ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Another Essjay Essay —

It’s worth it to talk just a little more about the Essjay Assery I talked about a couple days ago. A few things have shifted around, the usual “I guess that’s the end of the show, move along” crap is happening, and I wanted to get a few more things in before everything becomes “Ancient History” and “Water Under The Bridge” in 36 hours, as is often the case.

A lot of this is being covered elsewhere in various degrees and multiple angles, like any good car crash, but since I started discussing this issue, I should at the very least describe its “end”.

The Story so Far: There was a compulsive liar who got a Wikipedia account, and told tales out of school about being IN school. Lots of school, really, where you keep studying and then you get a couple doctorates because you’re so smart and good. Unfortunately, he didn’t really go to school, and was only lying. Also: lots of other lying. Eventually Wikipedia, Jimbo Wales and Wikia put him in charge of nearly everything, including sniffing out liars. A reporter interviewed the liar, and he lied a little more. Eventually, he was caught in the lie and a very angry lie-hater who is banned from Wikipedia told the reporter’s magazine about the lie, and they printed a little paragraph that said “Sorry about the lie, we were misled by a lying liar who lied.” Naturally, Jimbo Wales did the right Wikipedian thing: He said the lying liar was sorry and it would never ever happen again.

Everyone in the entire world went “What the Fucking Fuck, Jimbo” at the same time, which is a very amazing sound, kind of like an elephant deflating. Jimbo Wales eventually said he was traveling and didn’t understand that the lying liar had lied in a specific way that bothered Jimbo, so he asked the lying liar to step down. The lying liar stepped down and everyone cried on Wikipedia except for everyone who hated him being a lying liar. Which was a lot of people.

The End.

Basically, Essjay stepped down from all his positions and “retired” from Wikipedia. Since basically nobody on Wikipedia has any way to verify anything he’s ever said ever, there’s no way to know if he’s not just switched back to a different account and is building up his collection again, but the “Essjay” mask is utterly broken and basically gone off Wikipedia.

The game, of course, is now on to go through Essjay’s editing history and find all the stupid crap he did in an ironic fashion while falsely being a professor with 4 degrees. Believe it or not, this is something I like about Wikipedia; I like methodical research, careful tracing back of lines of influence and unintentional ironies and humor. There is a segment of the Wikipedia population that is very good at that, and given the “He was lying, he was faking credentials” premise, they’ve found some great stuff indeed.

For example, at one point Essjay criticized someone for a bunch of crimes, including… faking a degree. Essjay added his doctorates to a list of “Wikimedians with degrees”. He told people about his students. At one point he “staked” his “Ph.D” on having the right answer. And then you go in the different direction, finding all these cases where he edited articles in his field of study, and got basic facts wrong, only to be corrected by others, in that kind of head-shaking “You OK, Doctor?” conversations that make you snort once the light of day shines on the true factors behind the errors.

This is all right and good and somewhat entertaining, in the way that a misspelled dictionary is entertaining.

One of Essjay’s lies, unfortunately, touched into a location that’s a pretty fucktardish thing to do, so I’m going to be a little serious for the moment.

When describing his interaction with Stacy Schiff, the reporter who wrote the article for the New Yorker that quotes Essjay and prints his credentials, Essjay deflects from the ethics of presenting false credentials to the press and says that Stacy Schiff basically offered him compensation for his contributions, and promised an advance copy to read before press (although he says that was never sent).

This sort of side-swipe might work with a second-string reporter from the Podunk Weekly Standard, but Stacy Schiff is not a second string reporter from the sticks. She was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 and 2000 and won it the second time. She’s been a journalist for years. And yes, I was one of the other people who she interviewed for the article. I’m quoted in there, actually.

Schiff interviewed me for something like 8 hours across multiple phone calls over the course of a few weeks. She’s fucking brilliant. She brought me questions that were the kind of inquiries you make when you “get it” but want to “get it” even more. She’s a thinker, and she didn’t shy away from talking to a lot of people for this article.

