Paid Ghostwriters Write Wikipedia On Behalf of Paying Clients – Confirmed by Wikimedia Foundation Legal Department
On July 24, 2006, a thread titled "Who is Essjay?" (later retitled "Who is Essjay?, Probably he's Ryan Jordan" after Jordan's self-disclosure) was started on the forum site Wikipedia Review. The ensuing discussion brought to light contradictions in claims Essjay made about his academic qualifications and professional experiences on his Wikipedia user page. Yet, five days later, The New Yorker published an interview with Essjay which repeated some of the claims. Wikipedia Review found definitive proof that Jordan made false claims about his qualifications and experience, including that he was not a "tenured professor", a claim that was used to describe Essjay in the interview for The New Yorker. In January 2007, Daniel Brandt contacted the author of the article in The New Yorker about the discrepancies in Jordan's biography and the exploitation of his supposed qualifications as leverage in internal disputes over Wikipedia content.
The controversy that ensued focused on his falsification of a persona and qualifications, the impact of this deception on perceptions of Wikipedia (and its policies and credibility), and the quality of decisions made in his promotion, support, and employment.
Reactions to the disclosure were diverse, encompassing commentary and articles in the electronic, print, and broadcast media; the Wikipedia community researched Essjay's article edits to check for errors and debated proposals to improve the project's handling of personal identification. In his editorial activities Jordan spent less time editing the content of articles and more time addressing vandalism and resolving editorial disputes.
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales initially supported Essjay's use of a persona, saying, "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it." Later, Wales withdrew his support and asked for Essjay's resignation from his positions with Wikipedia and Wikia. Wales stated that he withdrew his support when he learned "that Essjay used his false credentials in content disputes" on Wikipedia.
The New Yorker interviewStacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist writing for The New Yorker, interviewed Essjay as a source for an article about Wikipedia ("Know It All"; July 31, 2006) after he was recommended to her by a member of the Wikimedia Foundation. According to The New Yorker, Essjay "was willing to describe his work as a Wikipedia administrator but would not identify himself other than by confirming the biographical details that appeared on his user page."
doctoral degrees in theology and canon law and worked as a tenured professor at a private university. It was later discovered that he was 24 years old, and had dropped out of community college with no qualifications. The New Yorker published a correction in February 2007, which brought the issue to broader public attention.
The article said that Essjay spent some 14 hours or more a day on Wikipedia but was careful to keep his online life a secret from his colleagues and friends. It portrayed Essjay as often taking his laptop to class so he could be available to other Wikipedians while giving a quiz. He asserted that he required anonymity to avoid cyberstalking.
Jordan, as Essjay, claimed he sent an email to a college professor using his invented persona's credentials, vouching for Wikipedia's accuracy. In the message he wrote in part, "I am an administrator of the online encyclopedia project Wikipedia. I am also a tenured professor of theology; feel free to have a look at my Wikipedia user page (linked below) to gain an idea of my background and credentials."
Identity revealedWhen Essjay was hired by Wikia in January 2007, he changed his Wikia profile and "came clean on who he really was," identifying himself as Ryan Jordan. Other Wikipedia editors questioned Essjay on his Wikipedia talk page about the apparent discrepancy between his new Wikia profile and his previously claimed credentials. Essjay posted a detailed explanation in response to the first inquiry, stating that:
There are a number of trolls, stalkers, and psychopaths who wander around Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects looking for people to harass, stalk, and otherwise ruin the lives of (several have been arrested over their activities here)...You will eventually say something that will lead back to you, and the stalkers will find it...I decided to be myself, to never hide my personality, to always be who I am, but to utilize disinformation with regard to what I consider unimportant details: age, location, occupation, etc...He later commented on his Wikipedia user page about having fooled Schiff by "...doing a good job playing the part."
Wikipedia critic Daniel Brandt then wrote a letter reporting the identity discrepancy to Stacy Schiff and The New Yorker. In late February 2007, the magazine updated its article with a correction indicating that "Essjay now says that his real name is Ryan Jordan, that he is twenty-four and holds no advanced degrees, and that he has never taught."
