Required warning: This is about Wikipedia.
It’s been quite a week to be a Wikipedia critic.
The Wikicritic market, previously one of a few concerned voices drowned out by the tidal din of Wiki-love-chants, is now itself flooded with me-toos. I can’t go anywhere without hearing about this “controversy” that is bouncing around places that normally give Wikipedia nothing but a big hug and a pat on the ass.
In case you’ve been missing out on it, the short form is this: a popular editor of Wikipedia was hired by the Wikia company and in doing so revealed that he wasn’t a guy with some college degrees but in fact was a 24-year old kid from Kentucky. This made a lot of people unhappy, and in the ensuing discussions, Jimbo Wales and strongly alleganced Wikipedians have tried to downplay it, mostly because that position’s always worked before. It’s not working as well this time.
That’s the short form, which is not all that accurate. Here’s some elaboration.
- He wasn’t just a popular editor, but in fact was a very active editor on wikipedia, with many, many thousands of edits under his account. And over time, he was not just an editor, having played the World of Wordcraft game that is Wikipedia so well he’d collected most of the “level-ups” you could hope to achieve: Editor, Administrator, Oversight, and Arbitration Committee Member. Some of these are truly difficult bonus rings to grab onto, requiring months or years of careful reputation building, carefully phrased responses to posed questions and clarity of vision when explaining your actions. It’s almost impossible to do without having multiple accounts to siphon off your more base or cruel instincts.
- His false character, wasn’t just “a guy with some college degrees”. In fact, he claimed to be a professor with 4 degrees, including two doctorates. He listed them specifically and in what fields (Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies, Religion, Theology, Canon Law) and indicated that he was teaching classes in this subject. He also implied a degree in life experience, adding 20 years to his age.
- Actually, he didn’t just claim false credentials… he would cite them in arguments and win arguments that way. He would mention having “not heard that in or out of class”, classes he was not running. He called himself “one of Wikipedia’s foremost experts on Catholicism” in the middle of a discussion. And he referenced his Ph.D with this promise: “This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it’s credibility.”
- It didn’t just make people unhappy; it has been tearing everybody apart. People who have been involved with Wikipedia for years and some of its most vocal supporters have had to hold their noses and try to find a justification for this. People who were indifferent are in many cases absolutely livid, considering what a slap in the face this sudden declaration is and how many years the fiction was maintained. And people like myself, who have spent a little bit of time pointing out the flaws in the system and the potential for abuse, have been grabbing snacks and sitting on the side of the hill while the fireworks get progressively more spectacular.
- Wales and gang are not just trying to downplay it. They have actively told the entire world to go fuck themselves, because it was an internal matter and everyone’s had a strong talking to, and everything’s handled, and please just go back to working on Wikipedia because we’re all here to make an encyclopedia, blah blah, etc. Anyone raising Cain after this declaration is a troublemaker, a troll, and shouldn’t be paid any heed. The issue is closed.
- Finally, it’s well beyond “not working as well this time”. Even people who vaguely know what the hell a “Wiki” really is totally understand the concept of “degree falsification” and how, in the history of such a scandal, the traditional response is to resign or be fired. The fact that Wales’ response was to promote the lying lie-licious liar into one of the single most powerful users on Wikipedia after the story broke is going to get this little story everywhere, and people are getting (justifiably) angry about this, and not just turning to whatever’s next on the Food Network.
Naturally, the not-a-doctor in question, whose pseudonym is “Essjay”, has been going through what I like to call a “Liar Spasm”. This is the set of wild screams, arm flailing, and bug-eyed thousand-yard-stare that accompanies the discovery and unrefutable publicity of a fraud/con artist. It’s quite spectacular to watch (hence the popcorn party for the Wiki-critics). I’ll matrix what’s going on with a couple other recent frauds: the Joyce Hatto plagarised music hoopla, and the James Frey completely-made-up-shit extravaganza.
Here’s how these go.
- Person is universally beloved, lauded for talent, considered a high water-mark.
- Joyce Hatto: World-renown pianist, capable of playing an incredible range of music from many artists, recorded over 100 CDs, playing despite her affliction with cancer that eventually took her life.
- James Frey: Author of “A Million Little Pieces” and “My Friend Leonard”, incredibly-selling books telling of personal pain and redemption, quoting amazing stories of his life that seem almost unreal in their depths of sadness and recovery.
