The Bizarre Chip on Nick Carr’s Shoulder

by on March 4, 2007 · 54 comments

As Doug Lay notes, Jimbo Wales has asked Wikipedia user Essjay to step down. He says he didn’t know he was using his fake credentials in content disputes until yesterday.

Nick Carr acknowledges this development and then proceeds to sneeringly compare contributing to Wikipedia to playing Dungeons and Dragons:

In the byzantine world of Wikipedia, with its arcane language, titles, and rules and its multitude of clans, Essjay wore the robes of a wizard. He was allowed to stand beside – and to serve – Jimbo the White. Together, they would bring “knowledge” to the unenlightened masses. But then the Wizard Essjay tried to slip through the gates of the real. Now the game is up.

I don’t understand why “knowledge” is in scare quotes here. Wikipedia really does make knowledge available to the masses in a way that it’s never been available before. They’re performing a valuable public service for which we should all be grateful. Yet inexplicably, he seems to delight in mocking them. (It’s a little bit ambiguous, but in context he seems to be talking about all Wikipedians, not just Essjay.) I wonder if he’ll next do a series of posts about how people who volunteer in public libraries are losers who can’t get laid.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Enron is to the corporate form of organization as EssJay is to peer production. Symbolically huge, practically meaningless.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Enron is to the corporate form of organization as EssJay is to peer production. Symbolically huge, practically meaningless.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I suspect the scare quotes are for the issue that Wikipedia has a very weird relationship to actual knowledge – it’s got an absolute fetish about what experts write, yet disdains the experts themselves, in a kind of very strange cargo-cult version of academia. I went through a long debate with someone else about this on Nick’s blog, see:

    http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2007/01/the_montgomeryf.php

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I suspect the scare quotes are for the issue that Wikipedia has a very weird relationship to actual knowledge – it’s got an absolute fetish about what experts write, yet disdains the experts themselves, in a kind of very strange cargo-cult version of academia. I went through a long debate with someone else about this on Nick’s blog, see:

    http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2007/01/the_m…>

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    [Trying again, to get through !@#$% moderation]

    I suspect the scare quotes are for the issue that Wikipedia has a very weird relationship to actual knowledge – it’s got an absolute fetish about what experts write, yet disdains the experts themselves, in a kind of very strange cargo-cult version of academia. I went through a long debate with someone else about this on Nick’s blog, see:

    http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2007/01/the_montgomeryf.php

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    [Trying again, to get through !@#$% moderation]

    I suspect the scare quotes are for the issue that Wikipedia has a very weird relationship to actual knowledge – it’s got an absolute fetish about what experts write, yet disdains the experts themselves, in a kind of very strange cargo-cult version of academia. I went through a long debate with someone else about this on Nick’s blog, see:

    http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2007/01/the_m

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Seth,

    I’m sorry about the linking problems. Now that Akismet is working well for us, it seems like we probably don’t need the link-based filter, so I’ve disabled it. Please let me know if you have further problems.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Seth,

    I’m sorry about the linking problems. Now that Akismet is working well for us, it seems like we probably don’t need the link-based filter, so I’ve disabled it. Please let me know if you have further problems.

  • Doug Lay

    Essjay is to peer production as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair are to paid journalism. Plenty of shame and fraudulence to go around.

    I didn’t think Carr’s piece was so bad. Remember, Wikipedia is by no means a struggling little site. It’s a huge success, at the top of the power-law curve, and as such it is inevitably going to attract its share of snarkers and player-haters. Carr is way better than most at that stuff. I think he’s the Maureen Dowd of Web 2.0 commentators. Hopefully he won’t disappear behind the Times Select paywall.

  • Doug Lay

    Essjay is to peer production as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair are to paid journalism. Plenty of shame and fraudulence to go around.

    I didn’t think Carr’s piece was so bad. Remember, Wikipedia is by no means a struggling little site. It’s a huge success, at the top of the power-law curve, and as such it is inevitably going to attract its share of snarkers and player-haters. Carr is way better than most at that stuff. I think he’s the Maureen Dowd of Web 2.0 commentators. Hopefully he won’t disappear behind the Times Select paywall.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Wikipedia makes information available to the masses, but that’s not the same thing as knowledge. Most of the articles in Wikipedia are misleading in some major way, because every one of the editors has an agenda of some sort.

    Unlike professional editors, who have a cash incentive to get the facts right, the only incentives that exist for Wikipedia editors are emotional: they want to have recognition in their closed little virtual world that they don’t have In Real Life, they want to have power over others, they want to influence the reader, they want to make the world a better place, etc.

