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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Busy week - this and that

I've been slack about blogging here over the past week or so. It's been quite busy, even apart from the fact that I'm still under a bit of (largely self-imposed) pressure to finish the thesis, and I am mopping up stray things that I've identified I need to read and consider, now I've thought most of the issues through. I also put aside a bit of time this week to review Rudy Rucker's new novel, Mathematicians in Love, for The New York Review of Science Fiction.

On Monday night I joined a small group for drinks with Garry Kilworth and his wife Annette, who've been in town for some months but are just catching up with the sf people. Garry and Annette were lovely, relaxed people who seemed to be enjoying their time in Australia.

And then there's been classes to prepare and teach, with the new semester.

In my spare time, around the edges, I got caught up in the intense discussions going on over at Wikipedia in the aftermath of what now seems to be known as "the Essjay scandal" or "the Essjay controversy".

I'll save any thoughts that I have about that until another time. Suffice to say that a very good contributor to Wikipedia, known as "Essjay" had risen to hold a lot of power and responsibility within Wikipedia and related entities, perhaps helped to some extent by his fabricated identity as a highly-qualified academic with expertise in (of all things) theology. He turns out to be a much younger person with no such qualifications. This sort of identity fabrication happens all the time on the internet, of course, and people are rightly suspicious in many cases, but the thing is that Essjay actually did terrific work and never seemed to act to undermine the encyclopedia; he played the role of enthusiastic, intelligent, academic expert helping out the project ... played it so well that his work actually was of great benefit.

However, he came unstuck because he maintained the whole charade to The New Yorker in an extensive interview last year. When he recently took up a real-life job with the Wikipedia-related organisation Wikia, he came clean about his background (or at least gave a more plausible story for someone of his age). Thereafter, more and more came out about how he had gained advantages from, and otherwise misused, his made-up identity (though, again, while doing a more than competent job as a contributor to Wikipedia, as an administrator, and just about everything else). There's now been a lot of coverage of this in the mainstream press as well as all over the net.

Interesting times. I feel sorry for Essjay - who now seems to have left both Wikipedia and his job at Wikia - while wondering how people get themselves in these situations. The events do tend to cast Wikipedia into disrepute, so there is now a huge debate going on about what to do to try to minimise the possibility of anything on this scale of deception ever happening again.

4 comments:

Blake Stacey said...

The WP article on the "Essjay controversy" pointed me to a piece on iTWire called "Wikipedia: Rogue editor EssJay resigns in shame" (8 March 2007 — from the future, I suppose). The article concludes:

It is understood that Wikipedia is now checking the credentials of all its editors and other ‘official’ Wikipedia staff to ensure that a similar scandal will not eventuate in the future.

All its editors? That's an awful lot of credential-checking. Who do you suppose the "official" staff are — the eleven staff members of the Wikimedia Foundation?

I also note that this Telegraph article says that Essjay "contributed to an estimated 20,000 Wikipedia entries". A quick check with Interiot's Tool3 shows 19,905 total edits (as of 19 January 2007) but only 5725 distinct pages edited. This seems like a misleading piece of reporting.

Russell Blackford said...

I can feel a new blog post coming on.

There are lessons here about news journalism - I have seen numerous inaccuracies in media reports of this incident.

Of course, there is no plan to vet the credentials of all editors, though there have been suggestions of a voluntary scheme for accrediting those who claim expert credentials; the "facts" about Essjay's edits, reported in the article you mention, are quite wrong; and there are many other mistakes in other news reports. This is a nice case study of how news reporters pervasively make errors, and it raises questions about why it happens.

Blake Stacey said...

The Associated Press ran an article which has been distributed all over he place, saying in part the following:

In addition to contributing thousands of articles to the sprawling Web encyclopedia, Jordan had recently been promoted to arbitrator, a position for trusted members of the community. Arbitrators can overrule an edit made by another volunteer or block people who abuse the site.

OK, it's pretty clear that Brian Bergstein, AP technology writer, doesn't get the difference between "administrator" and "arbitrator", and he also has the idea that only people belonging to some super-cabal can "overrule" other editors' contributions. Given the arbitrator/administrator confusion, I can't tell what exactly he means by this. I can say with some confidence that anybody who has spent even a moderate amount of time editing WP would not write a sentence like this.

As for the "contributing thousands of articles", well, what a great example of the powers a single word can carry! "Contributing to thousands of articles" makes sense, although I personally wouldn't call slightly less than 1400 edits (the number we get considering only articles and not Talk pages, WP policy pages, etc.) "thousands" of actions. Interiot tried to run a query to see how many articles Essjay had actually created, but due to his large number of edits overall, the query took so long to run that a toolserver admin killed it. But I really doubt the result would ascend into the "thousands" range.

Look, I'm the son of two newspaper people. I was raised with certain expectations of journalism. Yes, both my parents knew that the de facto newspaper motto is, "All the news that fits, we print." Nevertheless, I thought the profession was supposed to have standards. Even if you're going to research a story like this without leaving your desk, if you're a reporter, your job is still to ask the questions and poke around the dark corners. If Jenny Blogger can do a better job than you, then you're not a journalist and aren't worthy of public attention.

Blake Stacey said...

If you want a partly amusing and somewhat scary study of bad journalism on scientific issues, I recommend looking through Language Log's coverage of Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain. When I get my own blog up and running, Real Soon Now, I'll try to collect my rants on science and technology journalism. (Since my friends and I will be using our corner of the Blagnet to discuss math and physics, we have to get equation support and suchlike stuff set up, which makes the process a little trickier.)