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Wikipedia: A Model for Better Discourse on Campus

Voices Unbound

By Sami E. Turner
By Milo J. Clark and Tyler S. Young, Crimson Opinion Writers
Milo J. Clark ’24 is a Physics concentrator in Lowell House. Tyler S. Young ’26 lives in Leverett House. Their column, “Voices Unbound,” runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays. ​​​​​​​

No matter our concentrations or our career aspirations, we’ve all come to rely on one website: Wikipedia.

Whether researching for a paper or satiating a sudden pang of curiosity, we trust that Wikipedia can grant us quick and detailed information about nearly anything we can imagine. The site is a modern miracle. Within seconds, we can access acute knowledge on quantum field theory, a biography of Helen Keller, or detailed summaries of every single episode of Breaking Bad.

Wikipedia was not built as a debate platform or an attempt at democracy. Its goal is to be an open source encyclopedia based on verifiable facts. Nonetheless, it can offer lessons for us as students in part of an intellectual community.

Behind every published Wikipedia article, there’s a hidden realm of debate, discussion, and collaboration. This unseen world, built atop Wikipedia’s unique open source editing model, can offer us a masterclass in civil discourse and disagreement.

Any Wikipedia user can edit or delete information from an article on the site. These editors, however, are encouraged by Wikipedia to “Be bold.” In practice, this means that editors should be proactive about fixing problems they find in an article. If a user notices an article is missing details, is lacking citation, or just could be better written, they shouldn’t hesitate to make the change themselves.

At the same time, editors must understand that their peers will proceed in the same fashion, and thus their own edits may be scrutinized as well. Naturally, this can lead to conflict. So what happens when editors disagree?

Contributors are discouraged from repeatedly overriding one another’s changes. Wikipedia calls this “edit warring.” Instead, editors are encouraged to defend their proposed changes in the “talk pages”: internal discussion forums for each article. Here, editors argue for their changes with reason, citation, and common sense.

The goal of talk pages is to reach “consensus,” which is defined by Wikipedia as the point where a statement is agreeable to all. Every edit has presumed consensus when it’s first published — but when an edit is reverted, modified, or otherwise contested, consensus is lost. When a new consensus is achieved through debates on the article’s talk page, the article will be updated to reflect it.

Wikipedia’s editing process can, in many ways, inform the way we approach discussions on campus.

“Bold” editors have no personal stake in a discussion, only a desire to reach the truth. This is a foundational guideline of Wikipedia: Users do not own their contributions, and reaching a consensus is not about winning or losing. In this vein, editors can mutually assume good faith when engaging in debate.

Just like Wikipedia editors, we at Harvard should assume and engage in disagreements in good faith. Our motto is Veritas; we should have the same fundamental mission of truth-seeking as Wikipedia editors. We, too, can move beyond the notion of winning or losing arguments, instead developing constructive and meaningful discussions within our community that focus on uncovering the truth.

As a further consequence of Wikipedia’s open source model, editors are welcomed from all angles of an issue. This is a helpful reminder of the importance of diversity: When many are represented, individual biases are synthesized to produce something resembling objectivity.

On our campus, many debate societies and discussion groups are, at least in practice, confined to specific identities or ideologies, such as the John Adams Society or the Harvard Black Men’s Forum. While these organizations are necessary and justified in their existence, we should also encourage the construction of spaces that seek dialogue across identities and ideologies, actively challenging our ideals.

Finally, Wikipedia’s consensus model pushes editors to fully engage with opposing arguments through the talk pages before outright rejecting them. Rather than reacting impulsively or emotionally, editors should engage in dialogue with other contributors to reach an agreement.

Patience and understanding are required before taking a stab at disagreement, as showcased by the Wikipedia talk pages. But here at Harvard, we are lacking in these values. We should at least read an issue of the Harvard Salient or attend a meeting of the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee before berating their existence.

When it comes to civil discourse, Wikipedia (ironically) doesn’t have all the answers, but its approach to debate outshines much of what we often see here at Harvard. As we look for ways to foster open dialogue on campus, we should take cues from the Free Encyclopedia.

Milo J. Clark ’24 is a Physics concentrator in Lowell House. Tyler S. Young ’26 lives in Leverett House. Their column, “Voices Unbound,” runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays.

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