Laughter and forgetting on Wikipedia

Laughter and forgetting on Wikipedia

Summary: a comparison between Czech communism and a scandal at Wikipedia. Neither respect individuals. Both are good at eliminating people from history.

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What does Wikipedia have in common with the old Czechoslovakian communist party?

Both excel in the art of forgetting.

The communists, of course, were particularly adept at forgetting. At the beginning of Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech writer Milan Kundera describes a scene on a Prague balcony in February 1948. On this balcony stood two Czechoslovakian communist leaders -- Klement Gottwald and Vladimir Clementis. It is snowing and Clementis graciously puts his fur hat on Gottwald's bare head. The two men are photographed and this becomes the iconic image of the Czechoslovakian revolution. Four years later, Clementis is purged from the communist party and he is eliminated from the famous photograph. So all that is left of Clementis in the photograph is that fur hat on Gottwald's head. Later, Kundera gets one of the characters in the novel to say:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

The Czechoslovakian communist art of forgetting is back. In 2007, it is being perfected by Jimmy Wales and his staff of Wikipedian "editors". A few days ago, a fellow called "Essjay" was all over Wikipedia. He was the Vladimir Clementis of the staff. Essjay appeared to be an expert in theology. He held four degrees including a doctorate. He was a phenomenally productive Wikipedia administrator of and a paid member of Wikia editorial staff. The guy was a legend -- a Stakhanovite of Jimmy Wales' knowledge revolution. 

And then, Clementis style, Essjay got purged. He was outed as a fraud. As the New Yorker revealed, Essjay turned out to be a degree-less 24-year-old kid called Ryan Jordan, a drop-out of Kentucky's Lexington Community College. In keeping with the history of Czech communism, Jordan/Essjay even issued his own public confession:

 ...I *am* sorry if anyone in the Wikipedia community has been hurt by my decision to use disinformation to protect myself. I'm not sorry that I protected myself; I believed, and continue to believe, that I was right to protect myself, in light of the problems encountered on the internet in these trying times. I have spoken to all of my close friends here about this, and have heard resoundingly that they understand my position, and they support me. Jimbo and many others in Wikipedia's hierarchy have made thier [sic] support known as well...

Jimmy Wales fired loyal Jordan/Essjay and, all of a sudden, the kid/theologian is history. One minute he's everywhere and then he's nowhere. He went from hero of the information revolution to enemy of the digital mob in the space of one New Yorker editorial note. Entering "Essjay" into Wikipedia now shows up nothing -- not even a hat. His bio has been deleted. Essjay/Jordan has vanished into thin air. Now Wikipedia just says:

 RETIRED : This user is no longer active on Wikipedia

It is 2007 and the struggle of man against power remains the struggle of memory against forgetting.

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4 comments
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  • ummmm no

    That's a good read. Entertaining, well written, humorous, thought-provoking and almost true.

    In an article on truth and forgetting it's ironic to be reminded of the old saying "don't let the truth get in the way of a good story"

    Essjay is mentioned on wikipedia - just try going to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essjay
    dbremer
  • My opinions on this article

    First of all, this is precisely why most religions and philosophies discourage lying. It causes a lot more harm than good. Disinformation is a grave threat to our society. He didn't protect himself from anything, and only caused himself humiliation.

    Second of all, this is yet another reason not to trust the wikipedia - who knows who else is hiding their credentials and presenting a false face? It's too easy to pick up a user name and pretend to be an expert. There's no way of telling how much disinformation is in the wikipedia itself.
    CobraA1
  • Essjay Fraud

    They should at least create an entry for him under "how not to run an Internet Encyclopedia" or simply the "SJ-Fraud"
    mhampton@...
  • The baby AND the bath water?

    Is it really necessary to purge his pages, even if he himself has been put out to pasture? Did his work, once praised, not merit at least some consideration? I can see them dismissing the wayward lad for fraudulent credentials, anything less and larger eyebrows would be raised. But if he contributed pages of merit, I'm not sure why those need to be expunged too.

    Granted if they remain, links to the author should indicate his true background, perhaps followed by his present status as "retired contributor," but here again we enter one of those murky "fields of gray" that hapless and fickle mortals constantly wrestle with. Some find it easier to flush the baby and bathwater in unison, to assure themselves everything is pristine and copasetic, or uh ... forgotten.
    klumper