Britanica vs Wikipedia

January 22, 2009

The tree of knowledge just grew another branch. Encyclopædia Britania announced that they are going to start taking user’s contributions just like Wikipedia. Is this a good thing?

My feeling is that EB really does not cover enough subjects to be viable on the net. Probably the only way to get enough input is to use the open source model which has proved so successful in other ways. However, the problem of “subscription only” for full coverage is not going to help in any competitive way. EB is just not going to be able to fulfill peoples on-line needs unless they make themselves available. Personally, I don’t think they have really grasped the nature of the internet yet.

I’ve always touted the paper version of Britanica as the best. This is certainly true when you consider basic and general topics, and the fact that they get authoritative authors. Being able to quote them as an original source goes a long way.

Authority is what Wikpedia lacks. We all know about the wrong facts, awkward slants, and lack of wisdom, which is so pervasive on Wikipedia. For those that are savvy to this kind of thing there is not really a big problem, but many people don’t know how to interpret popular knowledge for what it is. Another problem is that using such an easily accessible data base is just too – well, easy.

I’ve found Wikipedia to be quite handy on many popular topics. The problem is the point of view. That looks like it will always be a popular one. Many subjects don’t really lend themselves to that approach.

For example, looking up historical computers will give you little about the technical aspect, and everything about the (usually failure of) business perspective. Does everything have to be analyzed in relation to popularity and money? That is indeed the most common perspective on the world nowadays and, in a way, represents the religion of the day.

A few hundred years ago, a Christian or Muslim point of view might have been applied to everything. A wise writer would look for additional perspectives, especially with technical matters. That does not seem to be the case on Wikipedia, which seems to be completely lacking in variety of perspective. I fear that much of what is there now will end up being historically interesting for social sciences but almost useless for other fields. In fact,I fear that much of it will become dated.

Still, Wikipedia has many wonderful lists of CPUs, comparisons of operating systems, and informative entries on network or other protocols. Other, more immediate, subjects are well covered too. I like to be able to find information on the latest social quirks and vocabulary. Actually, I think that pop culture is their forte. If you don’t watch TV, Wikipedia is certainly your shortcut to that body of knowledge.

So, how does that relate to Encyclopædia Britanica? To me the problem nowadays is to get specifics. We used to go to a few authoritative books on each subject and go the encyclopedia for an oversight only. I think that has changed. It looks like the contemporary expectation is to have detailed facts available on EVERYTHING. That is a tall order! Wikipedia is trying, and despite their shortcomings, seems to have a way to at least start on the idea.

Encyclopædia Britanica is now trying to use some of the same techniques, but is that what they should be doing? I don’t think so. Their strength is, and always has been, in their authority. That is exactly what Wikipedia lacks, but makes up for it in their ability to gather huge amounts of information quickly. Perhaps that is an aspect that will benefit EB too. If they actually get more subjects covered, and get them edited by competent and knowledgeable individuals, then perhaps we’ll see something useful here.

In the end, the two sources are two completely different things. Until Wikipedia gets some authority and wisdom, they will not be able to fulfill the function of EB. Conversely, until EB gets a huge input of information, and they make it easily available to everyone, they won’t even come close to doing what Wikipedia is doing. The site itself is full of cheap flash. Information fades away and up comes a screen asking you to subscribe. Hello? I would link to an example, but their (clever by half) code won’t allow that. Type decibel into their search bar to see an example. That isn’t exactly what you call accessible. Contrast that to Wikipedia which is right there and well linked.

I wish Encyclopædia Britanica well. I’ve always liked them, but this time I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

More details can be found at Wired and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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