    I trust people who put their real names on their work and get paid for it more than a pseudonymous mob competing for spots close to Jimbo’s throne.

    EssJay isn’t the exception among Wikipedia admins and bureaucrats, he’s the norm, and the Dungeons and Dragons analogy is spot-on. As Andrew Orlowski said, nobody ever created a Second Life character for himself with a smaller penis.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Wikipedia makes information available to the masses, but that’s not the same thing as knowledge. Most of the articles in Wikipedia are misleading in some major way, because every one of the editors has an agenda of some sort.

    Unlike professional editors, who have a cash incentive to get the facts right, the only incentives that exist for Wikipedia editors are emotional: they want to have recognition in their closed little virtual world that they don’t have In Real Life, they want to have power over others, they want to influence the reader, they want to make the world a better place, etc.

    I trust people who put their real names on their work and get paid for it more than a pseudonymous mob competing for spots close to Jimbo’s throne.

    EssJay isn’t the exception among Wikipedia admins and bureaucrats, he’s the norm, and the Dungeons and Dragons analogy is spot-on. As Andrew Orlowski said, nobody ever created a Second Life character for himself with a smaller penis.

  • Oberver

    Interesting that you think academic fraud is no big deal. Wikipedia doesn’t “make knowledge available to the masses” — it disseminates an inscrutable mish-mash of information, half-truth, zealous propaganda, and outright lies to the unwitting public. Essjay perpetuated this by wrapping the uninformed ravings of a 24-year-old college dropout in the garb of a 40-year-old tenured professor of religion.

    Best to bear in mind what T.S. Eliot lamented: “Where is the knowledge lost in information? Where is the wisdom lost in knowledge?”

  • Oberver

    Interesting that you think academic fraud is no big deal. Wikipedia doesn’t “make knowledge available to the masses” — it disseminates an inscrutable mish-mash of information, half-truth, zealous propaganda, and outright lies to the unwitting public. Essjay perpetuated this by wrapping the uninformed ravings of a 24-year-old college dropout in the garb of a 40-year-old tenured professor of religion.

    Best to bear in mind what T.S. Eliot lamented: “Where is the knowledge lost in information? Where is the wisdom lost in knowledge?”

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    I think you underestimate how much of a blow this was for their credability. This is even worse than the Jayson Blaire controversy because Essjay has no credentials at all, not even enough to say that he should have gotten any job there.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    I think you underestimate how much of a blow this was for their credability. This is even worse than the Jayson Blaire controversy because Essjay has no credentials at all, not even enough to say that he should have gotten any job there.

  • Doug Lay

    MikeT:

    I don’t follow you. Nobody at Wikipedia has a “job”, and they are quite up-front about not relying on credentials. If Essjay had admitted up-front that he had no academic credentials, then there would have been no problem, and I’ll bet the quality of his *work* would have held up a lot better than Jayson Blair’s. Blair had real credentials (a journalism degree, a position at the Times) and produced fraudulent garbage anyhow.

  • Doug Lay

    MikeT:

    I don’t follow you. Nobody at Wikipedia has a “job”, and they are quite up-front about not relying on credentials. If Essjay had admitted up-front that he had no academic credentials, then there would have been no problem, and I’ll bet the quality of his *work* would have held up a lot better than Jayson Blair’s. Blair had real credentials (a journalism degree, a position at the Times) and produced fraudulent garbage anyhow.

  • Nick Carr

    I confess to sneering in the past, but not in the post in question. Nick

  • Nick Carr

    I confess to sneering in the past, but not in the post in question. Nick

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    He doesn’t have to be paid to have a job there. You can have a job on an open source project as a software developer, for example. That doesn’t make it less of a job because it’s a volunteer position.

    The reason I often take Wikipedia with a grain of salt is that it places little value on credentials, not even informal ones. When someone posts on Wikipedia, I want to know who they are and why I should trust them. They don’t have to have a degree, but I don’t want to read that it’s just some guy who thinks he knows something. They should at least have the expectation that the person has a thorough informal education in the subject. This isn’t political bantering where that sort of thing is acceptable.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    He doesn’t have to be paid to have a job there. You can have a job on an open source project as a software developer, for example. That doesn’t make it less of a job because it’s a volunteer position.

    The reason I often take Wikipedia with a grain of salt is that it places little value on credentials, not even informal ones. When someone posts on Wikipedia, I want to know who they are and why I should trust them. They don’t have to have a degree, but I don’t want to read that it’s just some guy who thinks he knows something. They should at least have the expectation that the person has a thorough informal education in the subject. This isn’t political bantering where that sort of thing is acceptable.

