Sunday, April 20, 2008

Is Britannica Confronting Wikipedia?

Yesterday afternoon the CNET News Blog ran an interesting post by Zoë Slocum, which seems to involve an effort on the part of Encyclopaedia Britannica to challenge Wikipedia for Web eyeballs:

The popularity of free, anyone-can-edit Wikipedia has made academia's battle against encyclopedia referencing--and the publishing industry's efforts to sell reference material--tougher than ever. Encyclopaedia Britannica, which has embraced e-mail marketing to keep its hardback business in, well, business (I've received several promotional messages in the past few months), is now making Web moves to take back its authoritative presence in the industry.

The publisher's Britannica WebShare initiative, launched April 13 with Twitter streaming of a daily topic, announced on Friday a service called Britannica Widgets, with which bloggers can "post an entire cluster of related Encyclopaedia Britannica articles" for free.

Britannica also is offering "people who publish with some regularity on the Internet, be they bloggers, Webmasters, or writers," free access to Britannica's online content, with registration.

A couple of hours after this post appeared, reader Philips responded with the inevitable comment under the title "Who cares?" To avoid being accused of distortion, I shall reproduce this comment in its entirety:

In modern Internet, Wikipedia is The Encyclopedia.

Britannica might be more accurate or something, but unfortunately, Wikipedia links to Internet, while Britannica links only to itself.

End result is that bias of Wikipedia is very easy to spot and to check. Spotting bias or inaccuracy in Britannica? - well, good luck.

If nothing else, Wikipedia is good starting point for any research. Britannica will need years and years to integrate with Internet where more or less all information turned out to be.

This is the sort of language (I hesitate to say "reasoning") that makes excellent reinforcement for Andrew Keen's "cult of the amateur" arguments. It is rare to find a piece of text in which each sentence is saturated with misconception, but it provides a good opportunity to address what the Encyclopaedia Britannica has become in recent years and why that evolution may be more important to us than the radically more rapid growth of Wikipedia.

The most important part of that evolution is that the Encyclopaedia Britannica has become far more than a very large number of well-written (and edited) articles by authoritative sources all alphabetized by topic and internally cross-referenced. (Note, however, that those attributes of authorial and editorial quality and authority should be sufficient to differentiate it from Wikipedia, notwithstanding the conflicting opinions of Mary Spicuzza and Nicholson Baker.) All of those articles still constitute the "heart" of the Britannica; but that "heart," known as the "Micropaedia," is only one of three basic elements. What Wikipedia does not offer (and probably sees no reason to do so) are the other two elements. One is a "Propaedia," which is basically an outline of all the knowledge covered by the "Micropaedia," thus providing a structural framework for the entire contents, which, for example, facilitates identifying related topic areas not explicitly mentioned in the "Micropaedia" entries. The other is the "Macropaedia," which is a collection of expository articles intended to provide a "big picture" view of a topic area to be read before digging into the details of the "Micropaedia." (By the way the hyperlinks for these three elements are all Wikipedia entries!)

At the risk of sounding too reductive, I would suggest that Wikipedia has become one of the better ways to get straightforward answers to straightforward questions; but, if you really want to learn about something (particularly something highly unfamiliar to you), you need the kind of resource that the full Britannica package provides. Now I have no idea whether or not this whole package is covered by what Britannica now plans to make available for free to a blogger like myself. That is why I just submitted my registration for the service and hope to report on my pleasures and/or disappointments with what I find!


Anonymous said...

"Note, however, that those attributes of authorial and editorial quality and authority should be sufficient to differentiate it from Wikipedia, notwithstanding the conflicting opinions of Mary Spicuzza and Nicholson Baker."

I think you've misread Mark Spicuzza's recent article "Wikipedia Idiots." The article addresses the problems of online anonymity. Nowhere does it state that Wikipedia rivals Britannica in quality or accuracy; in fact, the article implies that it's authority is questionable at best.

"Say what you will about the press: There is at least a measure of accountability in a newspaper that is rarely seen on Wikipedia. It's called a byline. I mean, I'm sure I've produced some less-than-brilliant work during the dozen or so years I've been a journalist. But at least I've had the guts to sign my name — my real name — to what I write."

Stephen Smoliar said...

I expressed myself poorly. Spicuzza and Baker conflict over the question of the level of authority in Wikipedia entries. Neither explicitly talks about the connection between editorial quality and content authority, and neither tries to compare Wikipedia to Britannica. The heart of their conflict seems to be that Baker has no problem with anonymity, while I read Spicuzza's article as an exploration of the consequences of anonymity.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Wikipedia may lack an explicit editorial separation of types of articles, but it would be misleading to say that Wikipedia cannot achieve the same results through the structure that it has chosen.

Indeed, I would suggest that Wikipedia's best articles do separate somewhat into "macropædia" and "micropædia" types, as a consequence of the editing guidelines that are followed. Wikipedia uses a "summary style" that produces wide-subject, "macropædia" articles such as "Canada" with related articles linked to from each section leading to more focused topics, like, say, "History of Canada".

I'll admit that Wikipedia is still somewhat lacking of a "Propædia", but some good work with the extensively used category system could probably assemble one easily.

Stephen Smoliar said...

nihiltres, as was discussed in yesterday's comments (one of which, ironically, was anonymous), the biggest problem with Wikipedia has less to do with "explicit editorial separation of types of articles" and more to do with the anonymity of both authors and editors. I did not reiterate this point in this post because I had addressed it at much greater length in the earlier articles cited by my hyperlinks. Had someone edited this text, that person probably would have reminded me to include the point in abbreviated fashion!

The anonymity problem is particularly relevant at the "Macropaedia" level, where the sorts of Wikipedia articles you cite vary in quality much more widely than they do in the shorter (nuts-and-bolts) entries. (I make this claim on the basis of both personal and second-hand experience within my own social network, by the way.) My experience in editing book reviews confirms that those broader pieces are also much harder to edit!

This is also a good place to observe that I received word from a colleague through electronic mail that Britannica has bailed on the "Propaedia" concept. As a devout Wittgensteinian, I can appreciate why. What we learned from Ludwig is that a static category system is a useless category system. (Even Roget's system has changed over time.) Committing any such system to print entails committing to an obsolescence that is probably in place by the time the pages have come off the presses.

Would this not be a golden opportunity for the Web-based version? It would, were it not for the fact that the dynamics of the category system depend on both subjective and social factors. We form and modify our own category systems as we go along, based on the circumstances in which we are situated. A Web-based "Propaedia" may look good in theory; but in practice it is as out of touch with our the ways in which our minds work (particularly when we have to communicate with each other) as the Semantic Web is!