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Essjay controversy

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The Essjay controversy was an incident concerning a prominent Wikipedia participant and salaried Wikia employee, known by the username Essjay, who later identified himself as Ryan Jordan Jordan held trusted volunteer positions within Wikipedia known as "administrator", "bureaucrat", and "arbitrator"

On July 24, 2006, Wikipedia critic Daniel Brandt started a thread titled "Who is Essjay" later retitled "Who is Essjay, Probably he's Ryan Jordan" after Jordan's self-disclosure on the forum site Wikipedia Review The ensuing discussion brought to light contradictions in claims Essjay made about his academic qualifications and professional experiences on his Wikipedia user page Jordan claimed that he held doctoral degrees in theology and canon law and worked as a tenured professor at a private university Five days later, The New Yorker published an interview with Essjay which repeated some of the claims Wikipedia Review found definitive proof that Jordan made false claims about his qualifications and experience, including that he was a "tenured professor", a claim that was used to describe Essjay in the interview for The New Yorker In January 2007, Daniel Brandt contacted the author of the article in The New Yorker about the discrepancies in Jordan's biography and the exploitation of his supposed qualifications as leverage in internal disputes over Wikipedia content

The controversy that ensued focused on his falsification of a persona and qualifications, the impact of this deception on perceptions of Wikipedia and its policies and credibility, and the quality of decisions made in his promotion, support, and employment

Reactions to the disclosure were diverse, encompassing commentary and articles in the electronic, print, and broadcast media; the Wikipedia community researched Essjay's article edits to check for errors and debated proposals to improve the project's handling of personal identification In his editorial activities Jordan spent less time editing the content of articles and more time addressing vandalism and resolving editorial disputes

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales initially supported Essjay's use of a persona, saying, "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it" Later, Wales withdrew his support and asked for Essjay's resignation from his positions with Wikipedia and Wikia Wales stated that he withdrew his support when he learned "that Essjay used his false credentials in content disputes" on Wikipedia


  • 1 Timeline
  • 2 The New Yorker interview
    • 21 Identity revealed
  • 3 Reaction
    • 31 Wikipedia community
    • 32 Wikipedia critics
    • 33 Academics
  • 4 See also
  • 5 Notes and references
    • 51 Notes
    • 52 References
  • 6 External links


  • February 8, 2005: Essjay account registered
  • 2005–2006: Essjay states on his Wikipedia user page that he teaches graduate theology, with doctorates in theology and canon law
  • July 26, 2006: "Who is Essjay" thread started on watchdog site Wikipedia Review, the ensuing discussion brings to light the contradictions
  • July 31, 2006: The New Yorker publishes an article on Wikipedia, written by Stacy Schiff, which features an interview with Essjay
  • January 2007: Essjay is hired by Wikia
  • January 7, 2007: Essjay posts autobiographical details on his user page at Wikia, giving his supposed real name Ryan Jordan, age, and previous employment history from age 19, and his positions within various Wikimedia Foundation projects These details differ sharply from previous assertions on Essjay's Wikipedia user page about his academic and professional credentials
  • January 11, 2007: A member of the messageboard Wikipedia Review posts a message linking to the Wikia user page; the ensuing discussion brings to light the contradictions and prompts Daniel Brandt to contact the New Yorker
  • Late January 2007: As a result of the discussions on Wikipedia Review, Daniel Brandt contacts the author of the article in The New Yorker about the discrepancies in Jordan's biography
  • February 2, 2007: Another Wikipedia editor challenges Essjay on his talk page about the discrepancy and he responds with an explanation
  • February 23, 2007: Jimmy Wales announces the appointment of Essjay to Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee ArbCom Wales later asserts that the appointment was "at the request of and unanimous support of" ArbCom
  • February 26, 2007: The New Yorker publishes the correction for its July 31 issue, which appears in its The Mail section of its print version It is picked up by online sources within the next day
  • March 3, 2007: Wales asks Jordan to resign his "positions of trust" Jordan promptly retires from Wikipedia altogether and later resigns from his position at Wikia
  • March 5, 2007: Story covered by The New York Times
  • March 6, 2007: Jordan's hometown newspaper publishes an article casting doubts about his January 2007 claims on his Wikia userpage that he had worked for the United States Trustee Program and had been a Kentucky paralegal
  • March 7, 2007: Story covered in an Associated Press article
  • March 8, 2007: Story appears in a two-minute segment on World News with Charles Gibson
  • March 12, 2007: The New Yorker publishes a formal apology by Wales in its March 19 The Mail section