- Essjay: Beloved editor of Wikipedia, doctor of divinity, tens of thousands of edits and mass of contribution to Wikipedia. Lauded so much that his name is recommended to the New Yorker when a piece is written on the Wikipedia phenomenon.
- Something doesn’t quite add up, and people start asking questions.
- Joyce Hatto: A music lover pops in one of Hatto’s CDs and for some reason, the computer matches it up to a completely different artist’s performance of the same piece.
- James Frey: The website “The Smoking Gun” decides to get their hands on a couple mugshots of Frey for their mugshots collection, and start finding themselves stymied in tracking down any record of the alleged events.
- Essjay: Having been hired by the Wikia Foundation, Essjay lists the information on his Wikia page about himself in a way that is utterly incompatible with his previous descriptions of himself.
- The parties begin thrashing insanely trying to cover up what just happened, piling misstatements and untruths that just dig a deeper hole.
- Joyce Hatto: Her husband/widower claims first that he has no idea how such an amazing coincidence can have happened. After it is shown that there are waveform-perfect matches, he then says that he spliced in other performances from other artists to mask his wife’s screams of pain she suffered during her bout with cancer, recording her pieces..
- James Frey: First started blocking all access by The Smoking Gun to anyone he could control, then claimed it was all a conspiracy to take him down, then said that some pieces were fabricated to help the story, then claimed on his weblog that the truth would be told and then ultimately fell down into a self-criticizing loop, appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show (where he had benefited hugely from a previous appearance) to be dressed down for a full show by Oprah herself.
- Essjay: First claims this is all no big deal, and that he only was doing it to protect himself from hate mail and death threats, then apologized profusely “if” anyone was hurt by his actions, then enlisted Jimbo Wales to defend him and say that they’d talked and everything was fine, and now is stonewalling….
Obviously, the story is still unfolding; I’d be surprised if he lasts on Wikipedia for a week before he has to take a “Wikibreak”, or whether he could possibly continue to maintain his position on Wikipedia. But the best part, to me, is that I think he’s still in the middle of a lie. This is critical: I don’t believe for a second that Ryan Jordan is what or who he says he is. He still has made no public appearance at a Wikimania conference, he has made statements about working at a Fortune 20 company that don’t add up, and there is some question as to what his real age and location is. A reasonable person would say “Surely, he can’t still be lying about this sort of stuff, with all this attention, all this going on.” And like I pointed out above, the Liar Spasms take a long time to die. I think we’re nowhere near the end of that.
Now that we have all that out of the way…
First, there’s a few more details to get out there about Essjay’s actions over the past couple of years. First of all, he would wade into articles and subjects that were related to his “degrees”, and he would reference his “degrees”, “students” and “classes” in the process of arguing points or pushing for changes in articles. In other words, he deliberately misled others to think he had credentials he did not. Second, he was interviewed by a magazine (the New Yorker) and allowed this fiction to continue, essentially lying to a reporter’s face (over the phone, of course). Third and most disturbingly, even as all this information was breaking, Jimbo Wales appointed Essjay to the Arbitration Committee, which is basically Wikipedia’s Court of Last Resort, where Wikipedians can be brought before them or bring others before them and they will sign off on whether the actions or events were justifiable/proper under Wikipedia’s rules.
What is going on in all this, and which I am fearful is going to be missed, is how Wikipedia’s Value System functions. “Honor Killings”, “Circumcision”, “Dog Shows”, “Child Soldiers”, “Abortion” … there are thousands of events and values that people engage in every day that are completely inscrutable to a good portion of the rest of the people on the Earth. Sometimes you can see the logic and decide it’s just not your cup of joe, but other times you see things that are allowed in one jurisdiction that would have “those people” turned into organ donors anywhere else.
Wikipedia’s value system is not obvious to “outsiders”, that is, the millions who now browse the articles and don’t do much editing (which is the vast majority of people). But those values are there, and they’re sometimes not as obvious as you think. For example:
- The action of editing or making changes is considered positive, as long as the changes are consistent and not non-sequitur. If you do the same simple change (linking all examples of a word to an article) to a thousand articles, you are considered to have accomplished a lot more than someone who’s made one or two (paragraph-sized, researched) changes to an article.
- Destruction is lauded and cheered as much as construction. If you are able to delete hundreds of articles because you think the people, places or things listed therein are “not notable”, you are lauded for improving the Wikipedia as much or more as someone who adds 10 new articles on subjects previously not covered. In fact, if someone comes along and gets your 10 articles deleted, they are going to be lauded ever more than you were for creating them.