  • Doug Lay

    Mike:

    I’m trying to understand why you think that Essjay is worse than Jayson Blair. Jayson Blair had real credentials and produced lies. Essjay claimed credentials he did not have, which is a lie. Both of them made people who place value in credentials look like chumps.

  • Doug Lay

    Mike:

    I’m trying to understand why you think that Essjay is worse than Jayson Blair. Jayson Blair had real credentials and produced lies. Essjay claimed credentials he did not have, which is a lie. Both of them made people who place value in credentials look like chumps.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Mike,

    What kind of information do you go to Wikipedia for? I typically use it for stuff that’s common knowledge. Like I’ll hear the name of a celebrity I’m not familiar with and want to know what he’s famous for. For something like that, I don’t care who put the information there or why because (1) no one has much incentive to lie about it and (2) even if some of the information is wrong, it’s not a big deal since I’m not using it to do heart surgery or anything like that.

    If you absolutely need the right answer, or if you’re looking up information on a highly controversial subject, I would suggest that you shouldn’t be using Wikipedia. That’s not what encyclopedias are for (you wouldn’t use Britannica in those situations either). But there’s a ton of information that’s neither difficult to understand nor contraversial, and for those topics, Wikipedia’s generally more convenient and comprehensive than any other source.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Mike,

    What kind of information do you go to Wikipedia for? I typically use it for stuff that’s common knowledge. Like I’ll hear the name of a celebrity I’m not familiar with and want to know what he’s famous for. For something like that, I don’t care who put the information there or why because (1) no one has much incentive to lie about it and (2) even if some of the information is wrong, it’s not a big deal since I’m not using it to do heart surgery or anything like that.

    If you absolutely need the right answer, or if you’re looking up information on a highly controversial subject, I would suggest that you shouldn’t be using Wikipedia. That’s not what encyclopedias are for (you wouldn’t use Britannica in those situations either). But there’s a ton of information that’s neither difficult to understand nor contraversial, and for those topics, Wikipedia’s generally more convenient and comprehensive than any other source.

  • Brian Moore

    I’m completely confused. Wikipedia… isn’t some byzantine world. It’s a wiki… with editors. The End. To the extent that posters do things (lie about credentials) that the admins don’t like, they can boot them.

    Essjay’s attempt (a la Carr) to “slip into the real” isn’t real. He wasn’t trying to be “real” just lie about his background to convince his audience — the same way a guy at the bar might exaggerate his profession to impress the beautiful woman nearby.

    Wikipedia isn’t trying to be “real.” It’s trying to be… wikipedia. It’s a source of information. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. If you want a source of information with credentials, you shouldn’t be using wikipedia. The difference between Jayson Blair is that the paper asserts that it has editors/factcheckers/overseers who do verify the truth of their articles. Wikipedia makes no such claims.

  • Brian Moore

    I’m completely confused. Wikipedia… isn’t some byzantine world. It’s a wiki… with editors. The End. To the extent that posters do things (lie about credentials) that the admins don’t like, they can boot them.

    Essjay’s attempt (a la Carr) to “slip into the real” isn’t real. He wasn’t trying to be “real” just lie about his background to convince his audience — the same way a guy at the bar might exaggerate his profession to impress the beautiful woman nearby.

    Wikipedia isn’t trying to be “real.” It’s trying to be… wikipedia. It’s a source of information. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. If you want a source of information with credentials, you shouldn’t be using wikipedia. The difference between Jayson Blair is that the paper asserts that it has editors/factcheckers/overseers who do verify the truth of their articles. Wikipedia makes no such claims.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    BS, Brian. Wikipedia claims to be an “encyclopedia”, and that designation raises certain expectations.

    Wikipedia is a very interesting phenomenon, but it’s not an encyclopedia in any meaningful sense of the word. It’s a virtual world, a social network, a bulletin board, a cult, and a rumor mill, but any resemblance to a real encyclopedia is coincidental and superficial.

    Tim, you’re hastily back-tracking in the comments from the claims you’re making in your posts lately.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    BS, Brian. Wikipedia claims to be an “encyclopedia”, and that designation raises certain expectations.

    Wikipedia is a very interesting phenomenon, but it’s not an encyclopedia in any meaningful sense of the word. It’s a virtual world, a social network, a bulletin board, a cult, and a rumor mill, but any resemblance to a real encyclopedia is coincidental and superficial.

