Monday, March 05, 2007

Why Does a Twenty-Four-Year-Old Pretend to Be This Man?

This man is Ivan Strenski. He is a tenured professor of Religious Studies. He writes books; he gives talks; he reviews the scholarship of others.

He is not a twenty-four-year-old Wikipedia editor and former paralegal without any advanced degrees. And yet, for many years, under the pseudonym Essjay, Kentucky resident and would-be polymath Ryan Jordan pretended to be an academic very much like Ivan Strenski, pretended to be him with a degree in Canon Law no less. With his bogus c.v., Essjay rose through the ranks of Wikipedia's administrative hierarchy -- through admin, bureaucrat, and IP-monitoring checkuser -- and ultimately had a hand in shaping over 20,000 articles. His ruse would eventually be revealed, although not until after coming to national prominence when he was profiled in a story in The New Yorker, "Know It All." He even had the chutzpah to write a letter to a real faculty member expressing his outrage about his beloved reference work being slighted.

Certainly the "edit wars" at Wikipedia can be quite contentious, so that an ersatz academic title might seem a handy weapon for vanquishing a virtual foe. (Oddly, the "Religious Studies" entry in Wikipedia has been remarkably quiescent during its editorial history, despite the fact that it's often a flash-point for shout-fests at real bricks-and-mortar institutions in the academy.) Flaming an adversary on an e-mail style mailing list -- complete with first person and second person pronouns -- entails observing some conventions of educated civility and rituals of consensus, which one critic lists as follows: "changing the past," "procedure vs. content," and "organize, organize, organize." As Jenny Cool quipped before the scandal broke, the problem with Wikipedia isn't one "of software but of socialization."

The New York Times has reported in "A Contributor to Wikipedia Has His Fictional Side" that lying about his academic credentials, often as a way to bully others into accepting his authority on matters of fact, didn't cost Essjay his job when the scandal first broke. However, Slashdot now claims that founder Jimmy Wales has changed his mind and supports Essjay's decision to resign along with his right to vanish on Wikipedia. (See below.)

For more on the trope of identity theft and the Internet, see Mark Poster's book Information Please.

Although it's not the big story this week, Conservapedia has been generating controversy of its own, as a curative to Wikipedia's supposed liberal bias. Although Conservapedia lists a number of supposed "biases" in the popular user-generated online encyclopedia, I found many of the objectionable practices (such as their primary gripe about using C.E. rather than A.D.) to be norms in academia as a whole. I also did find their entry on evolution to be remarkably thin on its scientific rationale.

I learned about Conservapedia from The Disgruntled Chemist blog, which was listed on the Academic Blog Portal as another U.C. Irvine blog.

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