Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Britanica Going Wiki: What Does That Mean for Wikipedia

At the end of January the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica announced it was going wiki. However, unlike Wikipedia, edits to Britannica would be vetted and approved before being posted. They are promising a 20-minute turn-around time. So, is this a problem for numero uno in the Google search? Unfortunately, probably not, for the following reasons.

Note: I promise to make this my last Wikipedia-bashing post. Or at least I'll try, if they just stop giving me such great material.

Speed of Posting
ccording to this article and the forum discussion it links to, die-hard Wikipedia users would rather fight than switch. One reason is the cost, which I will discuss later. Another is possible backlogs in the approval and posting process.

Now I may be an old fuddy-duddy, but I can't see the necessity for an encyclopedia site to value speed over accuracy. Yes, I think that internet encyclopedias are a huge improvement over the expensive many-volumed sets updated once per year at a stiff price. I'm glad my kid can look up Ronald Reagan and not be told he is still president (for more reasons than one, but that's not my point here). However, I'm not sure why I need updates within 20 minutes or even 20 hours. For that I go to CNN or The New York Times.

The only people who really care about immediate posting are the contributors who have this weird drive to be first, even if there is no monetary or other compensation for it. Thus the fracas that caused Wikipedia to threaten a review process when one hasty poster claimed Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd had both died at Obama's inaugural luncheon. However, as long as there are people out there regularly hitting on and updating Wikipedia––accurately or not––it will remain number one in search engines.

Desk-chair experts
In addition to being first, there are a lot of folks out there who love the opportunity to play desk-chair expert. Even as paying employers require ever more advanced and specific degrees to qualify for jobs, and print magazines and newspapers often require journalism degrees to write for them, Wikipedia requires nothing of you––not even accuracy. True, someone can come along and edit your inaccurate input, but you won't, like an employee, be allowed only a certain number of errors before you are barred from the site for good. Best of all is anonymity. Unlike the college professor or researcher who will have to face the wrath of her peers, you can make all the stupid mistakes or malicious posts you like on Wikipedia and still maintain your good name.

Wikipedia is free
As one person in the forum discussion points out, Britannica requires a premium subscription of $48.98 to read certain detailed articles. That is nothing compared to what it used to cost for an entire set of encyclopedias, but I can see how it would seem a little steep for someone who is just interested in checking out birth and death dates, and maybe a short bio now and then. As I've said many times in posts about everything from newspapers to literary journals, the biggest drawback of the Internet is that everything started out free and so everyone believes it should remain that way. On the other hand, maintaining a site like Britannica, with great graphics and expertise behind it is going to cost more than most users are willing to pay.

Simple ignorance
While there's a cadre out there who stand behind the whole philosophy of Wikipedia, I am amazed at the number of people who don't have any idea what it is, except that it shows up fist in most Google searches and so they click on it. Wikipedia bills itself as "The Free Encyclopedia." If you simply go from your search to an article on the site, thus skipping their homepage, you will find nothing there indicating that anyone can edit articles at any time, and that the changes will show up immediately without undergoing approval. For those who don't know what the term "wiki" means (and there are more than you know), it's easy to assume it works the same as any other encyclopedia except that it is simply updated more often and doesn't cost anything.

Accuracy doesn't matter
For the cyber generation accuracy is becoming one of those nebulous words like "truth," to be argued philosophically but having no relevance to the real world. They run on a very basic understanding of democracy, where the more people who contribute to and hit on a site, the better it has to be. In that forum I mentioned where Britannica going Wiki was discussed, one poster noted an error in the spelling of "Brittanica." Another poster asks, "Does it matter?"

I guess that says it all.

Not quite, though, because I'd like to make one final point. I'm really not backing any horse in this race. I think encyclopedias, wiki or no, are an anachronism in the internet age. Any fourth grader can do research from cursory to in-depth on anyone or anything without ever once going to Wikipedia or Britannica. There is such a wealth of information online that was once found in only the largest libraries and archives, and then mostly on microfilm or from searching through files to which you needed special access. Why even bother checking an encyclopedia first?

My suggestion is to skip the wikis and the encyclopedias and scroll down a couple entries to the really meaty stuff. That's the really valuable side of the Internet.

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