    Tim, you’re hastily back-tracking in the comments from the claims you’re making in your posts lately.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    You’re hastily back-tracking in the comments from the claims you’re making in your posts lately.

    Such as?

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    You’re hastily back-tracking in the comments from the claims you’re making in your posts lately.

    Such as?

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Such as “Wikipedia really does make knowledge available to the masses in a way that it’s never been available before” becoming: “What kind of information do you go to Wikipedia for? I typically use it for stuff that’s common knowledge.”

    If you’d said “Wikipedia really does make common knowledge available to the masses in a way that it’s never been available before” there would have been no controversy.

    You did something similar after claiming blogs are more accurate than MSM.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Such as “Wikipedia really does make knowledge available to the masses in a way that it’s never been available before” becoming: “What kind of information do you go to Wikipedia for? I typically use it for stuff that’s common knowledge.”

    If you’d said “Wikipedia really does make common knowledge available to the masses in a way that it’s never been available before” there would have been no controversy.

    You did something similar after claiming blogs are more accurate than MSM.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Richard, “common knowledge” is a form of knowledge. Therefore, if the latter statement is true, then by definition, the former is, by definition, true as well.

    So I don’t understand how the statements above constitute “back-tracking.” You seem to be reading more into what I wrote than is actually there.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Richard, “common knowledge” is a form of knowledge. Therefore, if the latter statement is true, then by definition, the former is, by definition, true as well.

    So I don’t understand how the statements above constitute “back-tracking.” You seem to be reading more into what I wrote than is actually there.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    “Common knowledge” is, for all practical purposes, the stuff that people already know, so what’s the significance of sharing “common knowledge” with “the masses?”

    It looks like backtracking to me.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    “Common knowledge” is, for all practical purposes, the stuff that people already know, so what’s the significance of sharing “common knowledge” with “the masses?”

    It looks like backtracking to me.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Well OK, maybe “common knowledge” wasn’t the best term to use. What I meant was knowledge that’s widely accepted and uncontroversial. For example, I don’t know off the top of my head who won the World Series in 1950, or who got the Oscar for Best Director in 1960, what the atomic weight of aluminum is, or who the current head of state of Portugal is. But it doesn’t take any particular intelligence or skill to look them up and verify that they’re correct–just time. And other than Wikipedia, I don’t know of any source that has all of those facts (and lots of others) organized and fact-checked for my convenience. I’m not too worried about the integrity of the people who fact-check those pages, because no one would have any particular incentive to lie about them. And if it were really important to get the right answer, I would follow up on the source Wikipedia cites, to verify for myself that the source says what Wikipedia says it says.

    By “common knowledge,” I just meant to exclude controversial, cutting-edge, or obscure topics like the state of the art in string theory, whether George Bush is a good president, or who shot JFK. Since these are not matters of settled and widely agreed-upon fact, an encyclopedia is not going to be a good place to look for them.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Well OK, maybe “common knowledge” wasn’t the best term to use. What I meant was knowledge that’s widely accepted and uncontroversial. For example, I don’t know off the top of my head who won the World Series in 1950, or who got the Oscar for Best Director in 1960, what the atomic weight of aluminum is, or who the current head of state of Portugal is. But it doesn’t take any particular intelligence or skill to look them up and verify that they’re correct–just time. And other than Wikipedia, I don’t know of any source that has all of those facts (and lots of others) organized and fact-checked for my convenience. I’m not too worried about the integrity of the people who fact-check those pages, because no one would have any particular incentive to lie about them. And if it were really important to get the right answer, I would follow up on the source Wikipedia cites, to verify for myself that the source says what Wikipedia says it says.

    By “common knowledge,” I just meant to exclude controversial, cutting-edge, or obscure topics like the state of the art in string theory, whether George Bush is a good president, or who shot JFK. Since these are not matters of settled and widely agreed-upon fact, an encyclopedia is not going to be a good place to look for them.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    So on the one hand you admit that Wikipedia is nothing more than a repository for trivia, but on the other you say that’s the way of all encyclopedias. So you start off in a sound direction, and then something happens before you get to your conclusion.

    Look, the people who write Wikipedia have every reason in the world to lie and no reason not to. They’re giving their work away for free, so nobody’s going to fire them or discipline them when they screw up. They’re mainly motivated by the delusion that they can make the world a better place by tailoring the way people see it to support their pet peeves and causes.

