Essjay

New Yorker correction dogs arbitrator into departure

Editor's note: The Wikipedia Signpost is an independent, community newspaper, and is not affiliated with the Wikimedia Foundation. Any comments published on this page are the opinions of their author alone, and do not reflect the opinion of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Ryan Jordan, also known as Essjay and newly appointed as a member of the Arbitration Committee a week ago, has resigned his positions and announced his departure from Wikipedia. This comes after The New Yorker, which interviewed him as part of a feature on Wikipedia last July, corrected its description of the fake persona Jordan had given the magazine. Ironically, this is another side of the Internet's potential anonymity once highlighted by The New Yorker itself, in a famous cartoon captioned, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

For a long time, Jordan did not disclose his identity, but described himself as a "tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States" and said he had four academic degrees in that field. In the meantime, he was a very active Wikipedia editor and became an administrator, bureaucrat, mediator, and received access to the checkuser and oversight functions. The New Yorker article by Stacy Schiff mentioned Jordan having degrees in theology and canon law and also talked about how he "often takes his laptop to class, so that he can be available to Wikipedians while giving a quiz."

Later revelations indicated that Jordan was 24 years old and living in Louisville, Kentucky. He had attended several colleges in the area, but did not possess the degrees he had claimed or teach at a university.

As an explanation for the fake persona, Jordan pointed to the problem of people trying to harass and stalk Wikipedia editors. This concern implicitly included the work of people like Wikipedia critic Daniel Brandt, although the persona predates Brandt's Wikipedia-related activity by several months. As Rogers Cadenhead discovered, Jordan alluded to having a Ph.D. in his fourth edit to Wikipedia, in April 2005. The statement was in a post to a talk page in support of his very first edit two months earlier.

For his part, Brandt helped bring the discrepancy to the attention of The New Yorker. As a result, last week the magazine explained what happened in an editors' note: "Essjay was recommended to Ms. Schiff as a source by a member of Wikipedia's management team because of his respected position within the Wikipedia community. 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. At the time of publication, neither we nor Wikipedia knew Essjay's real name."

Wikia revelation cascades to Wikipedia

Jordan's real identity first became known when Wikia hired him as a community manager. His name and a photo appeared on his Wikia user page when he started work in January. Though some people pointed out that they couldn’t be certain "Ryan Jordan" was Essjay’s name either (we refer to him as Jordan primarily for convenience), Wikia would have needed his real identity in order to put him on the payroll. In the aftermath of these events, Jordan also left Wikia.

Wikia had hired Jordan for reasons entirely unrelated to his misrepresentations. The position for which he was hired called for advanced wiki editing skills, assisting community members, and testing new features – qualifications Jordan had amply demonstrated, for example, in helping coordinate the Counter-Vandalism Unit and the Mediation Committee. As Kat Walsh (who held a similar position at Wikia before leaving for law school) put it, "Heaven knows Wikia does not care about Ph.D.s in theology."

On Wikipedia, however, the new persona began to prompt questions about how to square it with the old. In response, Jordan said that he never hid his personality, but used disinformation about what he called unimportant details. After The New Yorker posted its note, Jordan wrote that he was "sorry if anyone in the Wikipedia community has been hurt by my decision to use disinformation to protect myself."

Jimmy Wales was originally quoted in the New Yorker editors' note defending the Essjay persona, saying, "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it." Busy traveling from India to Japan, Wales later called for Jordan to resign his positions of trust, in light of the additional revelations about fake credentials being used in Wikipedia discussions. Jordan's apology and Wales's statements were each followed by vociferous discussions on their talk pages as well as on several community pages. Some of these discussions, as well as a Wikipedia article newly created about Jordan, also saw attempts to delete the pages amid calls for greater restraint to be exercised.

Apology presents another issue

In his apology, Jordan went on at length about the trouble he had gone through on behalf of Wikipedia and in being interviewed by Schiff. He also made the extraordinary claim that Schiff had "made several offers to compensate me for my time" during the course of the interview.

