Bogus boy's departure puts trivia at risk
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.
Does it matter?
The episode has been quite a calamity for the project: Wikipedia funders now regret their contributions, and senior Wikipedia editors regret their personal investment in the project. May we add three points that are in danger of being overlooked-
Firstly, there's the issue of "deception" and the New Yorker. Pranking the media should not be considered a crime; it's an honorable activity. Journalists are deceived on a daily basis — and should be more often, as it keeps us on our toes. When you hear journalists complaining about this onerous obligation — of sifting their sources, you know that privilege has won out over duty. Yet this is something the Pulitzer Prize winner commissioned to write the now notorious feature failed to do.
Make no mistake, Jordan's appearance in the hallowed pages of the New Yorker was not due to his 16,000 edits on Wikipedia, or his natural charisma, or photogenic charms — it was because his sales blurb claimed that he was a Professor of Theology with four degrees. Who better to fulfill Stacy Schiff’s brief, to marvel at one of the Wonders of the Modern World? Schiff duly delivered what her editors required: a piece of advertising copy.
It stands as a a warning that evangelism and reporting don’t really mix.
Secondly, there's the very elephant in the room that Schiff failed to mention: the cult-like aspect of Web 2.0-flavoured technology-evangelism that we see in projects like Wikipedia. What did the New Yorker miss? Only the obvious, as reader Michael Paxton pointed out via email:
"I know this will sound ridiculous," he writes, "but it is beginning to seem that Wikiology is, more and more, taking on the form of the much maligned (pseudo)religion, Scientology."
"The personality cult, the rejection of conventional truths and realities that challenge the core objectives, the once informal steering groups hardening into a shell of dogma that realises that rejection."
"Hell, the moment I read ArbComm I immediately thought of the Scientology's 'Sea Org'. Both the role as upholders of the core objectives (on behalf of the leader) and the affected air of hand chosen adjudicators of martial law seem to simply add to the rather scarey similarity."
"Please, oh please, warn us if Jimmy Wales ever starts building a navy!"
Not all idealists on the Wikipedia cause are prepared to let this go. Here’s a crie de coeur from an editor in despair, spotted last week:
We've stopped being an encyclopedia. We've stopped using common sense. We've taken our eye of the big picture and focused on ourselves, our myopic power games, our petty process, and our internal need to keep every one in line. We count sources to determine notability — because we need objective rules. Never mind the fact it is absurd. We fight little wars with [[Daniel Brandt|monsters of out own imagination]]. Never mind the fact they cheapen us. We care not for the damage we do to the real world and its real people, or potential we miss, as long as we can make little rules and have little people follow them.
I'm sick of the little people and their little rules. For now, I want no part of them. I thought there were signs of hope. And I was wrong. + :If this is a direct or indirect result of [[List of Internet phenomena]], I feel some responsibility for the situation. Please e-mail me. [[User:Newyorkbrad|Newyorkbrad]] 18:00, 28 February 2007 (UTC)
Which may be the last sound of any conscience the project had ebbing away.
Thirdly, and (almost) finally — there's the question of what Wikipedia's place in the world really is.
A few months ago at a social event, your reporter had an epiphany - but then we all need to get out more. A random stranger was expressing delight at finding “stuff” — information, factoids — on the internet, but couldn't grasp that Wikipedia wasn’t owned by Google. When you type in a word, or question, doesn’t “stuff” just come out of the computer?
It was hard to explain that Wikipedia was a separate entity that wasn't owned by Google, and even harder to explain — forgive me, dear readers, for I didn't have the courage to explain this — that it was actually Wikipedia that now “owned” Google.
Here we must salute Shelley Powers, for adding a broader perspective:
I've recently stopped using Wikipedia, or stopped using it as an original source. I've found two things:
First, Google's results have degraded in the last year or so. When one ignores Wikipedia in the results, on many subjects most of the results are placement by search engine optimization–typically garbage–or some form of comment or usenet group or some such that's not especially helpful. Good results are now more likely found in the second or third pages.
Second, I find that I'm having to go to more than one page to find information, but when I do, I uncover all sorts of new and interesting goodies. That's one of the most dangerous aspects of Wikipedia (aside from the whole 'truth' thing), or any single-source of information: we lose the ability to discover things on the net through sheer serendipity.
So the task of "organizing all the world's information and making it useful" - Google's mission statement, and the rod which broke its own back — is beyond the capability of the cleverest algorithms humans can devise.
In other words, the popular media conditions us to expect such wonders from technology, that when we type in a word or phrase, good honest wisdom pours out. But Google, with its insane mission to record everything that ever happened ever, can't cope with this super-abundance of recorded material. So it falls back on the unpaid volunteers of Wikipedia to do its job for it.
But wait, it gets worse!
Where I find Wikipedia useful — and huge areas can be discarded as heresay, tedious arguments between pedants — is when some monomanic fan has lovingly assembled a list derived from his (or her, but it's usually a him) area of expertise — and then fiercely defended that turf.
That's sort of what we had with the Usenet FAQs, round about 1995 or 1996, if you want to look at the glass half full. They were often better written, better organized, and free of the banalities of prose that only committee-editing can generate: a kind of pseudo-authoritative waffle that is Wikipedia's hallmark.
In other words, we're just about back to where we started — and that's the really scary thought.
So we can chuck away all the nonsense about "democratization of knowledge", and "new forms of production", and similar such drivel offered by the eggheads of Web 2.0 — and conclude that after millions of man hours effort, human volunteers can't do a much better job than the algorithms, either.
History has its precedents, where human sacrifice prevailed: Stalin may have defeated Hitler by throwing 20 million bodies at the oncoming armies of the Reich, but no amount of volunteer Wikipedians will make the web "better", by any measure, than it was a decade ago when no one used it.
We're really back to square one.
Maybe this time, we can forget about such utopian dreams as an "information revolution", and get some real information professionals involved, such as librarians and editors, to earn their keep. Maybe we can rid ourselves of the illusion that "everyone talking at once" will generate some kind of wisdom, when all Google and Wikipedia have demonstrated is that it's a giant Tower of Babel. Everyone's talking alright, but there's nothing worth listening to.
One character who's laughing all the way to the bank, though, is Wales himself. Having exhausted the expendable (and unpaid) human labour creating Wikipedia, his stealth project Wikia is set to cream the profits. Wikia already boasts three times the referrals Wikipedia ever had, and finally Jimbo has a success story to take back to his old bond trader pals.
More on this — which is the real deception behind the great Wikipedia adventure — in our next bulletin. ®