Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Essjay scandal as seen in Jimmy Wales' user talk archives

This is why going through a truly detailed reivew off the Essjay fiasco is hard, because of all the bloviating on Jimbo's talk page. This isn't all of it.


I won't say everything that needs to be said about the Essjay situation, I'll just point to this blog post and say that these are the most jawdropping decisions (hiring Essjay and then appointing him to ArbComm) you have ever made. Suffice it to say that you, too, will regard these as having been big mistakes before it's all over. --Larry Sanger 05:25, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

I suggest you think long and hard before adopting the mean spirited approach Larry recommends. Fred Bauder 22:35, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Amazing. Holding people accountable for years-long fraud, and for facilitating such fraud, is now "mean spirited"? What kind of person are you? --Larry Sanger 00:05, 3 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Live and let live. Fred Bauder 00:24, 3 March 2007 (UTC) However User:Essjay/Letter does raise issues. Fred Bauder 00:30, 3 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Jimbo already knows all about it and has said he doesn't care - if he reacts now, it's only because he'll care about community reaction, unless he somehow sees the light. He's probably more interested in Essjay's extensive contributions to helping Wikipedia run. That's what it's like to run a project that's focused more on its own functionality than the reputations of its editors. Milto LOL pia 05:29, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Isn't Jimbo in India and not going to ever see these messages unless he decides to go digging through his archives once he returns?—Ryūlóng (竜龍) 05:41, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Yes, he is, and it will probably be a week til he gets personally on top of things. In the meantime it is unlikely that the arbitration committee or anyone else is going to make any drastic moves. Jimbo needs a chance to carefully consider this dustup. Fred Bauder 00:33, 3 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Miltopia, look, I know that you have just as much to say about this as I do, but come on. Jimbo and Larry know each other very well. They don't need any of us to facilitate their communication. Zocky | picture popups 05:51, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
That's very true, I should stay out of it. Still, I think Larry (and everyone else) involved could do well to remember that Wikipedia is not Citizendium, and then everyone should carefully decide which system they think is going to do better. Milto LOL pia 06:10, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
The response from "Miltopia" encapsulates the nugget of the problem: the world's standards aren't our standards; if the community doesn't care, then Jimmy is justified in not caring either. I think Wikipedians like "Miltopia" are about to discover that as much as they hate the thought of it, they are part of a broader world, the broader world (ironically) has higher standards than Wikipedia, and they ignore these facts at their peril. --Larry Sanger 15:05, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Jimbo, as much as I admire your core beliefs about Wikipedia and all the work you've done, I do think you shot us in the foot on this one. I disagree with Larry about one thing though. The problem wasn't the internal decisions regarding Essjay - hiring him and appointing him to ArbCom - that was all before the New Yorker piece (IIRC) and it is perfectly reasonable to say that you made those decisions on the basis of Essjay's thousands of useful contributions.
However, when you told the press: "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it"[16] I think you did some enormous damage. You've always maintained that most Wikipedia content comes from a small group of dedicated contributors who understand our rules and are dedicated to building a great encyclopedia. You just told The New Yorker that those people can lie about their qualifications and we won't care. I think that this completely undermines everything
I know that you were trying to make a larger point. I know that what you were really trying to say was that unlike an encyclopedia where editors are hired on the basis of their resumes, we can't evaluate editors on their education or their background or their supposed expertise. We can only evaluate them on the basis of the quality of their contributions - the strength of the arguments they have made during debates, their adherence to our rules, whether the information they add to an article is neutral and factually accurate. The anonymity of the Internet enables us to bypass many of the biases inherent in traditional social structures. We can't tell if an editor is white, black, hispanic, 75 years-old, 14, disabled, etc. We can't tell that is, unless they tell us.
What you should have told The New Yorker is that it isn't a problem that Essjay lied because he didn't rise through the ranks on account of his (false) academic background. He succeeded because people were impressed with the work that he did for us. You should point out to them that there are top-notch contributors who openly admit on their user pages to being teenagers, being unemployed, suffering from depression, etc. Britannica hires people to write articles. On wikipedia anyone can write an article and the wheat gets separated from the chaff. Not only is this system closer to the kind of meritocracy that Westerners consider an ideal social structure (witness the American Dream and all the fuss made about discrimination), it also enables us to have great articles about topics that Britannica editors, who presumably all come from a similar background, wouldn't consider important or understand.
I took my Dad to hear you speak at the University of Hartford a few months ago. He doesn't understand technology, he probably doesn't have a clue what the open source movement is, but he was absolutely inspired by your talk because I think you showed him a radical new way of doing things than can be successful. If he hadn't heard you explain how we worked he would have read the allegations about Essjay and (reasonably) thought you were out of touch with reality. We have to respond to these allegations by showing people that our very model of doing things is completely different from what they are used to. We don't care that Essjay lied because we don't promote people based on their academic background. GabrielF 16:44, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
With respect, you've missed the point. Nobody cares that Essjay does not have the potful of certificates that he said he had. As you say, none of the roles he is engaged in require any of these, and academic qualifications generally don't (and shouldn't) carry much weight on-wiki- what does matter are the quality of one's arguments and how one locates and uses evidentiary sources. The point is not that Essjay is not qualified- the point is that he lied. A big, egregious, unnecessary, self-serving lie that he perpetuated for years (seemingly from his first few edits on Wikipedia) and which he extended to the press (in his dealings with the New Yorker) and to others off-wiki (in the letter). Ironically, the only person who is actually bothered by qualifications or lack thereof is Essjay, since he obviously saw fit to grossly expand his actual academics (which are reasonable enough anyway in my view) through these fabrications, seemingly with the sole intent of leveraging these as credibility in on-wiki discussions and off-wiki interactions. The point of debate is not "he's not qualified" the point is "he's a liar and a fantasist" (and I don't mean that as a personal attack, it's just a literal statement of what appear to be the facts, unfortunately). Academic qualifications are not important for Wikipedia positions of responsibility. Good judgement, good faith, and the trust of the community mos definitely are however. Badgerpatrol 01:53, 3 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