Reputable media publications reject the practice of paying interview subjects as unethical, and it is usually limited to sensationalist tabloids. The New Yorker generally enjoys a sterling reputation for ethics as well as fact-checking, which would help explain its attention to correcting a months-old article on a point tangential to the thrust of the story. New Yorker deputy editor Pam McCarthy said the magazine’s policy prohibits payment for interviews and strenuously defended Schiff's integrity, calling this "one of the worst charges that can be made about a reporter." Stacy Schiff flatly denied Jordan's claim, saying, "This is complete nonsense."

Jordan could not be reached for comment and his only subsequent Wikipedia edits were to announce his departure. Based on earlier statements he made, it is possible that he used calling cards to phone Schiff for the interview, and his claim may have referred to an offer to reimburse the cost of those calls. If this is what he meant, the mistake of referring to compensation for his "time" instead of his "expenses", though it may seem legalistic, was critical. Schiff's response did not address whether this alternate interpretation was correct.

McCarthy was also quoted in a New York Times story about the incident explaining why The New Yorker went ahead without corroborating all of the information in its story. She stated, "We were comfortable with the material we got from Essjay because of Wikipedia's confirmation of his work and their endorsement of him."

Wikimedia Foundation grants coordinator Danny Wool, who actually referred Jordan along with several other possible interview candidates to Schiff, responded: "In suggesting Essjay to Stacy...I stated that one of the appealing things about his story was the extreme anonymity. I also stated that he had turned down requests for interviews in the past, and that I was not sure he would agree. I was not asked about Essjay at all by the fact checker, who contacted me and discussed the other points of the article at length." (For further analysis, see Andrew Lih's blog.)


+ Add a comment

Discuss this story

Can I suggest we add a similar disclaimer that the 'Post did to the Fuzzy article last week, to avoid the media taking this as an official press release from WMF? Cheers, Daniel Bryant 06:17, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

While I understand the concern, I think I will hold off on that unless there are actual signs of confusion. The New York Times was able to understand pretty clearly what the Signpost was and give an appropriate description in its story. --Michael Snow 06:27, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Oh well, I guess Ral315 has already gone ahead with it. --Michael Snow 06:28, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Usually I won't unless there's a legal threat involved, but it's not a bad idea to play it safe while big news organizations are covering this story. Ral315 » 06:34, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Calling cards

Since the paragraph about this aspect has raised some questions, I will attempt to explain them. From several sources, I have it that Jordan talked about using calling cards to speak with Schiff (presumably in order not to reveal his telephone number, so as to remain anonymous), and further that he talked about the expense this put him to. From this follows the interpretation that he may be claiming Schiff offered to reimburse this expense. The awkwardness is partly because the use of calling cards is not confirmed, nor is it confirmed that Schiff even made this offer, let alone the ethically more damaging offer of payment.

However, the story needs to provide the information that will allow either of two interpretations - that Jordan misspoke in impugning Schiff's ethics, or that the language of his statement is what he literally meant, with the full ethical implications of such a charge. The correct interpretation of his intent is left for the reader to decide, as is the question of whether to believe Jordan's or Schiff's position regardless of which interpretation is chosen. --Michael Snow 07:46, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

"Ryan Jordan" ???

  • Why does this article refer to Essjay as "Ryan Jordan", as if that is really who the individual is, when we are not certain that this is Essjay's actual identity? Smee 14:31, 6 March 2007 (UTC).Reply[reply]
It's explained in the article: "we refer to him as Jordan primarily for convenience". It's also for consistency with the other individuals mentioned. And for what it's worth, the New York Times also refers to him extensively as "Mr. Jordan". I can't say to what extent they confirmed that was a real name, you'd have to ask them, but I'm content to follow their lead. --Michael Snow 16:20, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Sounds good. Perhaps we will never know what the "Essjay" really was, for it was probably not his initials as previously claimed... Smee 16:22, 6 March 2007 (UTC).Reply[reply]

