Wikipedia and Credibility

1:05 am PHT

A top editor of Wikipedia was forced to resign his positions of authority amidst community outrage that he has been contributing under false pretenses. This scandal is possibly Wikipedia’s biggest test of credibility since the Seigenthaler controversy two years ago. See more coverage on Google News and Technorati.

The gist of the matter is, a Wikipedian going by the name of Essjay has, until his resignation, been one of the top editors at the English edition of the online encyclopedia. He was an administrator (tasked to protect/delete pages, to ban erring users, and to do other housekeeping duties), a bureaucrat (primarily tasked to promote other users into administrators), a CheckUser admin (which is able to check the IP addresses of logged-in users—a very privacy-sensitive tool), and chair of the Mediation Committee, among others.

He’s been given this much power in Wikipedia because he has been one of the most prolific contributors to the project. During this time, many Wikipedians thought him to be a religious professor at an unnamed university in his 30s. Apparently, he is really a 24-year-old college dropout named Ryan Jordan.

The whole brouhaha started when The New Yorker wrote a piece about Wikipedia, “Can Wikipedia conquer expertise?”. Quoting the article:

One regular on the site is a user known as Essjay, who holds a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law and has written or contributed to sixteen thousand entries. A tenured professor of religion at a private university, Essjay made his first edit in February, 2005.

The fact that Jordan, as Essjay, used his fake credentials in dealing with Wikipedia activities caused his fall from grace. The whole scandal has divided the community with his supporters rooting for his experience and talent and his detractors berating him for seriously damaging Wikipedia’s reputation. To make matters worse, influential Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales has initially stood by Essjay, but reversed his position upon learning the full enormity of the deception.

As a semi-active Wikipedia contributor since 2002, I feel that this is the biggest setback Wikipedia has ever stumbled into. The single biggest criticism against the encyclopedia is that it can never be a reliable source of information just because anyone at all can edit. The fact that a powerful editor has been contributing and possibly using the eminence of his fake persona to influence debates on the content of many articles highlights this weakness of open-source collaboration.

Personally, this episode will not lessen my use of Wikipedia as a good source of tertiary information (one that I constantly look up to learn more about subjects I know little about) nor will it affect how I contribute to Wikipedia. I believe that Wikipedia is much, much more than the actions of any single one of its contributors, no matter how influential that contributor may be.

The problem is, Wikipedia has become a harder sell overnight because of this scandal.

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