Jimbo, I'm with Larry on this one. His blog puts it very well. I have no problem whatsoever with anonymity, yet Essjay's fabrications weren't trivial - they falsely claimed qualifications he didn't have and that real people spend many years of hard work to achieve. Although Essjay's other work for the project has been admirable, it sends the wrong message to countenance that at the highest project levels in positions of trust. DurovaCharge! 06:27, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

These weren't innocent, security driven identity masks (say, an editor in LA claiming a BA in history from USC when it's truly an editor in NYC with a BA in English lit from Ball State). This was a misprepresentation of credentials made up from whole cloth, further maintained offline in at least one incident of correspondence and an interview with a major publication, with details thrown in about editing WP whilst conducting classroom quizes, all given as a nominal, ranking "official" representative of Wikipedia. Moreover, it's been shown Essjay used these fake credentials whilst attempting to sway editorial content. He blatantly scammed, both as a content editor and in the real world. His username should be revoked and he should be allowed to start over with a new WP identity (with whatever admin access Jimbo wants to give him, but hard banned from making user page representations about his educational and employment background ever again). Meanwhile Jimbo's assertion that Essjay's misrepresentation of his academic background was a pseudonym is unsupported, to put it mildly. Gwen Gale 10:27, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

“Essjay was recommended to Ms. Schiff as a source by a member of Wikipedia’s management team... He was willing to describe his work... by confirming the biographical details that appeared on his user page.” [17]

Anyway I don't wanna put too keen an edge on it, but since WP solicits donations, this could be taken as fraud since Essjay was recommended by "a member of Wikipedia’s management team" and the New Yorker piece could have contributed to inducing someone to send a cash donation to WP. Gwen Gale 11:05, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

