Saturday, March 10, 2007

Wikipedia To Check I.D.’s

In an interview with Reuters TV in Tokyo, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, the user-edited online encyclopedia, said last night that contributors who identify themselves as experts
will be asked to furnish some proof of their qualifications.

“It isn’t that hard to verify that someone is a professor. … I mean, we don’t need to run an F.B.I. background check on everyone — we just want to make sure that if someone’s putting
forth credentials, that we look into it a little bit and make sure.”

The Associated Press reports that Mr. Wales “said in interviews by phone and instant message yesterday from Japan that contributors still would be able to remain anonymous.”

The move comes in response to what Wikipedia itself calls “the Essjay controversy.” As Noam Cohen explained in The New York Times earlier this week, Essjay was a prominent contributor to Wikipedia whose lies about his credentials were exposed after they were repeated in an article in The New Yorker.

To the Wikipedia world, Essjay was a tenured professor of religion at a private university with expertise in canon law, according to his user profile. But in fact, Essjay is a 24-year-old named Ryan Jordan, who attended a number of colleges in Kentucky and lives outside Louisville. …

The Essjay episode underlines some of the perils of collaborative efforts like Wikipedia that rely on many contributors acting in good faith, often anonymously and through self-designated user names. But it also shows how the transparency of the Wikipedia process — all editing of entries is marked and saved — allows readers to react to suspected fraud.

Mr. Jordan’s deception came to public attention last Monday when The New Yorker published a rare editors’ note saying that when it wrote about Essjay as part of a lengthy profile of Wikipedia, “neither we nor Wikipedia knew Essjay’s real name,” and that it took Essjay’s credentials and life experience at face value.

Interestingly, The A.P. also reports that Mr. Jordan himself blames The New Yorker’s fact-checking department for not catching him sooner.

Jordan did not return an e-mail seeking comment. But in a note on his Wikipedia “user page” before it was “retired,” he apologized for any harm he caused Wikipedia.

“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 [sic] publication would print it,” he wrote.

By allowing expert contributors to remain anonymous, Wikipedia’s plan does seem to raise a question: might it be a good idea simply to abandon the tradition of “screen names” that has grown up with the Web, and start encouraging people to use their real names when they contribute to discussion or debate online?

Polly Toynbee, a columnist for The Guardian, recently spoke about the corrosive effects of anonymity on the Web:

Toynbee, who has written about the abuse she has received from bloggers, said one byproduct of the Internet age has been that when her columns are posted on Guardian Unlimited, the abuse pours in almost immediately: “I have around 50 arch-enemies who seem to get up at about five in the morning — they have obviously never bought The Guardian, they wouldn’t contaminate their fingers with it, and they are right-wingers who hate The Guardian and everything it stands for.

“Letters used to be quite polite, e-mails were a bit ruder. But this is of another dimension, because you can’t answer back unless in public, because they’re anonymous. I think that’s wrong — they should have to put their own names up there. It would make them stop and think twice if they thought their colleagues and families would see what they wrote. Anonymity brings out real mischief in us. It is a debased discourse.”

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