On March 3, 2007, Andrew Lih, Assistant Professor and Director of Technology Journalism and of the Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, said on his blog that a portion of Essjay's comments on the incident entered "the dangerous domain of defamation and libel" against Stacy Schiff. Lih quoted Essjay as writing on his Wikipedia talk page: "Further, she [Schiff] made several offers to compensate me for my time, and my response was that if she truly felt the need to do so, she should donate to the Foundation instead." Lih noted:
This is an accusation of the highest degree to make about a journalist. Paying a source for a story is an absolute no-no in the normal practice of print journalism. And it struck me immediately how incredible it was he would accuse Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winning author writing for The New Yorker, of this crime. We either have a serious breach of ethics with Ms. Schiff or another dubious statement claim from Essjay.Lih wrote that he contacted Schiff for comment about whether she had offered to pay Essjay for his time and quoted her return email. In it, Schiff stated that Essjay's assertion was "complete nonsense."
Wikipedia communitySpeaking personally about Jordan, Wales said, "Mr. Ryan [sic] was a friend, and still is a friend. He is a young man, and he has offered me a heartfelt personal apology, which I have accepted. I hope the world will let him go in peace to build an honorable life and reputation."
Essjay had responded at the time with a statement on his Wikipedia page, in part reading:
...I *am* sorry if anyone in the Wikipedia community has been hurt by my decision to use disinformation to protect myself. I'm not sorry that I protected myself; I believed, and continue to believe, that I was right to protect myself, in light of the problems encountered on the Internet in these trying times. I have spoken to all of my close friends here about this, and have heard resoundingly that they understand my position, and they support me. Jimbo and many others in Wikipedia's hierarchy have made their support known as well...Reaction from within the Wikipedia community to the Essjay/Jordan identity discrepancy was sharp, voluminous, and mixed. While most editors denounced at least some of his actions, responses ranged from offering complete support to accusing Jordan of fraud.
As the controversy unfolded, the Wikipedia community began a review of Essjay's previous edits and some felt he had relied upon his fictional professorship to influence editorial consideration of edits he made. "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 and founder of the Wikipedia community newspaper, The Wikipedia Signpost. "Those will get looked at again." For instance, Essjay had recommended sources such as Catholicism for Dummies, a book granted the nihil obstat and imprimatur by the Roman Catholic Church. Essjay defended his use of the book by telling fellow Wikipedia editors in a disagreement over the editing of the article Imprimatur: "This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on its credibility." In another case (a discussion of the liturgical use of the psalms), he cited personal experience from "the Abbey of Gethsemani, where I was a monk."
Jimmy Wales proposed a credential verification system on Wikipedia following the Essjay controversy, but the proposal was rejected. Wales was "reported to be considering vetting all persons who adjudicate on factual disputes." "I don't think this incident exposes any inherent weakness in Wikipedia, but it does expose a weakness that we will be working to address," Wales added. He insisted that Wikipedia editors still would be able to remain anonymous if they wished. "We always prefer to give a positive incentive rather than absolute prohibition, so that people can contribute without a lot of hassle," Wales commented. However, he also warned that "It's always inappropriate to try to win an argument by flashing your credentials, and even more so if those credentials are inaccurate." However, Florence Devouard, chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, was not supportive of his credential proposal, saying, "I think what matters is the quality of the content, which we can improve by enforcing policies such as 'cite your source,' not the quality of credentials showed by an editor." A formal proposal that users claiming to have academic qualifications would have to provide evidence before citing them in content disputes was eventually rejected by the Wikipedia community, like all previous such proposals.
As a follow-up to his initial comments to The New Yorker, Wales wrote this apology to the magazine, which appeared in its March 19, 2007 issue:
I am writing to apologize to The New Yorker and Stacy Schiff, and to give some follow-up concerning Ryan Jordan (Editors' Note, March 5). When I last spoke to The New Yorker about the fact that a prominent Wikipedia community member had lied about his credentials, I misjudged the issue. It was not O.K. for Mr. Jordan, or Essjay, to lie to a reporter, even to protect his identity.Wales expressed his regret that Essjay had "made a series of very bad judgments." He also commented that he hoped Wikipedia would improve as a result of the controversy.