I am finding my way in from various blogposts and am reading the comments here. Someone up above called for both "Essjay's" and Mr. Wales to resign. This frankly seems the best and most respectable solution. 11:12, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Absolutely. Everyking 13:32, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Disagree strongly. Neither should resign or be fired. It's not right that this young man's livelihood should be so adversely affected by this revelation. He absolutely shouldn't lose his job at Wikia, nor should either resign. However, Jimbo and the Foundation will need to work on an appropriate message and response to this incident (and the issue of expertise on WP) that is appropriate to restore the project in the 'court of public opinion'. As I've said, I have faith in the project - not as a valid academic source but as a social information network - but this correction has changed how a lot of my peers view WP. -- User:RyanFreisling @ 16:54, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
I hope it's opened some eyes. Pseudonymity and anonymity and role-playing are a peculiar basis for an encyclopedia, but part of the experiment that is Wikipedia openly embraces this basis. --jpgordon∇∆∇∆ 17:10, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Thankfully I've never been under any mistaken impressions about WP's accuracy - but the concept of accuracy as an 'emergent property' of a collaborative open encyclopedia has fascinated me. What has changed for me in this episode is that I am now considering the concept of accuracy as an emergent property in a system in which an individual can claim expertise falsely - and in so doing actually short-circuit that 'emergent accuracy' by reducing the extent of verification and debate. I'm not sure whether misrepresentation as an expert by 'rational agents' on WP completely negates the process, but I'm tending to think it is a damper on the desired result (accuracy). -- User:RyanFreisling @ 17:22, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
This is not something that can be papered over with a "message." In any real-world publication setting, this would be grounds for instant termination, without recourse. Fabrication is not tolerated in the real world, and if Wikipedia is ever to hope of having real-world credibility, we must not tolerate fraud either. That's what it is, quite bluntly. Essjay is a fraudster. FCYTravis 17:20, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
I believe this controversy exists to the extent it does because the general public (those unfamiliar with WP culture and process) judges an encyclopedia first and foremost on its' accuracy. Misrepresentations by an editor vis-a-vis their expertise are serious, indeed - but when made by a 'spokesman' in a forum like The New Yorker, they are devastating to public credibility. Effective public and media relations requires that a message (and, as I said, an appropriate response) be crafted, delivered and fulfilled in order to work to present the project in a more favorable public light. -- User:RyanFreisling @ 17:30, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Yes, and part of that is to "fire" the person who knowingly and maliciously committed the error - just like any reputable newspaper or other publication would do if presented with fabrications and lies by employees. FCYTravis 17:51, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
We disagree as to the effectiveness of 'taking a scalp'. I incline towards forgiveness and increased visibility. -- User:RyanFreisling @ 17:58, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
You may be interested in reading my reply to Larry above. We can punish Essjay but it would only be an admission that Essjay's fraud actually does undermine our credibility. It would be more effective to point out that we didn't hire him because of his academic qualifications. The community selected him out of an enormous group of editors because of the quality of his contributions. If an editor at Britannica lied about his academic background it would be a blow to the credibility of Britannica because their credibility is based on theyir being "experts". We're all assumed to be unemployed degreeless 20 year-olds anyway. We just have to say that he was able to get as far as he did because his work was good and, while lying about his background may call the accuracy of his contribution's into question, wikipedia is designed so that many, many people will now review his contributions, and fix any errors they find. GabrielF 18:09, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
I think our credibility is at least based on our being earnest unemployed degreeless 20-year-olds who at least aspire to some sort of intellectual integrity. This incident damages that image by conveying the message that Wikipedia editors consider lying to the public not to be a problem. For the public image of an intellectual enterprise, being perceived to disvalue honesty is a serious blow. Jimbo's reaction in this sense was worse than the incident itself. Christopher Parham (talk) 18:46, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
"we didn't hire him ....", "The community selected him out...." - We? - The Community? Sorry, have I missed something here? - If we are not thought to be experts, or know what we are talking about why do you think so many refer to us? People may indeed "assume" about us, which is why we have to be beyond reproach when being quoted in public. Giano 18:27, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
My point is that people refer to us because our content is useful, not because they think the editors are PhDs. I agree that we must be beyond reproach when being quoted in public. However, I think if we respond to this the way another publication would (by firing him) people will assume that we work like any other publication. We don't. Presumably Essjay is an admin. That means people had to vote on whether he was trustworthy enough to promote. Publicize that discussion. Show them that we don't make people admins without rigorously screening the actual work they do, even if we don't look at their background. He was appointed to ArbCom, so I think that means a very high % of people voted for him. Publicize the argumentation that went along with that vote. Then hold another discussion/vote about whether he should be recalled. GabrielF 18:46, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
People refer to wikipedia, people use wikipedia, they also have to trust wikipedia. If they don't trust us, we may as well all pack up right now. He is a disgrace. He has to go. Giano 19:11, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

