Fellow: Is Wikipedia Legit?

Harvard Law School Berkman Center for Internet and Society fellow David D. Weinberger questioned the changing nature of authority in the internet age in a discussion entitled “The Authority of Wikipedia” last night.

“In order to have authority at Wiki[pedia] you must be willing to negotiate what you consider to be the truth,” said Weinberger, who is also an author and a blogger.

Wikipedia is a popular online encyclopedia that is written and edited by the public.

The site—www.wikipedia.org—is known for constant updates made to its entries. A day before University President Lawrence H. Summers officially stepped down, the site’s article on Summers read “He will be announcing his resignation through the Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Crimson on February 21, 2006.”

Although traditionally ideas gained authority when they were published, and the “scarcity of paper...created the regime of authority,” the internet complicates the picture, Weinberger told the modest audience of around 25.

Anyone can edit a Wikipedia article, raising the issue of its reliability, he added.

While most teachers recommend Encyclopedia Britannica to their students as a source of information, even Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales tells students not to cite Wikipedia, according to Weinberger.

Samuel J. Klein ’99, who introduced himself as a Wikipedia administrator and steward, defended Wikipedia by noting the positive aspects of a source edited by the public.

The dispute between individuals over the content of a Wikipedia entry produces “something of quality,” Klein said.

“It’s the kind of discourse you don’t get in any other medium,” he added.

An audience member, who works as a librarian, disagreed saying that for controversial topics, Wikipedia creates a “battling for middle ground that represents nothing.”

Weinberger also remarked that this process of discussion affects what types of people are successful on Wikipedia.

“If you are a great expert and you are incapable of that sort of negotiation, you’re not going to make it in Wikipedia,” he said.

During the discussion, to illustrate the nature of Wikipedia, Klein created an entry titled “Rebecca MacKinnon is a kitten-eating cyborg,” which was deleted by an administrator in less than two minutes.

He also edited the Wikipedia entry for MacKinnon, who is a fellow at the Berkman Center, to include, “She is regularly referred to as a ‘kitten-eating cyborg.’” That comment had not been deleted as of midnight.