How do you sum up the calamity that has gripped English-language Wikipedian the last few days. In the spirit of 60 Second Shakespeare, I give you The Question of Essjay:
Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Stacy Schiff, writes a detailed feature story in The New Yorker (July 2006) about Wikipedia, describing how its online denizens are “devoted…to a higher good.” In “The Know it All”, respected Wikipedian User:Essjay is profiled, where Schiff relates (with information from his user bio page and from phone interviews) that he is a “tenured professor of religion at a private university” and holds a “Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.”
Problem is, it’s all false. In early 2007, Essjay accepted a job with Wikia, the for-profit spinoff by Jimmy Wales and Wikipedian Angela Beesley. Facing the reality of having to work in-person with colleagues, he comes clean claiming to be Ryan Jordan, a 24 year old from Louisville, Kentucky, with a background as a paralegal and perhaps no college degree at all. He posts a new “real” biography with still seemingly too much to fit into two dozen years of existence.
Wikipedia’s spiritual founder Jimmy Wales, travelling in India at the time and likely working off imperfect information, defends Essjay in public and to the press, “I regard it as a pseudonym and I donâ€™t really have a problem with it.” Shortly after, Essjay is elevated by Jimmy to the ranks of serving on the Arbitration Committee, the highest level of service for deciding on community matters. Wales stated later on his Talk page, “EssJay has always been, and still is, a fantastic editor and trusted member of the community…He has been thoughtful and contrite about the entire matter, and I consider it settled.”
Meanwhile Wikipedians erupt in debate on mailing lists, User talk pages of Essjay/Jimbo and the Community noticeboard. Blogs are raging, with original Wikipedia editor-in-chief Larry Sanger, best-selling authors of Freakonomics and tech pundit Nick Carr outright questioning if Wikipedia supports and endorses identity fraud. Wikipedians, usually quick to circle the wagons to protect their own from media distortion and unwanted identity exposure, don’t come to rescue Essjay this time around. Meanwhile, Essjay has remained coy, refusing to make statements of clarification, until pressed to do so a few days later. Ultimately, he claims it was a defensive persona to evade online stalkers and trolls, not an uncommon problem in Wikipedia.
But his “My Response” post is hardly contrite, and only raises more ire of folks who feel he feels no remorse in deceiving a reporter and fellow Wikipedians. “I *am* sorry if anyone in the Wikipedia community has been hurt by my decision to use disinformation to protect myself…I have no intention of going anywhere, because to do so would be to let the vandals, trolls, and stalkers win.”
Essjay has his supporters. Even his skeptics appreciate his widely recognized good work in the community. But the trust has been violated. Scores of fellow users don’t buy the cover story, and many start using Wikipedia’s years-deep database to comb his edit history and past behavior. They dig up numerous accounts of Essjay using the “professor persona” and false credentials to gain the upper hand in articles and policy debates. It was no longer an external crisis, it was an internal crisis of confidence. And still, he has access to the most powerful tools concerning privacy and trust — checkuser and oversight.
The community seethes. Debate rages. Straw polls are taken as to what to do. Jimmy Wales’s early support is crucial and keeps Essjay’s standing intact, for now. But the god-king is in India, without good access to the news in the kingdom.
So it’s come to this.
It started by Essjay deceiving a respected print reporter and legendary fact-checking publication. Many shrugged. The reporter should have demanded more verifiability. But as the facts started to come out about Essjay’s behavior, it clearly was not a simple identity cover story. It was a whole new level of deception. And suddenly many Wikipedians are questioning the integrity of the human being behind the persona, the one now employed by Wikia.
It’s said three points define a pattern. In this case, a pattern of bad behavior. Will there be a third point? Dear reader, there is a third. And it’s perhaps the most serious of them all.
UPDATE: Thanks to Larry Sanger for pointing out the comment from Wales was from the New Yorker, and I’ve added an updated quote from Jimmy Wales’s Talk page. A few hours after this blog entry was posted, Jimmy Wales posted another message saying he had changed his mind given new facts that came to light and, “I have asked EssJay to resign his positions of trust within the community.”