Does The Mistaken Identity Of A Wikipedia Editor Reflect Worse On Wikipedia… Or The New Yorker?

from the just-wondering dept

Stephen Dubner, over at the Freakonomics blog, is pointing out that The New Yorker has issued a correction to an article about Wikipedia from last summer. The article talked to one of Wikipedia’s site administrators and contributors, who goes by the name Essjay. The article claimed that Essjay was a tenured professor of religion at a private university, who had a Ph.D. in theology. However, the correction notes that Essjay is really a 24-year-old who has no advanced degrees and has never taught. This is getting some attention from the usual Wikipedia haters, suggesting that this is somehow proof of the problems with Wikipedia. However, that seems incredibly backwards. It actually highlights the reverse. It shows the fallibility of The New Yorker — a publication known as one of the few media outlets that still does serious fact checking, but apparently was not able to verify the identity of this individual. If anything, this highlights the fact that the so-called “professionals” often make mistakes too. Also, while mistakes in Wikipedia are a lot more easily correctable, it’s a bit of a process to correct this kind of mistake in The New Yorker — which is why it’s now getting attention.

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Comments on “Does The Mistaken Identity Of A Wikipedia Editor Reflect Worse On Wikipedia… Or The New Yorker?”

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Tommy 2face says:

Punish the thief not the victim

Wikipedia (Wiki) is a great source for lazy people to do research without doing research. Its also perfect for people who are willing to accept whatever they are told. This being said Wikipedia is still not to blame for this. What Essjay did was commit fraud. Wiki has only lived up to what they say they do, allow users to create an online resource.

Tommy 2face says:

Re: Re: Punish the thief not the victim

Ok don’t cry its ok to lie and deceive online. To a point your right its not fraud, legally defined its intrinsic fraud. Playing a video game… you’re probably like 13 or 14 years old, is different than an intentional false representation of credentials.

Dosquatch says:

Re: Re: Re: Punish the thief not the victim

you’re probably like 13 or 14 years old

Not by a measure of 2 decades. And it’s probably been half that since I’ve bothered with online gaming, but rest assured the statement was true at one point. ‘Twas only to make a point, though.

Playing a video game […] is different than an intentional false representation of credentials.

Not in this case, not really. I can run about online claiming to be a world-class physician. There’s no harm in this, and no legal foul, as long as I’m not doing so in an attempt to practice medicine or dispensing medical advice. But in this guise I am still at liberty to opine about politics, sociology, religion, the pros and cons of pseudonyms online (Hey, check that, I’m using one now, and I’m skeptical that your last name is “2face”).

So he claimed he was a professor. He wasn’t actually teaching classes. What difference does it make?

Seth Finkelstein (user link) says:

Blaming The Victim - Fraud shouldn't be excused

It’s not “mistaken identity”. It was fraud. A lie abetted by the Wikipedia management, who vouched for Essay to the New York reporter.

Yes, the NY should have been more vigilant, they should have kept in mind that someone who comes with high recommendation from Wikipedia managers can sill be an outright scammer.

But to focus exclusively on this, to soften the fact that it was a blatant lie, to only attack the New Yorker while excusing all that Wikipedia did and has done to con them – that’s the very worst sort of playing to the Web 2.0 cultists for the rewards of hype.

“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 recently hired by Wikia–a for-profit company affiliated with Wikipedia–as a “community manager”; he continues to hold his Wikipedia positions. He did not answer a message we sent to him; Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikia and of Wikipedia, said of Essjay’s invented persona, “I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.”

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Blaming The Victim - Fraud shouldn't be excuse


I’m not sure what the problem here is. Who was defrauded? Who is worse off because of this? Was Essjay’s edits fraudulent? No one seems to be making that claim. I’m not sure why this is a big deal at all, other than from folks such as yourself claiming this means something it doesn’t.

Michelle Readman says:

“It actually highlights the reverse” seems to imply to the casual reader that the forwards is not true, yet if you follow the perspective-over-wikipedia campain on this matter, those you describe as “wikipedia haters” describe how essjay’s claimed status gained him respect from other editors, allowing him to edit more freely.