Wikipedia criticsAndrew Orlowski, a frequent Wikipedia critic and writer for The Register—a British technology news and opinion website—criticized Jimmy Wales for hiring Essjay at the venture-capital-funded Wikia and for appointing him to the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee after Essjay had apparently admitted his previously claimed academic and professional credentials were false. Orlowski added that Essjay's actions betrayed a dangerous community mindset within Wikipedia.
Others to comment negatively included ZDNet writer Mitch Ratcliffe, who asked "why lying about one's background qualifies a person to work for a company like Wikia, which proposes to help communities to record accurate information" and asked for additional details "such as when he fired Jordan and the reasons for the firing, as well as when he endorsed Jordan in public statements."
Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia who left the project in 2002, called Essjay's response "a defiant non-apology" and elsewhere characterized Essjay's actions as "identity fraud."
- Internet activist Seth Finkelstein asserted that Wikipedia "fundamentally runs by an extremely deceptive sort of social promise" to its editors—that they will gain academic prestige by contributing to an online encyclopedia. Finkelstein said Essjay was a product of that deceptive system, and was "that dream's poster child."
- BusinessWeek commented on proposals for credential verification: "Sadly, not everyone who posts to Wikipedia is concerned with the Ten Commandments. Some are concerned with revenge. Some with self-aggrandizement. Some just have nothing better to do. We live in an age of fake IDs, fake money, fake e-mails, fake URLs, fake IP addresses, and fake votes..." However, the article argued that Wikipedia could not become a "net police" of reliability on the Internet.
- Steve Maich (journalist, Maclean's) stated that the controversy could damage Wikipedia's future as a media business operation, observing that Wikipedia's model was supposedly built upon trust and credibility.
- Cassandra Jardine, a Daily Telegraph contributor, opined that Essjay was "hooked on 'Wiki crack'—devotees' jargon for the thrill of seeing your efforts debated." She further observed that "Essjay has provided a reminder that any given entry could have been written by someone as ignorant as ourselves. On the other hand, no one has taken issue with his edits, only his assumed persona, so perhaps the real lesson of this democratic medium is that college drop-outs might be as authoritative as professors."
- ITworld commented on Wikipedia contributors: "Legitimate writers, scholars and industry experts have very little motivation to contribute to Wikipedia—leaving the project with wannabes and posers like Essjay with too much time on their hands to churn out content."
- Andrew Keen (author, Cult of the Amateur) described the controversy as an example of ignoring expert guidance in favor of the "dictatorship of idiots."
- L. Brent Bozell III (president, Media Research Center) commented that "off-setting and off-putting material" can be added to Wikipedia to create "intellectual mischief." He called the Essjay controversy "enough to make used-car salesmen cringe."
- Alex Beam (columnist, Boston Globe) criticized the Essjay affair as being part of what he characterizes as the problems of "crowdsourcing" and the "wisdom of crowds," stating also that the crowd accepts authority unquestioningly: "Who would you rather have write your encyclopedia entries? Bertrand Russell, T.H. Huxley, and Benedetto Croce, who wrote for the Britannica? Or ... EssJay?"
AcademicsFollowing the media coverage of the Essjay controversy, a number of academics noted the damage to the credibility of Wikipedia. On March 2, 2007, a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education commented "the incident is clearly damaging to Wikipedia's credibility—especially with professors who will now note that one of the site's most visible academics has turned out to be a fraud." Ross Brann, a professor of Judeo-Islamic studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, stated that Wikipedia lacks a process of scholarly review, saying, "They could make up your life if they wanted to." Brann also said that Wikipedia "has no place in the University," and he believed the Essjay incident would do nothing to change the unfavorable opinion that academics generally hold about the online encyclopedia. Students at Cornell indicated that they may continue to use Wikipedia as a quick source of information, though they would not cite it in scholarly work.