Ethical reporters don’t try to buy sources. Maybe they cover lunch. Maybe. Schiff didn’t offer me one fat dime the whole time she talked, never referred to anyone else being offered anything (not even a lunch) and she never offered to send me advance copies of her stuff. She did warn me of a fact checker, who called me and duly asked me if I’d said what I was quoted at, and if I was what it said I was. I said yes, because they were true. (I’m funny that way.)

It’s one thing for a lying liar to lie about himself and use these fake lies to build a little Castle of Lies around himself to mount further attempts to gain bigger Lie Castles. It’s another thing to libel a person of such caliber. Shame on him.

Did Schiff make a mistake? Yes, she let the Wikipedia environs, either Wikimedia Foundation members or Jimbo Wales or whoever, tell her to take Essjay on face value. She didn’t know, as I know and how anyone who studies the situation for a long time knows, how completely arbitrary and trust-corrupt the organization is. Anonymity is great for message bases; not so great for administrative power structures. It’s downright lethal for endorsements and recommendations.

While Essjay twitched in his Lie Spasms, many people came forward to pat him on the back, to tell him not to worry, he’ll get through this little setback. Even as it was shown how much he did, people saw the bright side; he wasn’t stealing cookies, he was putting cookies back. He wasn’t burning down houses, he was trying to find his lost kitten using a flaming torch. You know how it is. Here, kitty kitty.

So this brings up the point.

Because about the only advantage I have over a lot of other people making postings and postulations is my computer history knowledge, let’s immediately make a comparison to a situation I discovered seven years ago. I posted the whole story here, but since I’m making a specific point, I won’t go into the detail that link does.

Basically, I had a textfile which described someone ripping off a bunch of Fidonet Sysops for tens of thousands of dollars, then disappearing into the night. Naturally, the Fidonet guys were very angry, and found out the guy was a fugitive from the law, and wrote this textfile describing the whole situation and to be on the lookout for the guy. That was in 1988. He was never found.

In June of 2000, the beloved retired head of an ISP had a heart attack and died. Guess who.

Yes, that’s right, the fugitive had moved to another city, started setting up another scam… and struck it rich. Super rich! So much he retired and had a fleet of cars and all the trimmings. But when he died, they found he had fake IDs and a bunch of other indications something was wrong. This was a guy who was wanted for “Attempted Capital Murder of a Police Officer”. He wasn’t a very nice man.

Why am I bringing this up? This is why: I got an enormous amount of shit from people who knew the guy in Indianapolis for “dragging his name through the mud”. I had angry e-mails telling me how he was a great fellow, always did folks right, was friendly, and why would I be insulting this poor dead man, this pillar of the community?

Oh, I don’t know, maybe because he shot at a fucking cop? Because he sunk the life savings of at least a dozen and possibly more people into a black hole? Because he used the trust network of the Fidonet system as a means to utterly and completely exploit everyone around him for years on end until he died a fat, happy bastard, one last middle finger aimed at life before they shoved him into the ground?

That guy’s name was John Paul Aleshe. I hope he’s doing telemarketing calls in hell, trying to sell fire to the other damned. This guy’s name, we don’t even know. He claims it was “Ryan Jordan” but he also claimed he had four degrees and later that he worked at a Fortune 20 company making millions of dollars in sales. Tomorrow we’ll find he’s “actually, really” somebody else, doing something else equally unbelievable.

The reason that we call them “con artists” is because the “con” stands for “confidence”. The person exudes confidence, clarity and determination and damn if you don’t fall right in line behind them and follow the leader. The very nature of the person is to rely in a trust network that has holes and exploit those holes and then exploit the exploit until they’ve acquired all the money or power or sex or whatever they’re after.

Think about it: in just a couple of years, Essjay had acquired every major position in Wikipedia’s class structure, every secret power you can get on there: the ability to lock out users, the ability to “disappear” articles, the ability to decide the fate of others in arbitration, the ability to protect articles from being suddenly changed or modified by the “wrong” folks. He’d even gotten a paying job from the for-pay version of Wikipedia! Way to go, charlatan doucheface!

Wikipedia considers the ability of anonymous or un-backed-up users to be a feature. A few of us consider it a tad of a bug. Here’s a case where it showed how much that bug can be exploited for personal gain, and how many people, even when faced with total, utter, obvious evidence that they were bamboozled will say “But he was such a good editor. He did so much work. I’m going to miss him….

