Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Ethics of Wikipedia

Note: Of course I learned the hard way, how quickly information travels and situations change in the digital age. I wrote this entry last night about the scandal surrounding Wikipedia contributor Essjay (Ryan Jordan). I made the mistake of not looking on the Wikipedia site before writing this entry. If I had the foresight to do so, I would have seen that Essjay has been asked to resign following the uproar of bloggers and Wikipedians. My original post follows:

The Wikipedia phenomenon is difficult to ignore. Wikipedia is an online user created encyclopedia, and its popularity has grown exponentially over the last few years. For many people (particularly students) it has become a vital tool for their online research. For some, Wikipedia has come to represent the great potential for online communities to drastically shift the dynamic between content provider and content user, or to even some extent between citizen and government. Wikipedia makes it (hypothetically) possible for everyone to create content on the site, allowing for the potential of an unprecedented accumulation of information.
We recently discussed Wikipedia in our digital journalism class using Stacy Schiff’s New Yorker article, “Know it all,” as the starting point for our discussion. Shiff’s article outlines the sites explosive popularity and growth and its increased concern with accuracy and legitimacy.
One of the main subjects of the piece is a Wikipedia contributor named Essjay. Essjay was an example of all that is good about the site. According to the article Essjay claimed to be “a tenured professor of religion at a private university” and held “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.” He is a poster-child for the site; an educated and qualified regular contributor.
Well…In the March 5, 2007 issue of the New Yorker there is an “Editors’ Note” about Essjay’s professional claims. It turns out 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.”
Is most walks-of-life, fraud makes for professional ruin, legal trouble, or worse. In wikiworld it means job opportunity. Jordan “was recently hired by Wikia- a for-profit company affiliated with Wikipedia as a ‘community manager’; he continues to hold his Wikipedia positions.” Asked about the whole ordeal, “Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikia and of Wikipedia, said of Essjay’s invented persona, ‘I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.’”
Is this what we should come to expect from the web2.0 revolution? A revolution, where dishonesty is masked by anonymity and people like Essjay deceive their way to the top. Having a pseudonym on the Internet is nothing new. But, for a site like Wikipedia that strives to provide factual information it seems quite hypocritical to reward such blatant and unnecessary fraudulence.

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