Nicola Pratt, a lecturer in international relations at the University of East Anglia in England stated, "The ethos of Wikipedia is that anyone can contribute, regardless of status... What's relevant is their knowledge as judged by other readers, not whether they are professors or not—and the fact the student [Essjay] was exposed shows it works." In 2009, an lengthy article was published by the National Council of Teachers of English discussing the challenges of determining textual origins in college compositions, using a detailed history of the Essjay incident to set the context.
Know It All
Can Wikipedia conquer expertise?
by Stacy Schiff July 31, 2006
Wikipedia is an online community devoted not to last night’s party or to next season’s iPod but to a higher good. It is also no more immune to human nature than any other utopian project. Pettiness, idiocy, and vulgarity are regular features of the site. Nothing about high-minded collaboration guarantees accuracy, and open editing invites abuse. Senators and congressmen have been caught tampering with their entries; the entire House of Representatives has been banned from Wikipedia several times. (It is not subtle to change Senator Robert Byrd’s age from eighty-eight to a hundred and eighty. It is subtler to sanitize one’s voting record in order to distance oneself from an unpopular President, or to delete broken campaign promises.) Curiously, though, mob rule has not led to chaos. Wikipedia, which began as an experiment in unfettered democracy, has sprouted policies and procedures. At the same time, the site embodies our newly casual relationship to truth. When confronted with evidence of errors or bias, Wikipedians invoke a favorite excuse: look how often the mainstream media, and the traditional encyclopedia, are wrong! As defenses go, this is the epistemological equivalent of “But Johnny jumped off the bridge first.” Wikipedia, though, is only five years old. One day, it may grow up.
Wales’s first encyclopedia was the World Book, which his parents acquired after dinner one evening in 1969, from a door-to-door salesman. Wales—who resembles a young Billy Crystal with the neuroses neatly tucked in—recalls the enchantment of pasting in update stickers that cross-referenced older entries to the annual supplements. Wales’s mother and grandmother ran a private school in Huntsville, Alabama, which he attended from the age of three. He graduated from Auburn University with a degree in finance and began a Ph.D. in the subject, enrolling first at the University of Alabama and later at Indiana University. In 1994, he decided to take a job trading options in Chicago rather than write his dissertation. Four years later, he moved to San Diego, where he used his savings to found an Internet portal. Its audience was mostly men; pornography—videos and blogs—accounted for about a tenth of its revenues. Meanwhile, Wales was cogitating. In his view, misinformation, propaganda, and ignorance are responsible for many of the world’s ills. “I’m very much an Enlightenment kind of guy,” Wales told me. The promise of the Internet is free knowledge for everyone, he recalls thinking. How do we make that happen?
As an undergraduate, he had read Friedrich Hayek’s 1945 free-market manifesto, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which argues that a person’s knowledge is by definition partial, and that truth is established only when people pool their wisdom. Wales thought of the essay again in the nineteen-nineties, when he began reading about the open-source movement, a group of programmers who believed that software should be free and distributed in such a way that anyone could modify the code. He was particularly impressed by “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” an essay, later expanded into a book, by Eric Raymond, one of the movement’s founders. “It opened my eyes to the possibility of mass collaboration,” Wales said.
The first step was a misstep. In 2000, Wales hired Larry Sanger, a graduate student in philosophy he had met on a Listserv, to help him create an online general-interest encyclopedia called Nupedia. The idea was to solicit articles from scholars, subject the articles to a seven-step review process, and post them free online. Wales himself tried to compose the entry on Robert Merton and options-pricing theory; after he had written a few sentences, he remembered why he had dropped out of graduate school. “They were going to take my essay and send it to two finance professors in the field,” he recalled. “I had been out of academia for several years. It was intimidating; it felt like homework.”
