by C.G. Lynch

False Identities in wikiland

Mar 08, 20073 mins

New York Times reporter Noam Cohen said it best in an article this week:

“In a blink, the wisdom of the crowd became the fury of the crowd. In the last few days, contributors to Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, have turned against one of their own who was found to have created an elaborate false identity.”

It seemed a matter of time before something substantial like this would happen to the Wikipedia community, the storied example of collaboration as facilitated by the internet.  This week, it became clear that one of its most respected contributors, who operated under the alias of Essjay, had forged his bio to lend credibility to the thousands of edits he performed on the pages of Wikipedia.

On his contributor page, Essjay described himself as a professor of religion and who focused on canon law. In reality, his name was Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old man from Kentucky who has attended multiple colleges.

While Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales initially accepted Jordan’s apology, saying he respected his right to privacy, he later backpedaled and “asked Essjay to resign his positions of trust within the community.”

And that was wise.

In this new world economy, where work is collectively done by people sitting thousands of miles away from one another, credibility and ensuring that people act in good faith will become all the more essential. One of the ways to ensure this level of trust – especially given the amount of skepticism we often harbor about the intentions of our fellow man – is by following the Wikipedia model: tracking all the work that is done, and just as importantly, by whom. When this happens, a case like Mr. Jordan will be exposed rather easily.

This case also raised the issue of how important our online identities will be in the coming years. Last year, a person with the same name as me began using my personal email address as a user name to sign up for places like iTunes and the Southwest Airlines website. After he ordered a song or booked a flight, I’d be sent a confirmation e-mail. 

It later turned out that he had a similar e-mail address as mine and repeatedly mistyped it when signing up for sites. We traded e-mails and settled the matter, but I was livid about the whole incident because I felt extreme ownership over that e-mail account. I worried he was trying to pass himself off as me. I could live with that at iTunes or Southwest, but given all the other sites (some shady) that exist on the web, it made me very uncomfortable. While this is a far cry from what people who deal with identity theft go through, it raised the question that my identity online basically boils down to a few key things: e-mail, user names and (in my case, being a member of the media), a few by-lined articles.

This incident with Wikipedia shows how what’s behind those usernames and online identities can unravel. For good collaboration, we need to know who we are working with no matter where they are located.

 And with that, I welcome your comments (yes, even anonymous ones!).