The University Libraries here at UC have just published “Wikipedia: Friend or Foe?,” proffered as a resource to “help you start some interesting class discussions” about the free online encyclopedia. And the list certainly provides food for thought! I can envision some very interesting discussions resulting in my fall Computer & Internet Law course — not about whether Wikipedia is accurate or a good thing, but rather about how such a risibly one-sided “bibliography” (the most favorable item of which seems grudgingly to acknowledge that Wikipedia is “not really … a pariah”) ever came to be promulgated by the staff of a university that aspires to academic prominence.
Part of Wikipedia’s particular charm is that it is, in Dr. Weinberger’s memorable phrase, in “a continuous state of self-criticism that newspapers would do well to emulate.” Want to start a debate about whether Wikipedia is “friend or foe”? A far more comprehensive guide than anything in the UC Libraries’ page is available at Why Wikipedia is So Great and Why Wikipedia is Not So Great. On Wikipedia.
The UC Libraries’ page also manages to allude, in innuendo that is about as pointed as it can be without actually making a testable allegation, to problems with the “quality and reliability” of information on Wikipedia. Its bibliography, however, conspicuously omits a number of references that would appear to bear directly on that question, such as:
- Edward W. Felten, Wikipedia vs. Britannica Smackdown (Sept. 7, 2004).
- Angela Beesley, Wikipedia Triumphs in c’t Study (Oct. 2, 2004).
- Thomas Chesney, An Empirical Examination of Wikipedia’s Credibility (2006), summarized in Nate Anderson, Experts Rate Wikipedia’s Accuracy Higher than Non-Experts (Nov. 27, 2006).
The UC Libraries’ list also includes a particularly tawdry reference to the controversy over user Essjay (highlighted by the Libraries with a rather breathless “don’t miss the Editor’s Note!”) without actually referencing the most up-to-date information on the controversy — which is freely available, again, on Wikipedia itself. (In brief: (1) user lied about credentials, (2) truth was revealed, (3) Wikipedia’s founder reacted with unwarranted nonchalance, (4) user resigned from Wikipedia, (5) Wikipedia’s founder issued apology for earlier reaction and emphasized unacceptability of user’s conduct. But you will only learn about items (1)-(3) on that list from the UC Libraries, even though items (4) and (5) seem to put things in a rather different light.)
The UC Libraries’ list also entirely omits legal and cultural contextual data that might actually support an informed debate in classrooms that rely on its bibliography. Yale law professor Yochai Benkler found himself so inspired by the example of Wikipedia that he released his entire 2006 book, The Wealth of Networks, online in the form of a wiki. The Wealth of Networks is itself a book-length essay on the entire social/political/technological phenomenon that gave birth to Wikipedia and nourished many of its forebears; it’s an indispensable reference in understanding the unique features of the present legal/technological regime in which we find ourselves. But it’s not on the UC Libraries’ reference list. Neither is Stanford law professor (and Berkman Center co-founder) Larry Lessig‘s Code version 2.0, a collaboratively edited update to one of the towering works in our genre — which is also available online in the form of a wiki.
Columbia law professor Tim Wu (who is not remotely as diabolical in real life as his online photo looks) recently admitted to being “a confessed Wikipedia addict, sometime contributor, and true believer[.]” I guess that on that scale, I measure about 0.65 Wus; I’m a frequent Wikipedia reader, also a sometime contributor, and if I haven’t quite reached the “true believer” stage yet, I’m at least persuaded that there is something highly interesting and valuable going on here. I strongly favor having discussions in an academic setting over the entire phenomenon of user-generated content online, the threat it represents to traditional informational gatekeepers, and the types of responses it has provoked. While the UC Libraries’ “Friend or Foe?” guide provides an interesting case in point for that debate, it hardly lives up to its billing as an informational resource for faculty.