After a year, Nupedia had only twenty-one articles, on such topics as atonality and Herodotus. In January, 2001, Sanger had dinner with a friend, who told him about the wiki, a simple software tool that allows for collaborative writing and editing. Sanger thought that a wiki might attract new contributors to Nupedia. (Wales says that using a wiki was his idea.) Wales agreed to try it, more or less as a lark. Under the wiki model that Sanger and Wales adopted, each entry included a history page, which preserves a record of all editing changes. They added a talk page, to allow for discussion of the editorial process—an idea Bayle would have appreciated. Sanger coined the term Wikipedia, and the site went live on January 15, 2001. Two days later, he sent an e-mail to the Nupedia mailing list—about two thousand people. “Wikipedia is up!” he wrote. “Humor me. Go there and add a little article. It will take all of five or ten minutes.”
Wales braced himself for “complete rubbish.” He figured that if he and Sanger were lucky the wiki would generate a few rough drafts for Nupedia. Within a month, Wikipedia had six hundred articles. After a year, there were twenty thousand.
Wales is fond of citing a 1962 proclamation by Charles Van Doren, who later became an editor at Britannica. Van Doren believed that the traditional encyclopedia was defunct. It had grown by accretion rather than by design; it had sacrificed artful synthesis to plodding convention; it looked backward. “Because the world is radically new, the ideal encyclopedia should be radical, too,” Van Doren wrote. “It should stop being safe—in politics, in philosophy, in science.”
In its seminal Western incarnation, the encyclopedia had been a dangerous book. The Encyclopédie muscled aside religious institutions and orthodoxies to install human reason at the center of the universe—and, for that muscling, briefly earned the book’s publisher a place in the Bastille. As the historian Robert Darnton pointed out, the entry in the Encyclopédie on cannibalism ends with the cross-reference “See Eucharist.” What Wales seems to have in mind, however, is less Van Doren’s call to arms than that of an earlier rabble-rouser. In the nineteen-thirties, H. G. Wells lamented that, while the world was becoming smaller and moving at increasing speed, the way information was distributed remained old-fashioned and ineffective. He prescribed a “world brain,” a collaborative, decentralized repository of knowledge that would be subject to continual revision. More radically—with “alma-matricidal impiety,” as he put it—Wells indicted academia; the university was itself medieval. “We want a Henry Ford today to modernize the distribution of knowledge, make good knowledge cheap and easy in this still very ignorant, ill-educated, ill-served English-speaking world of ours,” he wrote. Had the Internet existed in his lifetime, Wells might have beaten Wales to the punch.
Wales’s most radical contribution may be not to have made information free but—in his own alma-matricidal way—to have invented a system that does not favor the Ph.D. over the well-read fifteen-year-old. “To me, the key thing is getting it right,” Wales has said of Wikipedia’s contributors. “I don’t care if they’re a high-school kid or a Harvard professor.” At the beginning, there were no formal rules, though Sanger eventually posted a set of guidelines on the site. The first was “Ignore all the rules.” Two of the others have become central tenets: articles must reflect a neutral point of view (N.P.O.V., in Wikipedia lingo), and their content must be both verifiable and previously published. Among other things, the prohibition against original research heads off a great deal of material about people’s pets.
Wikipedians have evolved a distinctive vocabulary, of which “revert,” meaning “reinstate”—as in “I reverted the edit, but the user has simply rereverted it”—may be the most commonly used word. Other terms include WikiGnome (a user who keeps a low profile, fixing typos, poor grammar, and broken links) and its antithesis, WikiTroll (a user who persistently violates the site’s guidelines or otherwise engages in disruptive behavior). There are Aspergian Wikipedians (seventy-two), bipolar Wikipedians, vegetarian Wikipedians, antivegetarian Wikipedians, existential Wikipedians, pro-Luxembourg Wikipedians, and Wikipedians who don’t like to be categorized. According to a page on the site, an avid interest in Wikipedia has been known to afflict “computer programmers, academics, graduate students, game-show contestants, news junkies, the unemployed, the soon-to-be unemployed and, in general, people with multiple interests and good memories.” You may travel in more exalted circles, but this covers pretty much everyone I know.