- Jimbo Wales is Law. There are a hundred ways to side-step this and it’s kind of on the same level as going “Do you really think this wafer is the Blood and Body of Christ”, but functionally, there is a high regard held to any statements or declarations that Jimbo Wales makes in a Wikipedia article and with very few exceptions (although not without a little bit of pouting and shouting), His Will Shall Be Done.
- There are Wikipedians and there are Wikipedians. It is possible to be an editor on Wikipedia (well, obviously it’s easy for anybody to be an editor on Wikipedia) but there are shifting thresholds on Wikipedia that, if you fail to achieve, mean you’re kind of a tourist and not really a member of the community in good standing. (I used to keep track of these thresholds but the ruleset of Wikipedia got too big, and I lost track.)
- Discussion is very good. Too much discussion is counterproductive and needs to be halted.
- Nobody Understands Us. People who complain about Wikipedia in any length of time are likely trying to hurt to project and should leave. People who contribute (see above) and yet question what Wikipedia’s goals and problems might be are likely moles and should not be trusted. Newspapers are generally approaching with an agenda and want to find faults. Organizations that question aspects of Wikipedia don’t get it and should be ignored. People who chime in as readers but who are not full-fledged Wikipedians are, as an entire group, trolls and should be ignored.
Once you start to observe things knowing this value system is in place, unusual responses to this situation make more sense. For example, a lot of Wikipedians have come to Essjay’s defense by pointing out that his edits were all good. If he was doing lots of good edits, it doesn’t matter what his credentials were. When Essjay “apologized”, and Jimbo Wales said “I consider the matter closed”, then for a lot of Wikipedians, that’s pretty much all that needs to be done; it was handled In the Family and the Outsiders have no relevance to the discussion. And they should go away.
It’s too easy, when you run into these clashing value systems, to get hung up on the differences between the system and your own. That’s basically what people are doing right now, wondering why this Jimbo guy gets to shut down discussions or marvelling over the tortured lyrical games being played to justify Essjay’s behavior. What I think is in danger of getting lost here, though, is the level of corruption even within the value system.
For example, it is considered very bad in Wikipedia to have multiple accounts, but many people have multiple accounts simply because they can’t keep track of all the subjects they’re editing/watching otherwise. Some use it to split off bad parts of their personalities, while others are literally using it to keep track of a collection of like-minded articles (say, Mathematics) while other accounts are used to do administrative work. Administrators “do it”. Editors “do it”. But if you get caught “doing it”, it’s a bannable offense. It’s Wikipedia’s Sodomy, basically.
Similarly, if you spend enough time hanging around in Wikipedia’s Deletion Review pages (I do not actually recommend this), you will see that the sands shift almost randomly as to what articles are kept and which are deleted. Even though Wikipedia paints itself as the ‘Sum of Human Knowledge”, since the values are that culling out “cruft” is considered good work, people work to gain points of experience trying to get articles deleted as much as added. It’s not the Sum of Human Knowledge. It’s Some Human Knowledge.
None of Wikipedia’s message bases scale, since they were never designed to be used the way they are; where anybody can edit anyone else’s stuff, anyone’s postings, and only the most recent “post” is considered valid, so you’re fighting race conditions that a “real” message base doesn’t have. So, as soon as Slashdot or Metafilter or Fark or any sizeable audience comes to a location on Wikipedia, this free encyclopedia that anyone can edit has to put up nasty banners telling people their votes do not count, and if they came because of a posting somewhere, they should turn around and get the heck out. They’re outsiders, you see, and they don’t understand Wikipedia like the Wikipedians. Shoo.
The Wikipedia that lives inside the heads of people who use it to check a few trivial subjects from work while they’re bored don’t care about these value conflicts, any more than they tend to care about the living conditions of the person who assembled their Wii controllers. It doesn’t make them evil or wrong, just not interested in that aspect of things. Some of us, like myself, are interested in that aspect of things with regard to Wikipedia, and so, when time and energy permits, I study it and its situations because the critical mass it enjoys right now is a unique an amazing opportunity. This latest white-hot spotlight, shining across the badly-formed gears and endless chewing-gum solutions deep in Wikipedia’s mechanism, is an entertaining sideshow, but I don’t let it take my eyes of the ongoing circus within.
Anyway, I’m giving a talk on Wikipedia at notacon. It’ll correlate to this weblog entry a little, but not completely. See you there.
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