Tuesday, April 21, 2009


I see that I have yet to give a Chutzpah of the Week award to either Wikipedia or Jimmy Wales; and, while it is still early in the week, I was sufficiently "inspired" by Wales' keynote address to ad:tech San Francisco this morning (entitled "Wikipedia, Wikia and the Future of Consumer Generated Media") that I figured I would strike while the iron was hot. I grant that my reasoning is somewhat arcane, but part of the fun of these awards is that I can be playful with them from time to time. My thoughts about the award were triggered by Wales' decision to begin with a 1962 quote from Charles Van Doren on the need for radical rethinking of the concept of an encyclopedia. Van Doren was with Encyclopædia Britannica at the time, and Wales obviously relished the fact that Britannica never picked up Van Doren's gauntlet in any serious way (thus allowing Wales to claim that he was the first to do so).

Preoccupied as I have always been with our culture's lack of interest in (if not downright ignorance of) history, I found myself wondering if anyone in the ad:tech San Francisco audience knew who Van Doren was or how he became involved with Encyclopædia Britannica. I decided to see what Wikipedia had to say about the guy. There at the top of the entry was this photograph of one of his appearances in the quiz show Twenty One (he's the one on the far right), when his winning streak was ended by opponent Vivienne Nearing (on the left, with host Jack Barry in the middle):

The capsule summary that begins the entry is:

Charles Lincoln Van Doren (born February 12, 1926), a noted American intellectual, writer, and editor who was involved in a television quiz show scandal in the 1950s. He confessed before the United States Congress that he had been given the correct answers by the producers of the show Twenty One.

This is a man best known for his involvement with one of the first major scandals on the business-of-entertainment side of commercial television. At the time the scandal broke, Van Doren had even been offered a three-year contract with NBC to serve as "cultural correspondent." At a time when politicians were using the noun "egghead" in ridicule, NBC had his on a way to make money off of a full-fledged intellectual! The Wikipedia entry then outlines the road that led to Encyclopædia Britannica (and beyond):

Van Doren was dropped from NBC and resigned from his post of assistant professor at Columbia University. But his life after the scandal proved anything but broken; as television historian Robert Metz wrote (in CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye), "Fortunately, ours is a forgiving society, and Van Doren proved strong in the face of adversity." He became an editor at Praeger Books and a pseudonymous (at first) writer, before becoming an editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica and the author of several books, of which the simplified text, A History of Knowledge may be his best known. He also co-authored How to Read a Book, with philosopher Mortimer J. Adler [actually an updated edition of a book Adler had previously written on his own].

Currently, Van Doren is an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut, Torrington branch.

As I understand it, Adler was one of the few willing to offer him a helping hand after he had been tainted by scandal.

So, even if Van Doren's remark about radicalizing the encyclopedia may have been appropriate, did Wales really have to choose him as a source? My guess is that, with a little bit of poking around (even around Wikipedia), he could have found a spokesperson whose reputation would not raise red flags of credibility. Alternatively, he could had assumed (probably correctly) that, even with the film that Robert Redford made, no one recalled or cared about Van Doren's past. Indeed, Wales might well have been rubbing his audience's collective faces with their cultural amnesia (which would involve far less work than search out a better source). That would definitely have been a clear instance of chutzpah; but, even if such an aggressive motive was absent, there is enough outrageousness about this act to justify giving it the Chutzpah of the Week award.


Gregory Kohs said...

Stephen, when it comes to Jimmy Wales, I expect nothing *but* chutzpah these days.

I mean, the myth (or should I be more blunt, and just call it the "lie" that it is?) that Jimmy Wales is "the founder" of Wikipedia really needs to be retired. Dr. Larry Sanger was named as "co-founder" of the project in the first three press releases by the project -- the latter two of which were RELEASED BY JIMMY WALES, *AFTER* he had let Sanger go, due to funding constraints. Furthermore, Wales introduced himself as "co-founder" to a Yahoo! Groups message board, as late as August 2002, twenty months after the project's launch, and at least half a year after Sanger departed.

Only after Wikipedia began to get traction and crept into the Top 100 websites did Wales devise the treacherous strategy that calling himself "founder" (or, even -- it is almost too funny to say -- "Sole Founder", as he actually requested his minions to call him) of the project could yield higher speaker fees (reported to me in 2007 to be $100K per day). It's beyond me why organizations would pay such money to someone who's deliberately padded his resume via a lie that deprecates a former co-founder. You can't really get lower than that in business.

Anyway, we hear that Jimbo's solution for the newspaper industry is to turn over control to the "crowd". The Wikimedia Foundation employs less than 25 people. It uses grant money to pay office space rent to landlord Wikia, Inc. (Jimbo's for-profit venture -- can *you* say "self-dealing", children? I knew you could). If we extend this model to the newspaper industry, how many people will the industry employ, if the #7 world website employs ~25, by example? My placemat mathematics tells me about 800 or 900, total, across the 100 largest newspapers. And what will happen to the tens of thousands FORMERLY employed by the newspaper trade?

I guess they will go back to living in their mothers' basements, just like the majority of Wikipedia's volunteer editors and admins.

Thank you for this brilliant advice for a flagging industry that you helped cripple, Jimbo.

Anonymous said...

Wikipedia, with a 97% share of the online encyclopedia market, has forced Microsoft to shut down Encarta. How long will it be before Wikipedia claims the prize scalp of Encyclopaedia Britannica?

Encyclopaedia Britannica did not think that an open source product like Wikipedia would significantly challenge the credibility of its brand. They were dead wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica's staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. From a corporate and financial perspective, Encyclopaedia Britannica is in significant trouble.

It will be interesting to see if Encyclopaedia Britannica survives, but recent indications do not look good. It is the combination of a) the success of Wikipedia and b) improved search engines that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many libraries, schools & individuals are questioning the need to pay for sets of expensive books, or to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, when the content is free on the internet, and much more comprehensive.

Stephen Smoliar said...

Gregory, Wales talked more than a bit about the newspaper industry at ad:tech yesterday. I do not have the exact quote; but he made a remark to the effect that he felt he was reading better political opinion on the blogosphere than he was reading in print journalism, leading him to wonder whether or not the infrastructure of print journalism was necessary. Needless to say, he offered no support for why he felt the way he did; but the infrastructure part stuck in my craw. I managed to get the mike for one of the two questions allowed and asked whether he recognized the legal department as part of that newspaper infrastructure, emphasizing all the vetting a newspaper has to do to protect itself from libel, all of which is guided by skilled legal advice. As I recall, his reply was "That's a good point;" but he then returned to his endorsement of the blogosphere, suggesting that it was attracting better quality writers of opinion pieces who understood the subtleties of libel law. My guess is that the writers he likes are the ones who have lost their jobs in print journalism but still know how to practice all the professional skills they acquired while they were still employed!

Regarding the anonymous content about Britannica, I can write from the experience of my subscription to Britannica Online, which is complimentary due to my blogger status. Deciding to live up to my commitment as a blogger first and and subscriber second, I wrote the post "
On the Value of ANY "Encyclopedic" Reference
;" and I still basically hold to what I wrote there. I have made little use of my subscription, but it has been helpful when I used it. More valuable, however, has been Oxford Music Online, which I can enter by using my San Francisco Public Library membership as a gateway. The truth is that, if Brittanica (the company, rather than the reference) wanted to provide me with something I would use regularly, it would be a good search page for the entirety of their Great Books collection (including their own introductory and indexing material)!