Wikipedia may be the world’s most ambitious vanity press. There are two hundred thousand registered users on the English-language site, of whom about thirty-three hundred—fewer than two per cent—are responsible for seventy per cent of the work. The site allows you to compare contributors by the number of edits they have made, by the number of articles that have been judged by community vote to be outstanding (these “featured” articles often appear on the site’s home page), and by hourly activity, in graph form. A seventeen-year-old P. G. Wodehouse fan who specializes in British peerages leads the featured-article pack, with fifty-eight entries. A twenty-four-year-old University of Toronto graduate is the site’s premier contributor. Since composing his first piece, on the Panama Canal, in 2001, he has written or edited more than seventy-two thousand articles. “Wikipediholism” and “editcountitis” are well defined on the site; both link to an article on obsessive-compulsive disorder. (There is a Britannica entry for O.C.D., but no version of it has included Felix Unger’s name in the third sentence, a comprehensive survey of “OCD in literature and film,” or a list of celebrity O.C.D. sufferers, which unites, surely for the first time in history, Florence Nightingale with Joey Ramone.)
One regular on the site is a user known as Essjay, who holds a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law and has written or contributed to sixteen thousand entries. A tenured professor of religion at a private university, Essjay made his first edit in February, 2005. Initially, he contributed to articles in his field—on the penitential rite, transubstantiation, the papal tiara. Soon he was spending fourteen hours a day on the site, though he was careful to keep his online life a secret from his colleagues and friends. (To his knowledge, he has never met another Wikipedian, and he will not be attending Wikimania, the second international gathering of the encyclopedia’s contributors, which will take place in early August in Boston.)
Gradually, Essjay found himself devoting less time to editing and more to correcting errors and removing obscenities from the site. In May, he twice removed a sentence from the entry on Justin Timberlake asserting that the pop star had lost his home in 2002 for failing to pay federal taxes—a statement that Essjay knew to be false. The incident ended there. Others involve ideological disagreements and escalate into intense edit wars. A number of the disputes on the English-language Wikipedia relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to religious issues. Almost as acrimonious are the battles waged over the entries on Macedonia, Danzig, the Armenian genocide, and Henry Ford. Ethnic feuds die hard: Was Copernicus Polish, German, or Prussian? (A nonbinding poll was conducted earlier this year to determine whether the question merited mention in the article’s lead.) Some debates may never be resolved: Was the 1812 Battle of Borodino a victory for the Russians or for the French? What is the date of Ann Coulter’s birth? Is apple pie all-American? (The answer, at least for now, is no: “Apple trees didn’t even grow in America until the Europeans brought them over,” one user railed. He was seconded by another, who added, “Apple pie is very popular in the Netherlands too. Americans did not invent or introduce it to the Netherlands. You already plagiarized Santa Claus from our Saint Nicholas. Stop it!”) Who could have guessed that “cheese” would figure among the site’s most contested entries? (The controversy entailed whether in Asia there is a cultural prohibition against eating it.) For the past nine months, Baltimore’s climate has been a subject of bitter debate. What is the average temperature in January?
At first, Wales handled the fistfights himself, but he was reluctant to ban anyone from the site. As the number of users increased, so did the editing wars and the incidence of vandalism. In October, 2001, Wales appointed a small cadre of administrators, called admins, to police the site for abuse. Admins can delete articles or protect them from further changes, block users from editing, and revert text more efficiently than can ordinary users. (There are now nearly a thousand admins on the site.) In 2004, Wales formalized the 3R rule—initially it had been merely a guideline—according to which any user who reverts the same text more than three times in a twenty-four-hour period is blocked from editing for a day. The policy grew out of a series of particularly vitriolic battles, including one over the U.S. economy—it was experiencing either high growth and low unemployment or low growth and high unemployment.