    Spend about 100 hours editing Wikipedia articles, get into a few revert wars, take some issues to the Admins and see how it goes for you. A little experience with the process can teach you an enormous amount.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    So on the one hand you admit that Wikipedia is nothing more than a repository for trivia, but on the other you say that’s the way of all encyclopedias. So you start off in a sound direction, and then something happens before you get to your conclusion.

    Look, the people who write Wikipedia have every reason in the world to lie and no reason not to. They’re giving their work away for free, so nobody’s going to fire them or discipline them when they screw up. They’re mainly motivated by the delusion that they can make the world a better place by tailoring the way people see it to support their pet peeves and causes.

    Spend about 100 hours editing Wikipedia articles, get into a few revert wars, take some issues to the Admins and see how it goes for you. A little experience with the process can teach you an enormous amount.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    So on the one hand you admit that Wikipedia is nothing more than a repository for trivia, but on the other you say that’s the way of all encyclopedias.

    I don’t understand what you mean by “nothing more than.” There’s an enormous amount of “trivia” in the world, and it’s extremely useful to have convenient access to it.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    So on the one hand you admit that Wikipedia is nothing more than a repository for trivia, but on the other you say that’s the way of all encyclopedias.

    I don’t understand what you mean by “nothing more than.” There’s an enormous amount of “trivia” in the world, and it’s extremely useful to have convenient access to it.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Tim, if I can try to elaborate the problem, there’s two different kind of knowledge here:

    1) Trivia – You give Wikipedia too much credit, for something that’s arguably a bug, not a feature. The trivial is created by fans, and it will be found by search algorithms. What Wikipedia does is centralize the storehouse, in one site. That’s not necessarily a good thing, and it’s certainly not a *big* improvement (you might want to argue the centralization is a small improvement, and though it looks strange to see Libertarians doing this, it’s a longstanding ideological problem).

    2) Expertise – VERY controversial. Given Wikipedia’s hostility on the topic, it’s not at all clear it’s much good here. The infamous Nature study is *extremely* misleading on this point. Again, the issue is more the centralization than any new production.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Tim, if I can try to elaborate the problem, there’s two different kind of knowledge here:

    1) Trivia – You give Wikipedia too much credit, for something that’s arguably a bug, not a feature. The trivial is created by fans, and it will be found by search algorithms. What Wikipedia does is centralize the storehouse, in one site. That’s not necessarily a good thing, and it’s certainly not a *big* improvement (you might want to argue the centralization is a small improvement, and though it looks strange to see Libertarians doing this, it’s a longstanding ideological problem).

    2) Expertise – VERY controversial. Given Wikipedia’s hostility on the topic, it’s not at all clear it’s much good here. The infamous Nature study is *extremely* misleading on this point. Again, the issue is more the centralization than any new production.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Seth,

    I think that’s a great way of breaking it down. But I think task (1) is a lot more useful than you give it credit for. I use Wikipedia several times a week to access this kind of information. Yes, I could probably find it with Google if I needed to, but Wikipedia’s a lot faster, and in most cases, an answer that’s 98% likely to be right is more than sufficient. Having information centralized in one place where I can get all of it from a single page is extremely convenient.

    If you just don’t find that useful, then I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Seth,

    I think that’s a great way of breaking it down. But I think task (1) is a lot more useful than you give it credit for. I use Wikipedia several times a week to access this kind of information. Yes, I could probably find it with Google if I needed to, but Wikipedia’s a lot faster, and in most cases, an answer that’s 98% likely to be right is more than sufficient. Having information centralized in one place where I can get all of it from a single page is extremely convenient.

    If you just don’t find that useful, then I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I don’t find the usefulness worth the human cost – it runs on exploiting certain dreams of the core group in order to extract a huge amount of unpaid labor from them.

    I particularly don’t think it’s all that innovative for *knowledge* – it’s mostly innovative in a certain way of getting people to work for free.

    I also intensely dislike the hype and marketing around it. It’s not Hayek Made Net or a model for the New Era. It’s a rich guy who stumbled into figuring out how to get an uncompensated staff. The positive lessons there are pretty small.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I don’t find the usefulness worth the human cost – it runs on exploiting certain dreams of the core group in order to extract a huge amount of unpaid labor from them.

    I particularly don’t think it’s all that innovative for *knowledge* – it’s mostly innovative in a certain way of getting people to work for free.

    I also intensely dislike the hype and marketing around it. It’s not Hayek Made Net or a model for the New Era. It’s a rich guy who stumbled into figuring out how to get an uncompensated staff. The positive lessons there are pretty small.

Previous post:

Next post: