Editor scandal rocks Wikipedia
The anonymous user-driven encyclopedia Wikipedia is struggling to regain people's trust after one of its most trusted and prolific editors, who claimed to be a professor of religion, was exposed as a 24-year-old from Kentucky.
Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's cofounder, said yesterday contributors to the collaborative online service will be allowed to remain anonymous, but it will ask those claiming to have professional credentials to identify themselves.
Mr. Wales appears to have changed his tune since he spoke with The New Yorker.
Last week, the magazine revealed in an editor's note that it had reported the false credentials of a Wikipedia administrator and contributor calling himself Essjay and claiming to be a tenured professor. Essjay and his comments appeared in a feature story published in July, 2006. The magazine later learned that Essjay was Ryan Jordan, a young man without any advanced degrees.
"I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it," Mr. Wales told The New Yorker last week.
Critics of Wikipedia have seized on the Essjay scandal as further proof that the participatory Web site, whose supporters claim to be as reliable as traditional encyclopedias, is not to be trusted.
"What it's done is undermine more and more people's trust in Wikipedia," said Andrew Keen, a columnist at ZDNet, a technology and business Web site.
"I would strongly urge people not to trust it. You really don't know what people are up to -- what their real agendas are, whether there are corporate interests, political interests, economic interests behind the people posting."
"It's another very good reason not to trust editorless media," added Mr. Keen, author of the upcoming book, Cult of the Amateur, which examines how such participatory Web sites threaten U.S. values and the economy.
Mr. Jordan could have already reappeared on the site with a new online identity, he said.
Wikipedia has been under fire for its content on other fronts.
Frank "Fuzzy" Zoeller, a professional golfer, launched a lawsuit last month alleging one of the statements posted about him is defamatory. Last year, a long-time Wikipedia critic -- Daniel Brandt, the same man who alerted The New Yorker to Essjay's true identity -- found 142 plagiarized passages on the site.
"If you're going to intrude in the social sphere, you have to be accountable for it," Mr. Brandt, who runs a Web site called Wikipedia Watch, said yesterday.
The online encyclopedia took another blow last month when the history department at Vermont's Middlebury College banned students from using the site in citations. Don Wyatt, the department's chairman, said the latest scandal is "vindicating in an interesting way."
People can too easily take advantage of the anonymity Wikipedia offers and hide behind the personas they create, he explained, calling Mr. Wales' announcement a step in the right direction.
Prof. Wyatt was skeptical, however, that the furor over Essjay's identity would have any lasting impact on the site's popularity.
"The Wiki movement is so large and so all-encompassing and has so much steam, I doubt if the exposure of any one misrepresenting source ... is really going to force a makeover of the whole enterprise."