Headline

I take issue with the headline "New Yorker correction dogs arbitrator into departure". The word "dogs" implies that the New Yorker somehow harassed Essjay into leaving, which is not the case. Essjay's mistakes, and his decisions, are his own. --Fang Aili talk 16:27, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Please read the headline with the proper subject-verb relationship. The subject that is performing the "action" of the word "dogs" is the correction, not The New Yorker. That correction has been dogging him for weeks, is dogging him still, and will probably dog any "Essjay" or "Ryan Jordan" on the internet for a long time to come. You also seem to have missed the allusion that is the key to the headline. --Michael Snow 16:34, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
That is what I meant--that the correction itself did not lead to Essjay's departure. He decided that himself. I don't argue that this situation will "dog" him for some time, but there is no direct relationship between the correction itself, and Essjay's decisions. The allusion to the cartoon "..knows you're a dog", while somehow cute or ironic, takes the focus away from the actual news, which is Essjay's actions and the community's response to them. --Fang Aili talk 16:57, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Re: "He decided that himself." Sure he did, it's not like the correction could have decided that for him. But to claim that the correction didn't lead to his decision is being willfully blind to the events. Ask yourself whether Essjay would have left at all if the correction had never been made. We are not working in some kind of hermetically sealed environment where the only things that exist or matter are those that happen on the wiki. Wikipedia can have consequences in the world outside, and the world outside can have consequences on Wikipedia. This is one of those cases, and the way that gets bridged is news as much as the purely internal stuff. --Michael Snow 17:21, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
But to claim that the correction didn't lead to his decision is being willfully blind to the events. - Heh, that is why I changed the title to "New Yorker correction leads to retirement of arbitrator". It is simply more accurate and less biased. But since I don't wish to argue this up and down, for my part I'll let the issue lie. --Fang Aili talk 17:56, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

The headline was surely also a pun on the cartoon [1]--Golden Wattle talk 23:13, 10 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Just the tip of a 500-ton gorilla/iceberg

Another liar on Wikipedia, huh? At least vandals are honest. Too bad they won't let us vet our credentials, maybe a third party service can allow us to prove those of us who actually do hold advance degrees and find ourselves facing self-righteous but completely undereducated fakesters (this final generalization has nothing to do with the subject of the article). --Bobak 17:17, 6 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Vandals are honest? So User:Willy on Wheels is just a hard-working bicyclist? I don't think so. Superm401 - Talk 00:32, 7 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
It's pretty "un-wiki" to disregard one person's opinion just because they don't have an advanced degree. Educated or not, you should be able to support your position with reason and evidence rather than simply appealing to your education.  Þ  00:39, 7 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Agreed. I have no real credentials, but that doesn't mean that I can't research a topic and write as good an article as a certified expert could. Ral315 » 07:39, 7 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
In response to Superm401, Vandals are honest because they vandalize without pretending to do otherwise, maybe I should've been more specific and said "blatant vandal" since there are a few notable exceptions among the more surreptitious vandals. In response to Anþony and Ral315, on Wikipedia we have people pretending to know areas, like law and medicine, where self-research and authority is actually quite dangerous to the public --hence those are areas where public policy recognizes the danger and offers remedy/punishment. It's one thing to be something like history or philosophy, but there is a much higher level of problems offered in other areas of professional (vs. academic) expertise. I don't pretend to write with authority on quick-learning engineering, medicine or other similar areas. --Bobak 16:51, 7 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

paying sources

It is surely not usual for reputable journalists to pay sources. But when a person talks about eight hours with a reporter a compensation is not unethical. This seems like a failed attempt to blame the New Yorker. --194.8.195.38 19:40, 7 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]

I don't know what to tell you if you're just going to believe your own assumptions about journalistic ethics without any information to back it up. But Jason Scott, who was also quoted in the New Yorker article, says that he was interviewed in a similar fashion as Ryan Jordan ("something like 8 hours across multiple phone calls over the course of a few weeks") and was never offered anything of the sort.
The claim made by Jordan in his apology would, if true, show an unethical journalistic practice. The article does not contend that it was true, or that The New Yorker should be blamed for the fact that Jordan made such a charge. But it's a serious charge, and merely the fact that it was made, especially considering the strong Wikipedia policy against defaming living persons, meant it needed to be addressed. You have their response, and information about Jordan's statements, and the facts should be sufficient to draw your own conclusions. --Michael Snow 20:34, 7 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]
It is not probable that the New Yorker wanted to bribe Jordan in any way. Why should they? --81.173.131.162 20:34, 9 March 2007 (UTC)Reply[reply]





       

The Signpost · written by many · served by Sinepost V0.9 · 🄯 CC-BY-SA 4.0