The whole Essjay affair is obviously a great way for Sanger to make points as it provides anecdotal evidence of the supposed superiority (perhaps he's right, perhaps he isn't) of certain aspects of Citizendium (no anonymous editing, verification of credentials). There's going to be a tremendous urge to simply kick Essjay to the curb over this for the sake of damage control or from simple outrage. There seem to be those on the other side who simply want to ignore this because of the good Essjay's done for WP. The best solution is obviously somewhere in the middle. It is disappointing that the reams of electrons being spilled over this have simply generated more heat and very little light. ObiterDicta pleadings • errata • appeals ) 18:42, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

To quote a guy I read somewhere on the internet, "...I advise the world to relax a notch or two."  :-) So what, the guy lied on his resume. He who hasn't fudged on a resume/job interview throw the first cookie! Cut him some slack please and just rely on his job performance. Have a great day!!! 18:55, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

This is me throwing the first cookie. NeoFreak 20:11, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Yes, this comment makes me toss my cookies too. ;-) I have never lied on my resume, and I don't personally know anyone who has ever admitted to doing so. And I have extreme contempt for anyone who has done so. But what's worse than lying on your resume? Being the (still de facto) head of possibly the most influential information resource in the world, and saying that it doesn't matter if you have lied about your resume for several years to a whole community of people; acting like it doesn't matter if someone has gotten ahead in your organization as a result of having lied about his resume; acting like it doesn't matter if the person told the same lie to The New Yorker when speaking on behalf of your organization; and proceeding to hire the person, and reward him publicly by making him a member of the group that stands in judgment over other people, and doing so after learning The New Yorker was going to make its correction. Yes, that's worse than lying on your resume, and by golly more people ought to be tossing their cookies over that. --Larry Sanger 20:36, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Fudged? You can have my cookie too. —Doug Bell talk 20:53, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Larry Sanger, your various attempts to create an alternative to Wikipedia have been useful in demonstating the difficulties of succeeding at that task. This current issue of credibility and accountability at wikipedia illustates the need for Wikipedia to evolve from what it is, just as it has continuously evolved so far in its short life. Please talk to Jimbo and the rest of the Wikimedia board and see if we can work together on helping wikipedia evolve forward. RE-Join us. Please. WAS 4.250 21:27, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
The fact that this lie, and willful misrepresentation of a set of credentials by an employee of Jimbo Wales was used to justify content in an educational resource was bad enough. The fact that his employer, and head of said educational resource, then ignored (not forgave, but just ignored) this egregious breach of trust and preceeded to promote the liar and wilful vandal is beyond my understanding. I only hope that these two persons can provide an explanation that will put everything back into place. Too bad that probably won't happen. This might very well be that proverbial straw. NeoFreak 21:20, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
This isn't calling oneself an "executive assistant" rather than a "secretary". The man invented 4 post graduate degrees, when in fact he had no post graduate degrees. There is a huge bloody difference. Natalie 00:15, 3 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Spot on. Gwen Gale 00:17, 3 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

Why Essjay's thing isn't that bad

My opinions are

  1. There used to be at least two ArbCom members (no longer on ArbCom, although one retains CheckUser) who served on there while lying about their gender--pretending to be women. I think that is a bigger issue than any Essjay stuff.
  2. I saw Essjay's response he gave on Wikipedia quoted on Wikitruth (I think it's now hidden on Wikipedia) and in my opinion the reasoning was good. There's a lot of stalkers out there and he has a right to protect himself from them. There's a Wikipedia Review thread dedicated purely to stalking him and I think that is what got him exposed. What's wrong with trying to avoid stalkers?

SakotGrimshine 21:57, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

I have a lot of trouble seeing how lying about one's gender is "bigger" than lying about credentials and using those credentials. JoshuaZ 21:59, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
One can get mail order degrees. I've even considered it. SakotGrimshine 22:00, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]
Did either of these users pretend to be female in order to project a image of expertise in a subject or influence the content of artilce? NeoFreak 22:02, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

Correction, that was Daniel Brandt's site that had the quote, not wikitruth. And it's still on Wikipedia at --SakotGrimshine 22:21, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

I don't get the part about pretending to be female, as I changed my user name in order not to be identified as female and the lessened credibility and easy dismissal thereby accorded but was "outed" anyway. --Mattisse 22:28, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

