Wednesday, March 07, 2007


The Essjay affair, postmortem part II

I haven't seen it asked on Wikipedia, so I'll state it here: How did Essjay manage to bluff his way into convincing other Wikipedians that his fictional persona was true?

First, let me get one thing out of the way: there is no penalty for misrepresenting yourself on your Wikipedia user page -- nor do I think that there should be. If you've participated online for any length of time, you've heard of stories where an online persona is revealed not to be anything like the person at the respective keyboard. Some people think it's hip to make up an online identity that's obviously false in order to point out that they know online identity is unreliable (e.g., "I am a tabby whose hobbies include eating, sleeping, demanding that my humans pay attention to me, and improving Wikipedia articles"). There's a bit of a thrill in pretending that you're someone you're actually not, and as long as it remains harmless fun, why should it be banned? Others are advocating for a way to offer assurance that they are who they say they are -- and creating a way that a reputation created in one part of the internet can be transferred to another. I tend towards that end of the spectrum: if you do a search on my username "llywrch", you'll find a large number of my contributions not only to Wikipedia, but to a lot of other fora where I have posted.

However, as Andrew Lih has pointed out, where Essjay went wrong was abusing this fictional persona: he lied to other Wikipedians that he was a tenured professor of theology, and repeated the same lie to a reporter while he was representing Wikipedia.

So, one might ask, since we never questioned the material on his user page, why should we then start worrying about these further lies? Because an identity and reputation in a community begins with one's actions. We Wikipedians insist that each of us (at least initially) assumes good faith when interacting with each other: if you tell me that a given town does not exist because you've been to that place and there is only a large field, I expect that you're telling the truth; if I tell you that my copy of book has a certain passage in it, I expect you to accept that I am telling the truth. Woe to all of us if that is not the case.

And despite Wikipedia's alleged reputation for being anti-expert, if a Wikipedian identifies her or himself as an expert on a Talk page, far more often than not other Wikipedians will defer to their expertise. If it's clear that someone speaks fluent Amharic, what will I gain if I demand that they provide a written source for words or translations from Amharic? After all, Wikipedia is a Wiki, and if or when a better source is found we can always correct the fact. Pragmatism forces us to assume good faith.

Although our good will can be manipulated by someone intent on bluffing his way, that is the case in real life. The difference between online communities and physical communities is that online communities often keep extensive records of what was said; physical communities rarely preserve more than a small fraction of their conversations -- which should have applied in this case. However, much of his questionable behavior was buried deep under 20,000 edits. Sometimes transparency can become opaque, and at least one Wikipedian has regretted that he could not sift through all of these edits before Essjay had been nominated.

What helped him in this bluff was to also contribute constructively to Wikipedia; had he persisted in pretending to be a professor, this deception would have been uncovered much sooner. By contributing to difficult tasks like handling disputes and dealing with vandals, he gained the trust of many influential members, who allowed him to move past these acts. Does this mean that he could have changed his behavior, and came to regret this fictitious persona? Although his edits have been found and collected, the collection has been obscured by people eager to bring the matter to an end, and so it's now difficult to recover precisely his state of mind when he wrote.

Consider this example. Essjay used his fictional persona to respond to an anonymous poster. It is the kind of response that any veteran Wikipedian could make in an off moment, tired from having dealt with sophomoric editors, troublemakers, and vandals. Or it might have been unfairly using a lie to win an argument; at this point, it's hard to say. And the fact he got himself into a corner that quitting Wikipedia could only get him out of makes further investigation moot.

In short, I wish Jimbo's nominations had been more openly discussed, so that the power of many eyes could have been used to mine the data. That might have enabled us to have averted this mistake. Physical, real-life communities fail when there isn't enough discussion and transparency; Wikipedia could also fail for the same cause.


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If surgery was like Wikipedia: Surgipedia.

Several surgipedians have gathered in an operation theater. On the table lies an unconscious man whos left leg looks dark. Surgipedian #1 grabs a sheet prepared by the patient's doctor that details the problem.

Surgipedian #1: "Whoa, he's been lying here for 26 hours, we sure got a backlog again. It also says on this that he has a 'claudication' and a 'chronic venous insufficiency' in the left leg", looks at right leg, "and we are asked to do a 'leg segmental arterial doppler ultrasound exam'. Whatever that is. His leg looks pretty good to me".

Surgipedian #2: "You looked at the wrong leg. It says the left one".

Surgipedian #1: "I looked at the left and it's looking totally normal!"

Surgipedian #2: "The left from his point of view! Do you know where your left leg is?"

Surgipedian #3: "No need for shouting, #2, please remember Surgipedia guideline 'Assume Good Faith'. #1 was just trying to be constructive!"

Surgipedian #2: "I was only trying to be constructive, too!"