The New Yorker interview

Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist writing for The New Yorker, interviewed Essjay as a source for an article about Wikipedia "Know It All"; July 31, 2006 after he was recommended to her by a member of the Wikimedia Foundation According to The New Yorker, Essjay "was willing to describe his work as a Wikipedia administrator but would not identify himself other than by confirming the biographical details that appeared on his user page"

During the interview, Jordan told The New Yorker and had previously stated on his Wikipedia user page that he held doctoral degrees in theology and canon law and worked as a tenured professor at a private university It was later discovered that he was 24 years old, and had dropped out of community college with no qualifications The New Yorker published a correction in February 2007, which brought the issue to broader public attention

The article said that Essjay spent some 14 hours or more a day on Wikipedia but was careful to keep his online life a secret from his colleagues and friends It portrayed Essjay as often taking his laptop to class so he could be available to other Wikipedians while giving a quiz He asserted that he required anonymity to avoid cyberstalking

Jordan, as Essjay, claimed he sent an email to a college professor using his invented persona's credentials, vouching for Wikipedia's accuracy In the message he wrote in part, "I am an administrator of the online encyclopedia project Wikipedia I am also a tenured professor of theology; feel free to have a look at my Wikipedia user page linked below to gain an idea of my background and credentials"

Identity revealed

When Essjay was hired by Wikia in January 2007, he changed his Wikia profile and "came clean on who he really was," identifying himself as Ryan Jordan Other Wikipedia editors questioned Essjay on his Wikipedia talk page about the apparent discrepancy between his new Wikia profile and his previously claimed credentials Essjay posted a detailed explanation in response to the first inquiry, stating that:

There are a number of trolls, stalkers, and psychopaths who wander around Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects looking for people to harass, stalk, and otherwise ruin the lives of several have been arrested over their activities hereYou will eventually say something that will lead back to you, and the stalkers will find itI decided to be myself, to never hide my personality, to always be who I am, but to utilize disinformation with regard to what I consider unimportant details: age, location, occupation, etc

— Essjay,

He later commented on his Wikipedia user page about having fooled Schiff by "doing a good job playing the part"

Wikipedia critic Daniel Brandt then wrote a letter reporting the identity discrepancy to Stacy Schiff and The New Yorker In late February 2007, the magazine updated its article with a correction indicating that "Essjay now says that his real name is Ryan Jordan, that he is twenty-four and holds no advanced degrees, and that he has never taught"

On March 3, 2007, Andrew Lih, Assistant Professor and Director of Technology Journalism and of the Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, said on his blog that a portion of Essjay's comments on the incident entered "the dangerous domain of defamation and libel" against Stacy Schiff Lih stated that on Essjay's Wikipedia talk page, Essjay had written, "Further, she made several offers to compensate me for my time, and my response was that if she truly felt the need to do so, she should donate to the Foundation instead" Lih noted:

This is an accusation of the highest degree to make about a journalist Paying a source for a story is an absolute no-no in the normal practice of print journalism And it struck me immediately how incredible it was he would accuse Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winning author writing for The New Yorker, of this crime We either have a serious breach of ethics with Ms Schiff or another dubious statement claim from Essjay

— Andrew Lih

Lih wrote that he contacted Schiff for comment about whether she had offered to pay Essjay for his time and quoted her return email In it, Schiff stated that Essjay's assertion was "complete nonsense"


Wikipedia community

Speaking personally about Jordan, Wales said, "Mr Ryan was a friend, and still is a friend He is a young man, and he has offered me a heartfelt personal apology, which I have accepted I hope the world will let him go in peace to build an honorable life and reputation"

Essjay had responded at the time with a statement on his Wikipedia page, in part reading:

I am sorry if anyone in the Wikipedia community has been hurt by my decision to use disinformation to protect myself I'm not sorry that I protected myself; I believed, and continue to believe, that I was right to protect myself, in light of the problems encountered on the Internet in these trying times I have spoken to all of my close friends here about this, and have heard resoundingly that they understand my position, and they support me Jimbo and many others in Wikipedia's hierarchy have made their support known as well

— Essjay

Reaction from within the Wikipedia community to the Essjay/Jordan identity discrepancy was sharp, voluminous, and mixed While most editors denounced at least some of his actions, responses ranged from offering complete support to accusing Jordan of fraud

As the controversy unfolded, the Wikipedia community began a review of Essjay's previous edits and some felt he had relied upon his fictional professorship to influence editorial consideration of edits he made "People have gone through his edits and found places where he was basically cashing in on his fake credentials to bolster his arguments," said Michael Snow, a Wikipedia administrator and founder of the Wikipedia community newspaper, the Signpost "Those will get looked at again" For instance, Essjay had recommended sources such as Catholicism for Dummies, a book granted the nihil obstat and imprimatur by the Roman Catholic Church Essjay defended his use of the book by telling fellow Wikipedia editors in a disagreement over the editing of the article Imprimatur: "This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own PhD on it's credibility" In another case a discussion of the liturgical use of the psalms, he cited personal experience from "the Abbey of Gethsemani, where I was a monk"

Jimmy Wales proposed a credential verification system on Wikipedia following the Essjay controversy, but the proposal was rejected Wales was "reported to be considering vetting all persons who adjudicate on factual disputes" "I don't think this incident exposes any inherent weakness in Wikipedia, but it does expose a weakness that we will be working to address," Wales added He insisted that Wikipedia editors still would be able to remain anonymous if they wished "We always prefer to give a positive incentive rather than absolute prohibition, so that people can contribute without a lot of hassle," Wales commented However, he also warned that "It's always inappropriate to try to win an argument by flashing your credentials, and even more so if those credentials are inaccurate" However, Florence Devouard, chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, was not supportive of his credential proposal, saying, "I think what matters is the quality of the content, which we can improve by enforcing policies such as 'cite your source,' not the quality of credentials showed by an editor" A formal proposal that users claiming to have academic qualifications would have to provide evidence before citing them in content disputes was eventually rejected by the Wikipedia community, like all previous such proposals

As a follow-up to his initial comments to The New Yorker, Wales wrote this apology to the magazine, which appeared in its March 19, 2007 issue:

I am writing to apologize to The New Yorker and Stacy Schiff, and to give some follow-up concerning Ryan Jordan Editors' Note, March 5 When I last spoke to The New Yorker about the fact that a prominent Wikipedia community member had lied about his credentials, I misjudged the issue It was not OK for Mr Jordan, or Essjay, to lie to a reporter, even to protect his identity

— Jimmy Wales

Wales expressed his regret that Essjay had "made a series of very bad judgments" He also commented that he hoped Wikipedia would improve as a result of the controversy

Wikipedia critics

Journalist and Wikipedia critic Andrew Orlowski

Andrew Orlowski, a frequent Wikipedia critic and writer for The Register—a British technology news and opinion website—criticized Jimmy Wales for hiring Essjay at the venture-capital-funded Wikia and for appointing him to the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee after Essjay had apparently admitted his previously claimed academic and professional credentials were false Orlowski added that Essjay's actions betrayed a dangerous community mindset within Wikipedia

Others to comment negatively included ZDNet writer Mitch Ratcliffe, who asked "why lying about one's background qualifies a person to work for a company like Wikia, which proposes to help communities to record accurate information" and asked for additional details "such as when he fired Jordan and the reasons for the firing, as well as when he endorsed Jordan in public statements"

Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia who left the project in 2002, called Essjay's response "a defiant non-apology" and elsewhere characterized Essjay's actions as "identity fraud"

Other comments:

  • BusinessWeek commented on proposals for credential verification: "Sadly, not everyone who posts to Wikipedia is concerned with the Ten Commandments Some are concerned with revenge Some with self-aggrandizement Some just have nothing better to do We live in an age of fake IDs, fake money, fake e-mails, fake URLs, fake IP addresses, and fake votes" However, the article argued that Wikipedia could not become a "net police" of reliability on the Internet
  • Steve Maich journalist, Maclean's stated that the controversy could damage Wikipedia's future as a media business operation, observing that Wikipedia's model was supposedly built upon trust and credibility
  • Cassandra Jardine, a Daily Telegraph contributor, opined that Essjay was "hooked on 'Wiki crack'—devotees' jargon for the thrill of seeing your efforts debated" She further observed that "Essjay has provided a reminder that any given entry could have been written by someone as ignorant as ourselves On the other hand, no one has taken issue with his edits, only his assumed persona, so perhaps the real lesson of this democratic medium is that college drop-outs might be as authoritative as professors"
  • Andrew Keen author, Cult of the Amateur described the controversy as an example of ignoring expert guidance in favor of the "dictatorship of idiots"
  • Alex Beam columnist, Boston Globe criticized the Essjay affair as being part of what he characterizes as the problems of "crowdsourcing" and the "wisdom of crowds," stating also that the crowd accepts authority unquestioningly: "Who would you rather have write your encyclopedia entries Bertrand Russell, TH Huxley, and Benedetto Croce, who wrote for the Britannica Or EssJay"


Following the media coverage of the Essjay controversy, a number of academics noted the damage to the credibility of Wikipedia On March 2, 2007, a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education commented "the incident is clearly damaging to Wikipedia's credibility—especially with professors who will now note that one of the site's most visible academics has turned out to be a fraud" Ross Brann, a professor of Judeo-Islamic studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, stated that Wikipedia lacks a process of scholarly review, saying, "They could make up your life if they wanted to" Brann also said that Wikipedia "has no place in the University," and he believed the Essjay incident would do nothing to change the unfavorable opinion that academics generally hold about the online encyclopedia Students at Cornell indicated that they may continue to use Wikipedia as a quick source of information, though they would not cite it in scholarly work

Nicola Pratt, a lecturer in international relations at the University of East Anglia in England stated, "The ethos of Wikipedia is that anyone can contribute, regardless of status What's relevant is their knowledge as judged by other readers, not whether they are professors or not—and the fact the student was exposed shows it works" In 2009, a lengthy article was published by the National Council of Teachers of English discussing the challenges of determining textual origins in college compositions, using a detailed history of the Essjay incident to set the context

See also

  • Internet portal
  • Reliability of Wikipedia
  • Victim playing

Notes and references


  1. ^ "Essjay user page" Wikipedia 2005 Archived from the original on July 22, 2005 – via Internet Archive 
  2. ^ a b c "Who is Essjay, Probably he's Ryan Jordan"
  3. ^ a b c d e Schiff, Stacy "Know it all: Can Wikipedia conquer expertise", The New Yorker, July 31, 2006
  4. ^ a b c Ian King, "'A Wiki web they've woven'" vancouver24hrsca Retrieved March 2, 2007 
  5. ^ Cohen, Noam "After False Claim, Wikipedia to Check Degrees", The New York Times, March 12, 2007
  6. ^ a b c Finkelstein, Seth "Read me first", The Guardian, March 8, 2007
  7. ^ a b Harris, Dan March 6, 2007 "Wikipedia Editor Revealed as Fake" video ABC News Retrieved March 8, 2007 
  8. ^ a b c Noam Cohen March 6, 2007 "Wikipedia ire turns against ex-editor" International Herald Tribune Archived from the original on March 8, 2007 Retrieved September 30, 2014 
  9. ^ Peter Meyers September 20, 2001 "Fact-Driven Collegial This Site Wants You" The New York Times Retrieved November 5, 2007 
  10. ^ a b c Ratcliffe, Mitch March 5, 2007, Wikipedia: Why does Essjay need to "protect himself", Zdnetcom Retrieved March 7, 2007
  11. ^ Jimmy Wales March 3, 2007 "EssJay situation" WikiEN-l Retrieved October 1, 2007 
  12. ^ a b A public viewable version of this claim as dated 2006 is visible on the Internet Archive "Archived copy of Essjay's Wikipedia user page" The Internet Archive Archived from the original on January 11, 2006 Retrieved October 18, 2007 
  13. ^ a b c "Profiles do not mesh" Essjay Wikipedia talk page February 2, 2007 Retrieved July 26, 2007 
  14. ^ Jimmy Wales October 17, 2007 "ArbCom" WikiEN-l Retrieved October 23, 2007 
  15. ^ Nicholas Carr February 27, 2007 "Essjay disrobed" Rough Type Retrieved July 26, 2007 
  16. ^ Jeff Bercovici February 28, 2007 "Ode to Wikipedia Riddled with Errors" Radar Retrieved July 26, 2007 
  17. ^ a b Wolfson, Andrew March 6, 2007 "Wikipedia editor who posed as professor is Ky dropout - Man resigns post after controversy" Louisville Courier-Journal Archived from the original on October 11, 2007 Retrieved September 30, 2014 
  18. ^ a b Bergstein, Brian March 7, 2007 "After flap over phony professor, Wikipedia wants some writers to share real names" Associated Press 
  19. ^ a b c Wales, Jimmy March 19, 2007 "Making amends" The New Yorker p 24 
  20. ^ "User:Essjay/Letter" WebCite Archived from the original on March 2, 2007 Retrieved November 17, 2007  CS1 maint: Unfit url link
  21. ^ Williams, Martyn March 9, 2007 "Wikipedia Founder Addresses User Credentials" PC World Archived from the original on March 11, 2007 Retrieved March 9, 2007 
