Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Anonymity the fatal flaw of Wikipedia

It's brought together laymen and academics alike, and, in theory anyway, will eventually document everything and anything that can be documented. However, Wikipedia suffers the same problem that the rest of the Internet experiences, which is that there's no way to verify its users' identities. Since it's "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," a user can choose to edit anonymously, only revealing their computer's Internet address, or they can choose to register a pseudonym.

Such was the case of one Ryan "Essjay" Jordan, who registered an account on Wikipedia in 2005. Jordan claimed he had four degrees, including two doctorates, and a professorship at a private university. Over time, Jordan used these claimed credentials to win over arguments in the various discussion pages, eventually becoming an administrator and a member of Wikipedia's arbitration board.

Jordan was interviewed on behalf of Wikipedia by the New Yorker magazine in July 2006 in an article on the website. But in last month's edition of the same publication, he was revealed not to be a professor with two PhDs, but rather a 24-year old college dropout from Kentucky. This came to light in part due to his getting hired by Wikia, a for-profit Wikipedia spin-off, and his attempt at wiping the slate clean after editing his own profile on the website revealed his full identity.

Jordan said that he lied to protect himself in his role as administrator, and that he had afterward apologized to Wikipedia owner and co-founder Jimmy Wales. Wales initially accepted the apology and didn't pursue any disciplinary action, but due to heavy pressure from various editors, "Essjay" was eventually removed.

What makes this case so damning to Wikipedia's reputation isn't the fact that Jordan climbed up the ranks of the site's editing hierarchy, but the fact that he used his falsified degrees to further his credibility. Because of his bogus credentials, he was a dream candidate to further push the legitimacy of the encyclopedia, but with the revelation of his true identity, all he's done is make the collaboration less credible.

This isn't to say that what's written on Wikipedia by any anonymous user is without foundation. The website's policy dictates that everything must be sourced, but it's harder to tell if the writers themselves had the credentials to back up their claims.

Nobody needs to have a degree to write an article on something as complex as Hylopetes, a type of squirrel, or as something as common as toothpaste, as provided either is properly sourced, it will be deemed factual.

However, if one is going to claim that they have certain credentials and if the website is going to advance someone based on that, the credentials themselves should certainly be backed up.

On the horizon is a new online encyclopedia called "Citizendium." While the website makes claims of its larger competitor not being neutral on issues such as government and religion, it does require that any individual registering provides their real name and verification of their credentials. With this, Wikipedia may want to take a page from this expert-written spinoff (started by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger) to further prevent such an issue from occurring again.

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