Yesterday afternoon the CNET News.com 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!