Jimmy Wales is wrong about Essjay


Jimmy Wales has posted a statement on his talk page at Wikipedia about the Essjay affair, and from the sounds of it he has changed his mind about what Ryan Jordan did — and has asked him to resign from his positions within the Wikipedia community. And I for one think he has done the right thing.

I understood this to be primarily the matter of a pseudonymous identity (something very mild and completely understandable given the personal dangers possible on the Internet) and not a matter of violation of people’s trust.

I want to make it perfectly clear that my past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on.

There’s some more background and details in this New York Times story.

Original post:

Hardly a month goes by without some new dustup involving Wikipedia — either because someone edited their own entry, or because someone bitched about not being able to edit their own entry, or because someone paid someone else to edit an entry. The latest brouhaha concerns a New Yorker piece that quoted a senior Wikipedia administrator named Essjay, a person described as a tenured professor of religion at a private U.S. university.

wikipedia logo.jpgAs it turns out, Essjay is no such thing. His real name is Ryan Jordan, and he doesn’t have a degree in theology or canon law (as his Wikipedia profile claims), nor does he teach at any kind of educational institution. He is 24, and works for Wikia, the for-profit company started by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. And what was the response to the New Yorker piece? Jimmy Wales told the New Yorker that he regards Essjay’s fake profile as “a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.” On his talk page at Wikipedia he says:

“EssJay has always been, and still is, a fantastic editor and trusted member of the community. He apologized to me and to the community for any harm caused.

Trolls are claiming that he “bragged” about it: this is bullshit. He has been thoughtful and contrite about the entire matter and I consider it settled.”

There is much discussion on the talk page about how Ryan Jordan maintained a fake profile under a pseudonym because he wanted to protect himself from “stalkers” such as Daniel Brandt, who runs a site called Wikipedia Watch that is critical of the open-source encyclopedia and regularly reveals the identities of Wikipedia editors. Others such as Chris Edwards point out, however, that Jordan was using his fake profile before Brandt started becoming a nuisance, not to mention the fact that fear of stalkers doesn’t explain why Jordan regularly cited his fake credentials.

Others at Wikipedia are arguing that Essjay was a valuable contributor to Wikipedia, that none of the editing he has done is being questioned (although perhaps it should be), and that a person’s actual biographical details should be irrelevant. Even Jimmy Wales seems to feel that Jordan’s misinformation was a harmless mistake, since he has appointed him to the arbitration committee.

I would argue that both Wales and Jordan’s supporters are wrong. Whether Essjay’s work at Wikipedia is above reproach isn’t the point. The point is that Wikipedia already has people questioning its credibility right and left, and the fact that a supposed expert — one who was put forward by Wikipedia itself as an authority on the project, not to mention a shining example of how it works — would effectively lie to the New Yorker is beyond the pale. If Wikipedia wants to have any claim to credibility at all, Essjay should be fired.


Essjay has made a statement on his talk page, and still maintains that he disguised his identity to protect himself from trolls and stalkers. Why he made up the credentials is not explained, although he says he was surprised that the New Yorker didn’t check those facts. He also says that it was his impression that it was “well known that I was not who I claimed to be.” Please see the comments below for further clarification.

16 thoughts on “Jimmy Wales is wrong about Essjay

  1. Thanks for the comment, Esquire. I agree. If anything, Essjay’s comments since the facts came out make it obvious that he sees nothing wrong with what happened — which is part of the problem.

    And Jimmy Wales appointing him to the arbitration committee compounds the problem.

  2. “If Wikipedia wants to have any claim to credibility at all, Essjay should be fired.”

    Essjay is not an employee of Wikipedia (or, more precisely, of Wikimedia Foundation), but of Wikia. Wikia is a for-profit company independent of Wikipedia.

    Whether Wikia fires this person has absolutely no relationship with Wikipedia.

    A more relevant question is whether Essjay should resign from the arbitration committee. (I do not think that “fired” is appropriate here, since this is entirely a volunteer position.)

    This is not so obvious. The purpose of the arbitration committee is not to judge the content of articles, but to rule on behavioral abuses (people insulting others, or repeatedly pushing propaganda, etc.).

    It is therefore unclear how credentials in theology or their absence would interfere.

    One may, though, consider that a person who invents himself credentials may have integrity issues incompatible with such a position of confidence.

  3. The New Yorker’s correction says, “He 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.”

    I see in Essjay’s statement where he was surprised that Ms. Schiff focused on things that weren’t discussed much at all, but I don’t see him claiming that that he wasn’t asked to confirm his biographical details to Ms. Schiff and/or the fact checker, Jessica Rosenberg. I’m convinced that he did confirm them.

    The part about how he thought that everyone already assumed that his biography was false is another misconception. This suspicion developed slowly when I and a couple of others started compiling information on Essjay, and that was more than a year after he started promoting his fake credentials, and after The New Yorker article was published. In the dozens of comments today you don’t see anyone saying, “I thought so!” Everyone is treating this as news, because it is. I got nowhere with my research, obviously, since nothing checked out. Now I know why.

    I guess that makes me a “stalker” because I tried to match up Essjay’s information with lists of faculty in religion departments at Eastern private universities.

    I don’t call that stalking, I call it “due diligence.” Unfortunately, Jimmy Wales seems to be unfamiliar with the concept.