Whilst I have never heard anything bad about essjay’s editing, this does highlight how easy it is to manipulate the editing community to ensure your version remains. I should not need to say that perhaps we were lucky with essjay, as just imagine what could happen if someone with a real and dangerous angenda used such a method.

Of course, this does reflect worse on the New Yorker, who really should have followed the first rule of using wikipedia – verify everything you read before you take it as absolute truth. More and more, however, people are just using wikipedia without this critical review of it’s content, and the hype around wikipedia generally encourages people to do this.

People on all sides really need to stop seeing this in terms of black and white, in terms of “wikipedia believers” and “wikipedia haters”. It’s an amazing resource and one of the best websites of all time. However it does have many flaws that are made all the more dangerous given it’s status.

Luke (user link) says:

Wikipedia the place to believe in disbelief

Wikipedia is great, if and only if, you’re looking for a quick general understanding of a topic.

If you can’t remember how to differintiate or integrate there’s a quick low-down on how to do it. If you want a quick intro into Freemasnry there’s just enough information to be dangerous, but you immediately see that the information is disputed among editors. Then you can try to find out info about Eli Lilly and find a single paragraph entry.

Wikipedia requires the user to make judgement calls – something I can say I don’t like allowing the majority of people to do because people are stupid.

Wikipedia is on the internet, so rule #1 of the internet applies: Everyone is your neighbor’s dog on the internet and he wants to hump your leg.

Hopeless Cynic says:


I suggest everyone look at the Wikipedia definition of fraud. It includes the idea that “Fraud is a crime, and is also a civil law violation.” So, which of you whiners was violated and where is the crime? Wikipedia is a great resourse for those of us that do NOT know everything like some of the Wiki haters that think they do.

Casper says:

The problem is that everyone is trying to push an agenda. The narrow minded people that dislike wikipedia are trying to use this as a weapon. The wikipedia people want to use this to illustrate that anyone can be fooled. In the end, I would have to say that there really isn’t much here. He lied, but he did it equally. It’s not that wikipedia lied for him; they did not know it was a lie. There was no reason for them to do a background check, he was just a moderator. There was no reason for the people at the New Yorker to doubt the resume they were given, so why would they look?

What it boils down to is that people somehow see wikipedia as the first poster does and it clouds their reason. People don’t like the idea of wikipedia because they say it is “easy”. I hate to tell you, but research is not intended to be hard. Gathering, reviewing, and interpreting information should be the simplest part of any project; it’s just a matter of verifying data.

Hopeless Cynic says:


I suggest everyone look at the Wikipedia definition of fraud. It includes the idea that “Fraud is a crime, and is also a civil law violation.” So, which of you whiners was violated and where is the crime? Wikipedia is a great resourse for those of us that do NOT know everything like some of the Wiki haters that think they do.

John Doe (user link) says:


Who in the world hates wikipedia? It’s an online resource of information that other ‘users’ put up. Nowhere is it said or suggested to be infallible. Whoever thinks that any information from any source is infallible is both naive and ignorant.

I’ve done enough research to know that I don’t know pure fact on any subject. The truth is there is no truth anywhere to be found. You have to find our for yourself what you believe and I’ll be damned if someone says that I’m too “stupid” to do it on my own.

Seth Finkelstein (user link) says:

Blaming The Victim - Fraud shouldn't be excuse

The New Yorker reporter, and thus all readers, were defrauded by Essjay.

Elsewhere, a professor critical of Wikipedia was also subjected to misrepresentation.

The basis of the fraud was the use of phony credentials, and the accompanying attached prestige, to endorse Wikipedia.

These were lies, plain and simple.

With full knowledge of this fraud, Essjay was then *appointed* to Wikipedia’s internal committee (“ArbCom”) which judges proper behavior!

The scandal here is Wikipedia’s management tolerance, and arguably rewarding with office, of deception in promoting Wikipedia. The scandal’s implications then cast a cloud over Wikipedia’s process, since it calls into question other endorsements – what else was fabricated? This is particularly pertinant since a very strong message has been sent that if you fake positive things about Wikipedia to the media or academics, it’s acceptable and maybe even a help to advancing within its ranks.