  22. ^ Zaharov-Reutt, Alex March 6, 2007 "Wikipedia: did one of its admins lie" iTWire Archived from the original on March 4, 2007 Retrieved March 6, 2007 
  23. ^ Goldman, Russell March 6, 2007 "Wikiscandal: A Prominent Editor at the Popular Online Encyclopedia Is a Fraud" ABC News Retrieved March 6, 2007 
  24. ^ Elsworth, Catherine March 8, 2007 "Wikipedia 'expert' admits: I made it up" The Age Retrieved March 16, 2007 
  25. ^ "Fake professor in Wikipedia storm" BBC News March 6, 2007 Retrieved March 16, 2007 
  26. ^ Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2007-03-05/Essjay
  27. ^ Finkelstein, Seth March 8, 2007 "Read me first" Technology The Guardian Retrieved August 1, 2007 
  28. ^ Brandt, Daniel January 20, 2007 "untitled letter to Stacy Schiff" The Wikipedia Review Retrieved January 10, 2012 
  29. ^ "Andrew Lih" Hong Kong University Archived from the original on June 13, 2004 Retrieved November 5, 2007 
  30. ^ a b c Andrew Lih November 5, 2007 "Essjay's Third Transgression" Retrieved October 1, 2007 
  31. ^ a b Doran, James March 6, 2007 "Wikipedia chief promises change after 'expert' exposed as fraud" Tech & Web London: The Times Archived from the original on March 9, 2007 Retrieved March 18, 2007 
  32. ^ Keen, Andrew March 7, 2007 "Laughter and forgetting on Wikipedia" ZDNet Archived from the original on August 21, 2012 Retrieved March 13, 2007 
  33. ^ a b c Cohen, Noam March 5, 2007 "A Contributor to Wikipedia Has His Fictional Side" Technology The New York Times Retrieved March 6, 2007 
  34. ^ Trigilio, John; Brighenti, Kenneth April 28, 2003 Catholicism for Dummies Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing ISBN 0-7645-5391-7 
  35. ^ "Catholicism for Dummies" GetFedcom Archived from the original on May 30, 2004 Retrieved July 25, 2007 
  36. ^ "Talk:Imprimatur" Wikipedia April 12, 2005 Retrieved August 28, 2007 
  37. ^ "Talk:Psalms" Wikipedia May 25, 2005 Retrieved December 11, 2009 
  38. ^ Staff March 7, 2007 "Wikipedia's 'bogus' editor ousted" Freelance UK 
  39. ^ WP:CRED
  40. ^ a b Orlowski, Andrew March 2, 2007 "Bogus Wikipedia Prof was blessed then promoted" Music and Media The Register Retrieved March 18, 2007 
  41. ^ Orlowski, Andrew March 6, 2007 "Farewell, Wikipedia" Music and Media The Register Retrieved March 18, 2007 
  42. ^ BLOchman March 22, 2007 "Wikipedia's Not the Net Police" BusinessWeek Retrieved February 8, 2014 
  43. ^ Steve Maich March 19, 2007 "Wikipedia's trouble with the truth" Maclean's Archived from the original on January 11, 2009 Retrieved October 1, 2007 
  44. ^ Jardine, Cassandra March 8, 2007 "Fount of all wisdom—and foolery" Features The Daily Telegraph p 21 Archived from the original on October 11, 2007 Retrieved September 29, 2007 
  45. ^ Levy, Steven March 26, 2007 "Invasion of the web amateurs" The Technologist Newsweek p 16 
  46. ^ Beam, Alex March 12, 2007 "Tricky truths behind Wikipedia" LivingGarts Boston Globe p E5 Retrieved September 29, 2007 
  47. ^ Read, Brock March 2, 2007 "Essjay, the Ersatz Academic" The Chronicle of Higher Education Archived from the original on March 5, 2007 
  48. ^ Albanes, John March 15, 2007 "Wikipedia Stays Popular Despite False Sources" The Cornell Daily Sun Retrieved March 18, 2007 
  49. ^ MacLeod, Donald March 7, 2007 "Students marked on writing in Wikipedia" The Guardian Retrieved March 18, 2007 
  50. ^ Brown, James J; Gregory S 2009 "Essjay's Ethos: Rethinking Textual Origins and Intellectual Property" PDF College Composition and Communication 60 1: W238–W258 


  • Claburn, Thomas March 8, 2007 "Wikipedia Mulls Proof Of Credentials" InformationWeek Retrieved March 18, 2007 
  • Sadofsky, Jason Scott March 1, 2007 "ASCII by Jason Scott: Wikipedia: JS on Essjay" Archived from the original on August 20, 2007 Retrieved September 8, 2007 

External links

  • News related to Jimmy Wales asks Wikipedian to resign "his positions of trust" over nonexistent degrees at Wikinews
  • News related to Retired Wikipedian suggests Pulitzer winner tried to pay him; practice unaccepted in journalism at Wikinews

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