Thursday, March 08, 2007

It's not a good idea to abuse virtual trust

There is some turmoil right now among Wikipedia contributors about the fake identity of “essjay”. As the NYT reported a very active Wikipedian with the screen writer name of “essjay” had edited thousands of articles, pretending to be a tenured professor of religion at a private university, while in fact he was a 24 year old attending a number of colleges (as the NYT put it politely).

The revolt was not so much about essjay pretending to be somebody else – after all it is a well established, although as has just been shown wrong again, tenet of the Internet that nobody knows that you are a dog. Rather, what the Wikipedia community did not tolerate was to use the moral authority of essjay's assumed faculty position in disputes about content of the articles he was editing. While the community initially was supportive of essjay, once they found out that he was using his assumed role to corroborate his arguments, they became much less forgiving, and were asking essjay to resign. For example, defending an editing decision, essjay wrote “This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it’s credibility.” This, unfortunately, was too much for the Wikipedian community to accept, and so essjay was hanged himself by his fake identify.

The lesson is simple: don’t pretend to be more than you are, at least not on the Web, because the Web’s transparency will bring out the truth, normally rather sooner than later.

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