By the way, my post was more about the delusional ambitions that Wikipedia fosters in order to function, to get people to work for free, than the quality control issue _per se_.

|333173|3|_||3 says:


just because I say that my nae is Beelzebub (133+3|) up for reasons I will not go into here) does not mean that I am actually claiming to be him. WHichever psudonym I happen to use online is not fraud, since anyone who takes at face value what they read online without good reason is an ignorant monkey who diserves what happens to him when he gets made to look like a fool. FOr example, while |333173|_||3 has only limited peronality and past, some of my other personas are much more complex and have full details and history, which does not match the datails of my real life.

If he was introduced as tyhe Wikipedian Essjay, then maybe that was fair since that was his name in the community the New Yorker was interested in. OTOH, lying on Wikipedia is bad for a Mod, and is liable to get him taken up for it, not least by anyone he has banned.

I thought the ArbCom was meant to be not a judge of correct behaviour, but rather a small committe to resolve disputes which were out of hand. THey are as I understand it supposed to be stopping fights, not judges, since that is waht the admin hierarchy is for.

C.M. Jones says:

On Jimbo

Jimbo’s (predictable) real concern in his recent response on his talk page

is that Essjay “used his false credentials in content disputes”, pointing to his concern to further “check diffs” of Essjay.

Also see

Jimbo claims he did not understand this matter to be one “of violation of people’s trust” and that his “past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on”.

Oh c’mon.

And this seems to point to something indicate otherwise:

And when Jimbo claims he did not understand this matter to be one “of violation of people’s trust”, which “people” is he talking about? Only Wikipedians who may have been bluffed by a pull of false credentials? Apparently so, which only confirms the insularity of the system.

Does Jimbo feel Essjay violated the trust of The New Yorker reporters to whom Essjay lied? On this he is silent and it speaks loudly. How about to The New Yorker’s many, many readers? Again, on this he is silent and it speaks loudly.

carl (user link) says:

Wikipedia Slides Like ODP

It seems that Wikipedia may be entering the final phase of its usefulness much like ODP (open directory) which once had a very important use.

However, with all things that have SOME users taking control, the power goes to their heads and becomes something where the agendas slowly (but surely) change and they dont serve the use they once did (at least not for the rest of the general population).

ODP is almost crippled now, how long before Wikipedia gets there?

Brian Carnell (user link) says:

Who cares if it rises to legally actionable fraud? Essjay’s actions were clearly fraudulent given the common use of that term.

The revelation reflects poorly on both the New Yorker and Wikipedia. Sheesh — how hard is it to check a claim that someone is a tenured professor at university?

The debate over the usefulness of Wikipedia is also a bit silly. Wikipedia is a great place to *start* research. If there’s something I’ve never heard of I often go to Wikipedia to get that perspective and use that as a launching pad for further research (which is what I’d use a traditional encyclopedia as well).

The problem is not Wikipedia but people who see Wikipedia as the end of their quest for information on a topic rather than the beginning.

Dr. David Robinson says:


It seems to me that people are missing the point about Wikipedia and outting Essjay.

The fact is that Wikipedia is already the world’s leading reference source and it is superior for most purposes to any other single reference source. It is accessible to more people, cheaper to use, more comprehensive, generally very well written, and usually more up-to-date than other resources available to my students. It is also barely seven years old.

The battle is over – we have an on-line user created encyclopedia that no private or commercial source will dominate. We should be celebrating.

Wikipedia is enormously better than what I grew up with – a small town library with a three-book limit, and a set of encyclopedia Britannica my father bought me that no-one in the family could read. I am a professor of economics (please check) now with a university’s (increasingly on-line) resources, and I use Wikipedia regularly. I also find errors in the $2000 set of Britannica I bough my own kids.

Possibly more important than the increased accessibility is the ability that Wikipedia gives us to tap far more of the growing expertise in our population. Wikipedia makes us as a community more able to use our collective knowledge. that means smarter, for those of you who are distracted by the superficial questions.

Democratizing expertise AGAIN may threaten some of my colleagues, but we will have to learn to live with it as we did when movable typefaces were invented.

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