Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2007-03-05/Essjay

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The Wikipedia Signpost

New Yorker correction dogs arbitrator into departure

By Michael Snow and Fuzheado, 5 March, 2007

Editor's note: The Wikipedia Signpost is an independent, community newspaper, and is not affiliated with the Wikimedia Foundation. Any comments published on this page are the opinions of their author alone, and do not reflect the opinion of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Ryan Jordan, also known as Essjay and newly appointed as a member of the Arbitration Committee a week ago, has resigned his positions and announced his departure from Wikipedia. This comes after The New Yorker, which interviewed him as part of a feature on Wikipedia last July, corrected its description of the fake persona Jordan had given the magazine. Ironically, this is another side of the Internet's potential anonymity once highlighted by The New Yorker itself, in a famous cartoon captioned, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

For a long time, Jordan did not disclose his identity, but described himself as a "tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States" and said he had four academic degrees in that field. In the meantime, he was a very active Wikipedia editor and became an administrator, bureaucrat, mediator, and received access to the checkuser and oversight functions. The New Yorker article by Stacy Schiff mentioned Jordan having degrees in theology and canon law and also talked about how he "often takes his laptop to class, so that he can be available to Wikipedians while giving a quiz."

Later revelations indicated that Jordan was 24 years old and living in Louisville, Kentucky. He had attended several colleges in the area, but did not possess the degrees he had claimed or teach at a university.

As an explanation for the fake persona, Jordan pointed to the problem of people trying to harass and stalk Wikipedia editors. This concern implicitly included the work of people like Wikipedia critic Daniel Brandt, although the persona predates Brandt's Wikipedia-related activity by several months. As Rogers Cadenhead discovered, Jordan alluded to having a Ph.D. in his fourth edit to Wikipedia, in April 2005. The statement was in a post to a talk page in support of his very first edit two months earlier.

For his part, Brandt helped bring the discrepancy to the attention of The New Yorker. As a result, last week the magazine explained what happened in an editors' note: "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."

Wikia revelation cascades to Wikipedia

Jordan's real identity first became known when Wikia hired him as a community manager. His name and a photo appeared on his Wikia user page when he started work in January. Though some people pointed out that they couldn’t be certain "Ryan Jordan" was Essjay’s name either (we refer to him as Jordan primarily for convenience), Wikia would have needed his real identity in order to put him on the payroll. In the aftermath of these events, Jordan also left Wikia.

Wikia had hired Jordan for reasons entirely unrelated to his misrepresentations. The position for which he was hired called for advanced wiki editing skills, assisting community members, and testing new features – qualifications Jordan had amply demonstrated, for example, in helping coordinate the Counter-Vandalism Unit and the Mediation Committee. As Kat Walsh (who held a similar position at Wikia before leaving for law school) put it, "Heaven knows Wikia does not care about Ph.D.s in theology."

On Wikipedia, however, the new persona began to prompt questions about how to square it with the old. In response, Jordan said that he never hid his personality, but used disinformation about what he called unimportant details. After The New Yorker posted its note, Jordan wrote that he was "sorry if anyone in the Wikipedia community has been hurt by my decision to use disinformation to protect myself."

Jimmy Wales was originally quoted in the New Yorker editors' note defending the Essjay persona, saying, "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it." Busy traveling from India to Japan, Wales later called for Jordan to resign his positions of trust, in light of the additional revelations about fake credentials being used in Wikipedia discussions. Jordan's apology and Wales's statements were each followed by vociferous discussions on their talk pages as well as on several community pages. Some of these discussions, as well as a Wikipedia article newly created about Jordan, also saw attempts to delete the pages amid calls for greater restraint to be exercised.

Apology presents another issue

In his apology, Jordan went on at length about the trouble he had gone through on behalf of Wikipedia and in being interviewed by Schiff. He also made the extraordinary claim that Schiff had "made several offers to compensate me for my time" during the course of the interview.

Reputable media publications reject the practice of paying interview subjects as unethical, and it is usually limited to sensationalist tabloids. The New Yorker generally enjoys a sterling reputation for ethics as well as fact-checking, which would help explain its attention to correcting a months-old article on a point tangential to the thrust of the story. New Yorker deputy editor Pam McCarthy said the magazine’s policy prohibits payment for interviews and strenuously defended Schiff's integrity, calling this "one of the worst charges that can be made about a reporter." Stacy Schiff flatly denied Jordan's claim, saying, "This is complete nonsense."

Jordan could not be reached for comment and his only subsequent Wikipedia edits were to announce his departure. Based on earlier statements he made, it is possible that he used calling cards to phone Schiff for the interview, and his claim may have referred to an offer to reimburse the cost of those calls. If this is what he meant, the mistake of referring to compensation for his "time" instead of his "expenses", though it may seem legalistic, was critical. Schiff's response did not address whether this alternate interpretation was correct.

McCarthy was also quoted in a New York Times story about the incident explaining why The New Yorker went ahead without corroborating all of the information in its story. She stated, "We were comfortable with the material we got from Essjay because of Wikipedia's confirmation of his work and their endorsement of him."

Wikimedia Foundation grants coordinator Danny Wool, who actually referred Jordan along with several other possible interview candidates to Schiff, responded: "In suggesting Essjay to Stacy...I stated that one of the appealing things about his story was the extreme anonymity. I also stated that he had turned down requests for interviews in the past, and that I was not sure he would agree. I was not asked about Essjay at all by the fact checker, who contacted me and discussed the other points of the article at length." (For further analysis, see Andrew Lih's blog.)

Also this week: Essjay retires

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