A similar situation is known to occur when it turns out someone is practicing as a doctor for years with no medical training whatsoever. While they haul the guy off in chains because, well, he was completely making crap up and was totally unprepared for a whole set of medical situations, people will stand in the dock and talk about what a great man he was, how much he helped the community, how even though he fundamentally lied about everything that he was, he had an excellent bedside manner.

This problem isn’t going to go away. The addition of the online aspect makes it even worse.

And as for Essjay, alias “Ryan Jordan”, alias whatever his real name is, who twitched and flailed and moved his head back and forth while people pointed out his pile of lies and who, left by Jimbo Wales to resign, tries to take the reputation of a talented and worthwhile reporter down with him, I think my opinion is clear:

When he dies, I hope he wakes up in a cubicle, wearing a headset, in a very hot place, with the guy next to him holding out a blistered, burning hand, going “Hi, my name’s John.”

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  1. beoba says:

    I dunno, damning someone to hell for screwing around on Wikipedia seems a tad .. old testament. Sure, the guy was an asshat, but he’ll indirectly help people to take Wikipedia (and its contributors) with a grain of salt, which is something that should have been done all along.

  2. Samuel Erikson says:

    On the John Paul Aleshe article:
    It looks like the only off-site article that still works, or can be found in working form at, is the one from Network World Fusion. The Indianapolis Star seems to have a few articles in its archives if you search for John Paul Aleshe, but you have to pay for them.

  3. Jason Scott says:

    Whoops, I was linked to the wrong page. I’m now linked to the page where I went nuts and mirrored everything locally.

  4. AngiePen says:

    beoba — I didn’t get that he was being damned to hell for screwing around on Wikipedia per se, but rather that he was being damned to hell for lying, for taking advantage of people’s trust, for splattering his own mud on other people and on a large project a lot of people are devoted to, and for trying to drag the rep of a Pulitzer winning journalist down with him as he sank, just to make himself look a tiny bit not-quite-so-bad. I’m with Jason — this guy gets a cubicle in hell.

    Jason — there’s a lot of this going around lately. :/ It reminds me in particular of the MsScribe blow-up in Harry Potter fandom a few months ago, another case of lying for power and position, this time with the help of a box full of sockpuppets. As with the fake doctors, it drew a bunch of people saying, “But she was so nice!!” and defending her for literally years until the castle of blocks was finally demolished by a very few determined people. And again there were those who don’t get it saying, “So what? It’s just [blank]” where in this case the [blank] was fandom instead of Wikipedia.

    But lying in order to manipulate people’s feelings and sympathies is the actual crime, no matter the setting. Along with abusing the trust of a lot of honest people for the sake of power and influence, and making those honest people who supported them look like either partners in crime or gullible idiots. To me, that sort of behavior is worth a good damning, no matter how “trivial” or “frivolous” the setting. :/


  5. Robster says:

    Thought you might want to see this… — when one of the Lord High Poobahs of Wikipedia rationalises a false resume by saying “everyone does it”… is she speaking for the entire organization?

    People get fired every day for falsifying resumes… so why is this so heartrending for the Wikiborg?

  6. jayrtfm says:

    Any chance that you can post alternate versions of your essays without the profanity? This way high school computer classes could still access it, otherwise. Symantec’s filter will block it based on content.

  7. beoba says:

    Or implement an alternate url which merely replaces all profanity with 1337sp33k variants. Then everybody’s happy!

    Re Angie: Oh, yeah, I forgot about the defaming-of-reporter bit, I see your point.

    Feature request for site: When previewing a comment, have content left-aligned, rather than center.

  8. Get a Wikipedia account, post your essays there, and let readers edit out the profanity themselves. They might even make other improvements in your writing, too.

  9. FWIW, I say leave the fucking profanity in. Fuck ’em all if they can’t take a joke.

  10. Jason Scott says:

    The creative commons license on the essay permits people to take copies of the essays I write and remix them for purposes, of which “bowdlerizing for the consumption of children” certainly applies.

    You realize you signed your call for less profanity “jayrtfm”, right?