Net Effects

The strange world of Harvard’s overbearing unofficial Internet publicity machine

Harvard is no stranger to controversy. Our President alone gets more press coverage than most earthquakes, and a handful of particularly colorful professors (you know who they are) fill in the gaps quite nicely when he’s behaving himself. The online community-edited encyclopedia Wikipedia cast a new sort of aspersion at our hallowed halls this past weekend, however: the neutrality of the article about Harvard was disputed.

We aren’t by any means the first or the only article to be given this distinction. The ability to question the even-handedness of Wikipedia content is an important peer review mechanism built into the site as a check against would be ne’er-do-wells. But most of the disputed articles are about well-known hot topics: Creationism or the Palestinian National Liberation Movement or whatever. Harvard, one would think, might generate a lot of controversy, but what about Harvard itself could possibly be presented in a stilted way?

The trouble became clear when you compared our article to the ones about other comparable institutions like Yale, Princeton, or MIT: those articles each began with a discussion of the administrative divisions of the school in question, followed perhaps by something about history or the composition of the student body. Harvard’s article, as of last week when the tag was applied, began with a discussion of college rankings, a slew of admissions statistics, and a list of academic competitions frequently won by our students. The history of one of America’s oldest universities was relegated to three paragraphs halfway down the page.

The modesty or immodesty of the members of the Harvard community has always been something of note—on the one hand, the running joke goes, we go to school in Boston or Cambridge when asked, but on the other, everyone knows we’re dying to further specify if the point is pressed. Nowhere is it more apparent than on the Internet, however, that at the very least a peculiar subset of our students, alumni, and admirers are truly remarkable practitioners of the art of self-promotion.

Wikipedia is by no means the only example. For years, a college admissions bulletin board called, which unofficially spun off from the Princeton Review website, has been plagued with a collection of colorful characters. Each seems present only to troll for a particular academic institution. The ringleader of the bunch, and the only one to have been around consistently since the beginning, goes under the handle NYCFan and has posted literally thousands of messages disparaging Yale and Princeton and defending Harvard’s excellence.

Who are these people? It turns out, purportedly, that NYCFan is an alum from some time in the 70s. Why it is that he has nothing better to do than spend hours inflating Harvard’s image to a bunch of ego-conscious 17-year-olds is as much a mystery as why your author has taken the time to read it all, but he’s not the only one. The main changes to the Wikipedia article which earned it its ‘disputed’ label were made by a “a current student” trying to dispel the “common misperception…that schools such as Yale, Princeton, and Stanford are pretty much interchangeable with Harvard.” (Harvard, he or she suggested, is in fact far better.)

We also seem overrepresented in the numbers of our critics. In response to the section of the article in Wikipedia about how well we perform in rankings, a paragraph was added with a collection of rankings where we didn’t perform as well—ones that put our engineering school in 30th place or had Princeton and Yale ahead of us in terms of quality of undergraduate education.

And on the Autoadmit bulletin board, a healthy crop of NYCFan detractors has appeared that spends its time recycling old articles about the high crime rate in Cambridge and linking to the FM issue from 2003 called “The Cult of Yale” in which the Crimson pondered the question of why it was everyone seemed so much happier down in New Haven.

This is not, of course, a new phenomenon. For years, scores of books and magazine articles have been written trying to perpetuate or dispel myths about what actually goes on here. In an April 2005 article in the Wall Street Journal, the author suggested one reason why Harvard might be overrepresented in the traditional print media: Harvard graduates are overrepresented in the industry, perhaps because “Harvard far surpasses any other university when it comes to cultivating journalistic talent.” On the internet you don’t even need journalistic talent to be overrepresented, you just need to be louder than everyone else—perhaps we’re good at that, too.

What’s to be done? Moderation, it seems to me, is key. In the case of the Wikipedia article, a few members of the Harvard community, coupled with a dedicated core of unaffiliated Wikipedians, have taken out some of the obviously slanted material and removed the page from the disputed list. And is probably not a big enough force to merit serious worry about our image there, be it positive or negative.

Ultimately, though, the real lesson to be learned from our coverage on Wikipedia or our profile in the strange world of online college admissions forums is that the internet has a way of magnifying the fringes of any group. Yale, despite what we might say about it, is a fine academic institution, and apart from a weekend every year in November when we trounce them at football, we’re probably better off for not thinking about who is better than whom on a day-to-day basis.

Matthew A. Gline ’06 is a physics concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.