Surgipedian #3: "Well, let's just get to back to this guy."

Surgipedian #1, feeling securely at the helm again: "I remember something I read once on a website about heart diseases; when your arms or legs turn dark, you got a heart problem".

Surgipedian #3: "Yup, you are right. It's something about the veins in the heart being clogged up."

Surgipedian #2, feeling outdone: "I think it's something about having not enough oxygen in your blood!"

Surgipedian #1: "Can you cite a source for that?"

Surgipedian #2: "My aunt Thelma had something like that and I wrote a paper about it for my biology class at school!"

Surgipedian #3: "Please remember Surgipedia guideline: No Original Research! Let's get back to the man's heart problem! What should we do?"

Surgipedian #1: "I think you need to cut open his ribs and give him a heart massage or clean the veins or something".

Surgipedian #3: "Sounds reasonable. After all, when you get a massage to your back, the blood there flows better as well. I just wrote an article about it".

Surgipedian #2: "Heh, that is original research, too!"

Surgipedian #3: "Several surgipedians agreed on that article to be correct. Are you trying to be a nuisance or do you want to do that man some good?"

Surgipedian #2: "Of course!"

Surgipedian #3: "Then please stay constructive! How do we cut the man's ribs?"

Surgipedian #1: "You need a saw or something."

Surgipedian #3: "A saw? Surgeons use scalpels when they operate. I think you just need to cut a hole and poke your fingers through".

Without further ado, he grabs a scalpel and cuts a hole approximately where the heart is and sticks two fingers through.

Surgipedian #3: "I can't reach the heart, my fingers are not long enough!"

Surgipedian #2: "Then do that thing with the veins!"

Surgipedian #3: "How do you do that?"

Surgipedian #2 "Well, my aunt Thelma finally had something they call a bypass and they cut open the veins, I think".

Surgipedian #3: "But that is orig..., well let's try it. But I will have to push in the scalpel pretty deep to reach the heart. Shall we do it?"

Surgipedian #1, #2: "Support".

Surgipedian #3 remembers Surgipedia guideline "Be Bold!", grabs the scalpel in his fist and swings his arm in preparation of a deep push into the hole, but at that moment a surgeon comes by.

Surgeon: "Stop! What in the world are you doing?"

Surgipedian #3: The man has a problem in his leg and we are going to cut his heart veins open".

Surgeon: "What? All I see is a man with vascular problem in his leg and another that wields a scalpel like a knife. Are you aware that pushing a scalpel into someone's heart will kill that person?"

Surgipedian #1: "We have decided by majority that this is the proper thing to do. Besides, can you prove that pushing a scalpel into someones heart is deadly?"

Surgeon: "You decided by MAJORITY? Are you all nuts?"

Surgipedian #2 feels that there is finally someone besides him to put down: "Please, no personal attacks!"

Surgeon: "I will fucking personal attack you if you endanger someones life!"

Surgipedian #3: "We need to call an admin!"

Surgeon: "Alright, do that, but put that scalpel down!"

An admin comes by.

Admin: "I have heard that a guest is violating Surgipedia rules".

Surgeon: "I am a surgeon and these people are about to kill this man by pushing a scalpel into his heart!"

Admin: "Reviewing the archived discussion, you are in violation of rules Surgipedia: Assume Good Faith, Surgipedia: Vandalism, Surgipedia: Neutral Point of View, Surgipedia: No Personal Attacks, Surgipedia: Avoid Weasel Words and Surgipedia: Do not disrupt Surgipedia to make a point. You will be blocked from accessing Surgipedia for one week. Please use the time to review Surgipedia guidelines and rules".

Admin and desperate Surgeon leave.

Surgipedian #3: "Okay, where were we?"
Surgipedian #2: "You were about to cut his heart."

Surgipedian #3: "Yup. I propose that so-called 'surgeon' was just a troll and we should go ahead."

Surgipedian #1 and #2: "Agree".

Surgipedian #3 slams the scalpel into the man's heart, who is dead within moments.

Surgipedian #3: "Why did he die?"

Surgipedian #1: "It's his fault. There was nothing WE did wrong!"

[All guidelines and policies mentioned in this satire do exist in Wikipedia.]
The scandal is bigger than this. Essjay was a victim of his own stupidity. Daniel Brandt outed his real credentials cause Wikipedia refuses to take down defamatory smears in the Public Information Research entry. The smears (1) violate policy using guilt by association on living persons; (2) are cited to a self-published source;3) the self-published source is a questionable source; (4) the self-publishing questionable source is cited by a mainstream reputable publisher as "extremist".

This still is only half the story, plus the coverups. The question is, why does Wikipedia refuse to correct the smears on Brandt? Stay tuned.....
Folks, let me say that the comments section is open to any comments that are not obvious spam.

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