Wales also appointed an arbitration committee to rule on disputes. Before a case reaches the arbitration committee, it often passes through a mediation committee. Essjay is serving a second term as chair of the mediation committee. He is also an admin, a bureaucrat, and a checkuser, which means that he is one of fourteen Wikipedians authorized to trace I.P. addresses in cases of suspected abuse. He often takes his laptop to class, so that he can be available to Wikipedians while giving a quiz, and he keeps an eye on twenty I.R.C. chat channels, where users often trade gossip about abuses they have witnessed.
Five robots troll the site for obvious vandalism, searching for obscenities and evidence of mass deletions, reverting text as they go. More egregious violations require human intervention. Essjay recently caught a user who, under one screen name, was replacing sentences with nonsense and deleting whole entries and, under another, correcting the abuses—all in order to boost his edit count. He was banned permanently from the site. Some users who have been caught tampering threaten revenge against the admins who apprehend them. Essjay says that he routinely receives death threats. “There are people who take Wikipedia way too seriously,” he told me. (Wikipedians have acknowledged Essjay’s labors by awarding him numerous barnstars—five-pointed stars, which the community has adopted as a symbol of praise—including several Random Acts of Kindness Barnstars and the Tireless Contributor Barnstar.)
Wikipedia has become a regulatory thicket, complete with an elaborate hierarchy of users and policies about policies. Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda B. Viégas, two researchers at I.B.M. who have studied the site using computerized visual models called “history flows,” found that the talk pages and “meta pages”—those dealing with coördination and administration—have experienced the greatest growth. Whereas articles once made up about eighty-five per cent of the site’s content, as of last October they represented seventy per cent. As Wattenberg put it, “People are talking about governance, not working on content.” Wales is ambivalent about the rules and procedures but believes that they are necessary. “Things work well when a group of people know each other, and things break down when it’s a bunch of random people interacting,” he told me.
Nor has increasing surveillance of the site by admins deterred vandals, a majority of whom seem to be inserting obscenities and absurdities into Wikipedia when they should be doing their homework. Many are committing their pranks in the classroom: the abuse tends to ebb on a Friday afternoon and resume early on a Monday. Entire schools and universities have found their I.P. addresses blocked as a result. The entry on George W. Bush has been vandalized so frequently—sometimes more than twice a minute—that it is often closed to editing for days. At any given time, a couple of hundred entries are semi-protected, which means that a user must register his I.P. address and wait several days before making changes. This group recently included not only the entries on God, Galileo, and Al Gore but also those on poodles, oranges, and Frédéric Chopin. Even Wales has been caught airbrushing his Wikipedia entry—eighteen times in the past year. He is particularly sensitive about references to the porn traffic on his Web portal. “Adult content” or “glamour photography” are the terms that he prefers, though, as one user pointed out on the site, they are perhaps not the most precise way to describe lesbian strip-poker threesomes. (In January, Wales agreed to a compromise: “erotic photography.”) He is repentant about his meddling. “People shouldn’t do it, including me,” he said. “It’s in poor taste.”
Wales recently established an “oversight” function, by which some admins (Essjay among them) can purge text from the system, so that even the history page bears no record of its ever having been there. Wales says that this measure is rarely used, and only in order to remove slanderous or private information, such as a telephone number. “It’s a perfectly reasonable power in any other situation, but completely antithetical to this project,” said Jason Scott, a longtime contributor to Wikipedia who has published several essays critical of the site.
Part of the problem is provenance. The bulk of Wikipedia’s content originates not in the stacks but on the Web, which offers up everything from breaking news, spin, and gossip to proof that the moon landings never took place. Glaring errors jostle quiet omissions. Wales, in his public speeches, cites the Google test: “If it isn’t on Google, it doesn’t exist.” This position poses another difficulty: on Wikipedia, the present takes precedent over the past. The (generally good) entry on St. Augustine is shorter than the one on Britney Spears. The article on Nietzsche has been modified incessantly, yielding five archived talk pages. But the debate is largely over Nietzsche’s politics; taken as a whole, the entry is inferior to the essay in the current Britannica, a model of its form. (From Wikipedia: “Nietzsche also owned a copy of Philipp Mainländer’s ‘Die Philosophie der Erlösung,’ a work which, like Schopenhauer’s philosophy, expressed pessimism.”)
