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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Essjay aftermath at Wikipedia - a lot of community soul-searching

The Wikipedia community is currently going through some soul-searching in the wake of the recent train wreck involving an editor known as Essjay, who had claimed to be an academic theologian of some eminence - with a couple of doctoral degrees to his name. It turned out that he was really a much younger man with no such qualifications.

Of course, people fake identities on the internet all the time. It's not surprising if there are people doing so on Wikipedia, irritating as that is. What made things worse in this particular case was that Essjay had held positions of trust and responsibility - way beyond normal admin/sysop level. He was a checkuser (able to trace the IP addresses of other users to get evidence of double identities or "sockpuppets") and had recently been made an arbitration committee member (one of a group who sit in judgment on the conduct of other Wikipedia editors, in cases of otherwise-unresolvable on-site disputes). Worse still, from a PR viewpoint, he'd maintained the charade in an extensive telephone interview with The New Yorker last year - subsequently written up by a distinguished journalist.

The main response from Wikipedia's honcho, Jimmy Wales, has been to try to institute a process whereby editors can check each other's claimed academic credentials. That is not especially difficult for editors who are prepared to divulge their real-life identities. However, there's a question about how it can be done for editors who want to retain their anonymity - as most do for various good reasons.

In my case, I'm not anonymous in any meaningful sense, since this blog mentions the fact that I edit over on Wikipedia using the same name as in the URL for the blog. However, I'm not keen to plaster my real-life identity all over Wikipedia itself where every passing vandal or troll will see it. So, I'm more-or-less anonymous to a casual Wikipedia user, but I'm not trying to conceal my identity from anyone who really cares.

In the circumstances, I offered to give it a try. By providing details to another editor I was able to help him establish two points beyond much possibility of doubt: (1) that this guy Russell Blackford actually has a Ph.D (I'll have two of the things soon, if all goes well, but that was not relevant to the exercise) and (2) that "I" am, in fact, Russell Blackford.

We both reported back that it is quite a quick and fairly painless process to carry out such a verification. In my case, it had involved pointing to public sources that I couldn't easily fake which mention that I have a Ph.D, and likewise for sources which give my "normal" email address (as opposed to the hotmail account that I use solely for any Wikipedia business). He sent an email to that address and I wrote back from it, confirming that I edit on Wikipedia with the username he'd been dealing with. I also sent an email to Jimmy Wales with the same details - in fact, I'd sent them separately to Wales a day or so before this other person suggested we give it a try.

The result was that this person confirmed that I have a Ph.D, but did not reveal my identity any further. Almost any university academic, post-grad, or post-doc could do exactly the same thing to establish whatever quals they have - if prepared to trust their professional details to one other person.

Of course, the flaw in the process - if it is one - is that although I was able to prove both required points to the other guy's satisfaction, there's a question about why anyone should trust him. He and I might be in collusion for some bizarre reason (in fact, I'd never come across him before, although a little research shows him to be a well-established Wikipedia editor with a good record).

All of which indicates that Wikipedia is going to have to work out just how far it wants to go with any scheme of mutual verification of credentials. I'm happy to go along with it, though it doesn't really affect me that much - or wouldn't if I hadn't poked my nose into the debate - as I didn't particularly want credentials on my Wikipedia userpage in any event. The page now mentions that I have a Ph.D, but that's only as a result of cooperating with this little trial run of the mutual verification scheme.

More generally, such a scheme will never be able to rule out frauds by people who are prepared to go to sufficiently elaborate lengths. Also, I think the main moral is that Wikipedia should be very careful to vet people in authority and anyone it offers to the media as some kind of spokesperson. Wales has assured us that all checkusers are themselves vetted, and has acknowledged that anyone held out to the media must be, too. He also posted a comment emphasising in bold that he wasn't the one who put The New Yorker onto Essjay in the first place.

While the approach Wales is taking isn't exactly the one I would have taken - I'd be less interested in mutual verification of credentials and more in vetting people in authority - it may do some good and is at least worth a try. As Wales says, at least some people will be able to put their credentials on their userpages with someone else vouching that they are not fakes. I am amused (when I'm not a bit irritated) at the over-excited opposition to this from various people involved in the debate. In the case of my little trial run, one or two folks have laboured the obvious point: I and the other well-established editor could, at least in theory, be in cahoots. Well, so we could be - it takes no genius to work that out. But any system like this will have to rely on trust somewhere. Just how paranoid do we all want to become?

I'm eagerly awaiting the next episode of this saga, having had my say about it. I'll try to resist the temptation of butting in any further.

More generally, I'm still convinced that Wikipedia is an unequivocally good thing - as long as its limitations are understood - and that we should all be prepared to help it out now and then (it's become a lot more than "now and then" in my case, but that's just because of my particular circumstances at the moment). Hopefully, the Essjay controversy will turn out to be a storm in a teacup and we all can get on with our lives soon, without constantly having to worry about its shadow looming over us whenever we do a bit of work to help the project.


Blake Stacey said...

On one level, I'm sort of peeved that the community has had to expend so much brain energy arguing over ways to solve a problem caused by the Wikimedia Foundation not doing its job. What do we donate money to them for, anyway? They keep the servers running, they handle the legal matters, and they provide PR. Couldn't the "member of Wikipedia’s management team" who told Stacy Schiff to contact Essjay have done his homework, acted responsibly and recommended somebody who never bothered to conceal his real identity? Raul654 (Mark Pellegrini) springs immediately to mind: he's been around the project since the year dot, and as Featured Article Director he plays a much bigger role in managing WP content than Essjay ever did.

OK, people make mistakes. I doubt I would have done any better, so I shouldn't be too upset.

I guess I'm also a little bitter all the discussion which users I knew put into Expert retention went nowhere. If you people had only listened, grumble grumble.

Prophetic passage in Stacy Schiff's New Yorker piece: "Wikipedia is an online community devoted not to last night’s party or to next season’s iPod but to a higher good. It is also no more immune to human nature than any other utopian project. Pettiness, idiocy, and vulgarity are regular features of the site. Nothing about high-minded collaboration guarantees accuracy, and open editing invites abuse." Consider also this part, with which I don't entirely agree: "Wales’s most radical contribution may be not to have made information free but—in his own alma-matricidal way—to have invented a system that does not favor the Ph.D. over the well-read fifteen-year-old. 'To me, the key thing is getting it right,' Wales has said of Wikipedia’s contributors. 'I don’t care if they’re a high-school kid or a Harvard professor.'"

I was a well-read fifteen-year-old some number of years ago. I know the breed. They can do a lot, but they do have their limits.

You call Wikipedia "an unequivocally good thing — as long as its limitations are understood". I tend to agree with this assessment, partly because after some reflection, I'd concluded that the problems of Wikipedia are the classic problems of education and civilized debate, cast into a particular arena. To speak in grandiose terms, the Enlightenment has always had to deal with intellectual frauds and callous untruths.

I've seen people get antsy over Stephen Colbert's sallies at Wikipedia — "wikiality", "truthiness" and all that. My reaction has been, "So we've got a guy on TV pointing out for everybody how the truth can be manipulated and stifled? Great! The Enlightenment needs good PR." I think the Essjay incident is what they call a "teachable moment": it's an occasion when people see that the baloney detection kit is a useful tool to have by your side.

At a very mundane level, this sort of nasty business can at least help schoolteachers explain why bibliographies are a Good Idea.

Russell Blackford said...

The debate over there seems to be stymied. Wikipedia evidently has bigger internal problems this week - never mind ... as long as they are invisible to casual users, it doesn't matter that much ...