The New York Times today reports a very sad end to a fascinating and convoluted Wikipedia controversy. Following a personal request by Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia User:Essjay has retired from Wikipedia. And according to The New York Times, he is no longer an employee of Wikia. Essjay’s user pages on Wikia and Wikipedia reflect his retirement.
Essjay was a prominent and respected editor and administrator of Wikipedia, who claimed to be a tenured professor of religion, when in fact he was a 24 year old living in Kentucky. When Essjay began working for Wikia, it was necessary for him to admit his real life identity. Jimmy Wales accepted Essjay’s admission and apology, stating as recently as last week that Essjay “is now, and has always been, an excellent editor with an exemplary track record.”
Last July, Essjay maintained his fake PHd credentials in a New Yorker 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. Initially, he contributed to articles in his field—on the penitential rite, transubstantiation, the papal tiara. Soon he was spending fourteen hours a day on the site, though he was careful to keep his online life a secret from his colleagues and friends. (To his knowledge, he has never met another Wikipedian, and he will not be attending Wikimania, the second international gathering of the encyclopedia’s contributors, which will take place in early August in Boston.)
This drew a firestorm last week when the New Yorker issued a correction, noting Essjay’s fake identity. This was excellently reported by Wikipedia blogger Andrew Lih, who went so far as to contact Stacy Schiff at the New Yorker to verify the story, and verify Essjay’s insinuation that Stacy Schiff attempted to compensate him for the article (Stacy’s response: “This is complete nonsense.”).
Though nobody questions Essjay’s value as a great editor, ethical issues emerged this weekend as Wikipedians began digging through Essjay’s edit history. It appears Essjay resorted to his fake status as a PHd in order to win edit wars. For instance, the New York Times writes:
In a discussion over the editing of the article with regard to the term “imprimatur,” as used in Catholicism, Essjay defended his use of the book “Catholicism for Dummies,” saying, “This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it’s credibility.”
Jimmy Wales has since cleared off his talk page to allow for discussion on how to handle such issues in the future. As I have always noted, I humbly believe Wikipedia is one of the greatest social experiments in the history of humankind. So there are bound to be a few speedbumps in an otherwise amazing trajectory.