  4. David, I’m familiar with the difference between Wikia and Wikipedia. But I disagree that “whether Wikia fires this person has absolutely no relationship with Wikipedia.” Both are run by Jimmy Wales, and one is very much dependent on the goodwill and reputation of the other. But I would agree that at the very least, Essjay should not have been appointed to the arbitration committee.

    Esquire and Daniel, thanks for pointing out that Essjay did in fact suggest that his profile details were correct.

  5. Wales appointed Jordan to Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee — the group that has final say on contentious matters — *after* he knew that he concocted fake academic credentials and lied to the New Yorker. The hubris is staggering.

  6. I agree, Rogers. It does kind of make you wonder what was going through his head.

  7. Want another one? Gary Weiss is misrepresenting himself as “mantanmoreland” on wikipedia in order to anonymously attack Patrick Byrne, Overstock.com, and the “Naked Short Selling” scandal.

    And Jimbo Wales lied about that user not being Gary Weiss.

  8. What’s as remarkable as Wales’s glib dismissal of Ryan Jordan’s flim-flam has been the community’s reaction. They’ve been concoting every sort of excuse under the sun, from trying to avoid stalkers (for which one doesn’t need to create a fake life), claiming that his theology claims aren’t relevant (as exhibited by David above), that he doesn’t represent the project, or just plain “Jimbo trusts him. There is no evidence that he isn’t a competent arbcom member. ” Instead, they’re pinning the blame on the New Yorker — anything to ensure that The ‘Pedia and Its Processes remian unblemished in their minds. The Wikipedians who do see a problem are (at least on the talk pages) a minority.


    Wales is by far the most influential/trusted person in Wikipedia, and as far as I’ve been able to tell, what Jimbo says, goes. That he’s not the board chair is a distinction without a difference. For all practical purposes, he’s the Benevolent Dictator For Life.

  9. Jimbo’s (predictable) real concern in his recent response on his talk page http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:Jimbo_Wales&diff=112270687&oldid=112270647

    is that Essjay “used his false credentials in content disputes”, pointing to his concern to further “check diffs” of Essjay.

    Also see http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Community_noticeboard&diff=112278999&oldid=112274795

    Jimbo claims he did not understand this matter to be one “of violation of people’s trust” and that his “past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on”.

    Oh c’mon.

    And this seems to point to something indicate otherwise: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:Jimbo_Wales&diff=112282076&oldid=112281864

    And when Jimbo claims he did not understand this matter to be one “of violation of people’s trust”, which “people” is he talking about? Only Wikipedians who may have been bluffed by a pull of false credentials? Apparently so, which only confirms the insularity of the system.

    Does Jimbo feel Essjay violated the trust of The New Yorker reporters to whom Essjay lied? On this he is silent and it speaks loudly. How about to The New Yorker’s many, many readers? Again, on this he is silent and it speaks loudly.

  10. Essjay’s Response Soon After The Controversy Broke Out!

    I would like to clear up an oversight on my part. I was, until this morning, under the impression that in my initial post on this subject (in response to a question from Dev920 made some weeks ago) I had made an apology for anyone who felt they were hurt by my decision to use misinformation. In speaking to various different people, including Jimbo, I did make it known that I was sorry that anyone felt hurt by my actions, and I believed I had done so in my initial statement. On re-reading that, I find I did not; it was a rather lengthy statement I had been thinking about for some time, and I seem to have left out a rather critical element of it. So, I rectify that now, with further apologies that it was not included originally, as I pointed people back to that statement in the belief it was complete.

    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 thier support known as well. I’m also sorry the New Yorker chose to print what they did about me; there seems to be a belief that I knew they were going to print it, and that is not the case. I spoke with Stacy Shiff for over eight hours; in that time, she asked me about a variety of subjects related to Wikipedia and I have her much to write on. (Those who know me will know I am rarely ever brief in my comments.) That she chose to focus on two rather trivial reverts to [[Justin Timberlake]] and what my userpage said came as a complete surprise to me; it was, quite honestly, my impression that it was well known that I was not who I claimed to be, and that in the absence of any confirmation, no respectible publication would print it. I did not have an advance copy of the article, and indeed, didn’t even get the complimentary print copy that others were given when it was published; I asked Stacy to send it to the Foundation for thier use instead. 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.

    For two years, I have poured my life into making this site a better place. That many people feel hurt by my decision pains me greatly, and to them I am genuinely sorry. To the stalkers, the trolls, and the vandals, I am not sorry; they are abusive, hateful people, and they have done far worse things than those whole of the Wikipeida Community, myself included, have ever thought about doing. Now, I am going back to what I have always done: Making Wikipedia a better place. (In the immediate present, I’m going to bed, as I’ve been up for quite a long time.) Tonight, I will be back to my normal routine: Blocking vandals, closing RFAs, tending to the mailing lists, etc. I have no intention of going anywhere, because to do so would be to let the vandals, trolls, and stalkers win.

    I have no doubt that others will continue to debate this matter; I have no intention to say anything further, as I have made my statement complete. If anyone needs me, look where the work of keeping the encyclopedia running is being done, and you’ll probably find me there. [[User:Essjay|”’Essjay”’]] [[User talk:Essjay|(Talk)]] 16:06, 1 March 2007 (UTC)

    Here is the website address below to verify the text:


  11. essjay and wales are everything that is wrong with wikipedia. I just use a real encyclopedia for info.

  12. essjay and wales are everything that is wrong with wikipedia. I just use a real encyclopedia for info.

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