Okay, everyone here needs a huge clue dose about transgender issues. It would've been more of a lie for those two to call themselves men when in their minds they are clearly women. And this has no parallel whatsoever with lying about academic issues. --Cyde Weys 03:19, 3 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

  • Reply to SakotGrimshine:
  1. Gender is a very complex thing, and doesn't always correspond to apparent sex. If ArbCom members who are biologically male (in sex) chose to present themselves as female (in gender), that's not something that has any effect on the public perception of Wikipedia, or on their judgment (unless they allowed their status to influence judgments on any ArbCom cases dealing with gender issues, which doesn't seem to be what you're saying). Aside from retrograde sexists, nobody thinks that whether you're male, female or other has any effect on your trustworthiness, honesty or reliability.
  2. There are some problems with Essjay's "I did it to protect myself from stalkers" story. First of all, the "stalkers" most people have been talking about in this affair (Daniel Brandt et al.) didn't become involved in Wikipedia until months after Essjay began claiming he was a professor. Second, it's possible to create a false persona without inflating your academic credentials. If Essjay had said that he was a UPS delivery guy in Florida, that would have "protected him from stalkers" just as well. Third, the letter to the professor cannot be explained away as "protecting myself from stalkers". And finally, in the interview with the New Yorker, Essjay either wilfully misrepresented himself (as his first account would seem to indicate) or allowed the reporter to continue in a false understanding (as his later version would have it), and the result is an injury to Wikipedia's already bruised reputation for trustworthiness.

Sorry, SakotGrimshine, this is a big deal, and if Jimbo doesn't see that then the entire moral foundation of this project is suspect. —Josiah Rowe (talk • contribs) 03:22, 3 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

Debate on WT:USER

I've started a thread on WT:USER concerning what whoppers may be told on user pages. Rather than taking it out on User:Essjay ex post facto (I've seldom interacted with Essjay and thus don't have any strong opinions about this incident either way), perhaps the community can engage in productive debate about what is appropriate in the future. --EngineerScotty 22:08, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]


Please don't shoot the messenger, but an RFC has been opened on your conduct (not by me). You can view it Here, and respond if you so choose. Hipocrite - «Talk» 22:10, 2 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

*Munches popcorn*

I cannot be the only person that finds this Essjay fight higly amusing. Indiawilliams 06:40, 3 March 2007 (UTC)[reply]

Or you could be. It's a really serious issue, affecting Wikipedia's standing in the eyes of those outside of the project. --Hojimachongtalk 06:42, 3 March 2007 (UTC)

(See also this: Which gave us this below.)

Wikipedia's creator is still waiting for an explanation, Mr. Wales

Larry Sanger; "I'm going to ask just one more time, and then I am going to leave it alone, because I have far better things to do, with the launch of the Citizendium approaching. Jimmy, if I may--what mistake, precisely, do you admit to making? Before you answer, let me clarify the question. I know you say, "It was a mistake for me not to check the facts," and "Making up a set of impressive credentials is of course a violation of people's trust." This seems to imply that you did not know that Essjay had made up his impressive credentials, and the mistake you admit to making is this: you didn't bother to check out Essjay's impressive credentials. If that's your answer, I want to point out some facts. Essjay started as an employee in your company in early January, so his Wikia page history says. Surely you found out about his fraud then. Didn't you? Or did you actually hire him still thinking that he was a tenured professor of theology? (Why on Earth would a tenured professor want to come to work for Wikia?) Look, either you hired him thinking he was a tenured professor, or you hired him knowing he was a fraud. There wasn't a third option. I think, Jimmy, that people are desperately hoping for honesty and a meaningful apology from you. That will require an explanation of why you hired him and why you put him on ArbCom when you had to know he was a fraud--when you had to know that he wasn't the tenured professor he claimed to be. Otherwise just come out and say this: I really believed that Essjay was a tenured professor of theology when I hired him, and when I promoted him to ArbCom, and when I told The New Yorker that he was just using a pseudonym and I didn't care about that. This is, I promise, the last you'll hear from me about this. If anyone is going to hold your feet to the flames on this, it won't be me. I have to admit I'm just too disgusted to care anymore. --Larry Sanger 05:31, 5 March 2007 (UTC)

                                     Above: Something stolen from Encyclopedia Dramatica.