Wikipedia remains a lumpy work in progress. The entries can read as though they had been written by a seventh grader: clarity and concision are lacking; the facts may be sturdy, but the connective tissue is either anemic or absent; and citation is hit or miss. Wattenberg and Viégas, of I.B.M., note that the vast majority of Wikipedia edits consist of deletions and additions rather than of attempts to reorder paragraphs or to shape an entry as a whole, and they believe that Wikipedia’s twenty-five-line editing window deserves some of the blame. It is difficult to craft an article in its entirety when reading it piecemeal, and, given Wikipedians’ obsession with racking up edits, simple fixes often take priority over more complex edits. Wattenberg and Viégas have also identified a “first-mover advantage”: the initial contributor to an article often sets the tone, and that person is rarely a Macaulay or a Johnson. The over-all effect is jittery, the textual equivalent of a film shot with a handheld camera.
What can be said for an encyclopedia that is sometimes right, sometimes wrong, and sometimes illiterate? When I showed the Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam his entry, he was surprised to find it as good as the one in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He was flabbergasted when he learned how Wikipedia worked. “Obviously, this was the work of experts,” he said. In the nineteen-sixties, William F. Buckley, Jr., said that he would sooner “live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” On Wikipedia, he might finally have his wish. How was his page? Essentially on target, he said. All the same, Buckley added, he would prefer that those anonymous two thousand souls govern, and leave the encyclopedia writing to the experts.
Over breakfast in early May, I asked Cauz for an analogy with which to compare Britannica and Wikipedia. “Wikipedia is to Britannica as ‘American Idol’ is to the Juilliard School,” he e-mailed me the next day. A few days later, Wales also chose a musical metaphor. “Wikipedia is to Britannica as rock and roll is to easy listening,” he suggested. “It may not be as smooth, but it scares the parents and is a lot smarter in the end.” He is right to emphasize the fright factor over accuracy. As was the Encyclopédie, Wikipedia is a combination of manifesto and reference work. Peer review, the mainstream media, and government agencies have landed us in a ditch. Not only are we impatient with the authorities but we are in a mood to talk back. Wikipedia offers endless opportunities for self-expression. It is the love child of reading groups and chat rooms, a second home for anyone who has written an Amazon review. This is not the first time that encyclopedia-makers have snatched control from an élite, or cast a harsh light on certitude. Jimmy Wales may or may not be the new Henry Ford, yet he has sent us tooling down the interstate, with but a squint back at the railroad. We’re on the open road now, without conductors and timetables. We’re free to chart our own course, also free to get gloriously, recklessly lost. Your truth or mine? ♦
The July 31, 2006, piece on Wikipedia, “Know It All,” by Stacy Schiff, contained an interview with a Wikipedia site administrator and contributor called Essjay, whose responsibilities included handling disagreements about the accuracy of the site’s articles and taking action against users who violate site policy. He was described in the piece as “a tenured professor of religion at a private university” with “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.”
Essjay was recommended to Ms. Schiff as a source by a member of Wikipedia’s management team because of his respected position within the Wikipedia community. He was willing to describe his work as a Wikipedia administrator but would not identify himself other than by confirming the biographical details that appeared on his user page. At the time of publication, neither we nor Wikipedia knew Essjay’s real name. Essjay’s entire Wikipedia life was conducted with only a user name; anonymity is common for Wikipedia administrators and contributors, and he says that he feared personal retribution from those he had ruled against online. Essjay now says that his real name is Ryan Jordan, that he is twenty-four and holds no advanced degrees, and that he has never taught. He was recently hired by Wikia—a for-profit company affiliated with Wikipedia—as a “community manager”; he continues to hold his Wikipedia positions. He did not answer a message we sent to him; Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikia and of Wikipedia, said of Essjay’s invented persona, “I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.”