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Analyzing mainstream perceptions of online encyclopaedias’ legitimacy

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Contemporary debates and controversies about online encyclopaedias especially in light of the Wikipedia phenomenon are rife and they have come to prevail in both mainstream media and among some new media scholars (e.g. Benkler, 2006; Jenkins, 2006, Featherstone and Venn, 2007). They either point to longstanding issues about relevance and credibility, reliability and objectivity, authority and authorship or to contradistinctions between technologically enabled commons based peer production and the legacy of professional and proprietary encyclopaedism. Such debates raise important issues surrounding not only the relationship between media technology and knowledge, but the relationship among encyclopaedias, information retrieval and critical media literacy. Encyclopaedias, can be considered as intermediary forms within a more general attempt to represent and mediate the subjective ordering, preservation, assimilation, and interpretation of existing knowledge and culture into specific cultural contexts. Such knowledge and, thus, subjectivity are dependent upon specific institutions, genres, technologies and practices (cf. Foucault, 1989; Nunberg, 1996). Continuing ongoing research on the production and textuality of online encyclopaedias in recent years, this paper attempts to map mainstream public perceptions regarding the legitimacy of encyclopaedias today. Based on assumptions that ‘journalism exists to enable citizens to better understand their lives and their position(s) in the world’ (Richardson, 2007) values and perceptions documented in the mainstream press may be considered as framing contexts for encyclopaedias’ reception as well as conditioning processes around the symbolic interpretation of knowledge and media literacy. Through the deployment of a longitudinal content analysis (2007-2008) and a critical discourse analysis of comparisons between Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica featuring in the mainstream UK and US press (a total of 206 articles), the paper argues, that notions of authority and authorship, objectivity, neutrality and accuracy feature alongside questions of institutional agency and symbolic power in the social production of knowledge. Paper prepared for the Fifth Anniversary Conference of the Department of Media and Communications, ‘Media, Communication & Humanity’, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, 21-23 September 2008.

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