

"We were comfortable with the material we got from Essjay because of Wikipedia's confirmation of his work and their endorsement of him."

(In other words, the New Yorker found some fictional characters to endorse another fictional character — which made it all OK. You wonder why they didn't just take the afternoon off and go and see Lord of the Rings).

The august weekly continued,

"In retrospect, we should have let our readers know that we had been unable to corroborate Essjay’s identity beyond what he told us.”

Ah, yes — wouldn't that have rather spoiled the story?

So to sum up, everyone's sorry, but no one owns up to doing anything wrong. There may be a parallel to be drawn with the British Prime Minister Tony Blair - who has apologized for many things in the course of his premiership, but nothing he actually did. It's easy to emote, but hard to take responsibility, so we shouldn't be surprised by the Wikipedians aping our ruling class, for whom anything goes, so long as it's accompanied with a televised sniffle.

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