Category Archives: britannica

wikipedia-britannica debate

The Wall Street Journal the other day hosted an email debate between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Encyclopedia Britannica editor-in-chief Dale Hoiberg. Irreconcilible differences, not surprisingly, were in evidence. Wales_Jimmy_gst09072006111650.jpg Hoiberg_Dale_gst09072006111650.jpg But one thing that was mentioned, which I had somehow missed recently, was a new governance experiment just embarked upon by the German Wikipedia that could dramatically reduce vandalism, though some say at serious cost to Wikipedia’s openness. In the new system, live pages will no longer be instantaneously editable except by users who have been registered on the site for a certain (as yet unspecified) length of time, “and who, therefore, [have] passed a threshold of trustworthiness” (CNET). All edits will still be logged, but they won’t be reflected on the live page until that version has been approved as “non-vandalized” by more senior administrators. One upshot of the new German policy is that Wikipedia’s front page, which has long been completely closed to instantaneous editing, has effectively been reopened, at least for these “trusted” users.
In general, I believe that these sorts of governance measures are a sign not of a creeping conservatism, but of the growing maturity of Wikipedia. But it’s a slippery slope. In the WSJ debate, Wales repeatedly assails the elitism of Britannica’s closed editorial model. But over time, Wikipedia could easily find itself drifting in that direction, with a steadily hardening core of overseers exerting ever tighter control. Of course, even if every single edit were moderated, it would still be quite a different animal from Britannica, but Wales and his council of Wikimedians shouldn’t stray too far from what made Wikipedia work in the first place, and from what makes it so interesting.
In a way, the exchange of barbs in the Wales-Hoiberg debate conceals a strange magnetic pull between their respective endeavors. Though increasingly seen as the dinosaur, Britannica has made small but not insignificant moves toward openess and currency on its website (Hoiberg describes some of these changes in the exchange), while Wikipedia is to a certain extent trying to domesticate itself in order to attain the holy grail of respectability that Britannica has long held. Think what you will about Britannica’s long-term prospects, but it’s a mistake to see this as a clear-cut story of violent succession, of Wikipedia steamrolling Britannica into obsolescence. It’s more interesting to observe the subtle ways in which the two encyclopedias cause each other to evolve.
Wales certainly has a vision of openness, but he also wants to publish the world’s best encyclopedia, and this includes releasing something that more closely resembles a Britannica. Back in 2003, Wales proposed the idea of culling Wikipedia’s best articles to produce a sort of canonical version, a Wikipedia 1.0, that could be distributed on discs and printed out across the world. Versions 1.1, 1.2, 2.0 etc. would eventually follow. This is a perfectly good idea, but it shouldn’t be confused with the goals of the live site. I’m not saying that the “non-vandalized” measure was constructed specifically to prepare Wikipedia for a more “authoritative” print edition, but the trains of thought seem to have crossed. Marking versions of articles as non-vandalized, or distinguishing them in other ways, is a good thing to explore, but not at the expense of openness at the top layer. It’s that openness, crazy as it may still seem, that has lured millions into this weird and wonderful collective labor.

wikipedia not safe for work

encyclopedie.jpg Stacy Schiff takes a long, hard look at Wikipedia in a thoughtful essay in the latest New Yorker. She begins with a little historical perspective on encyclopedias, fitting Wikipedia into a distinguished, centuries-long lineage of subversion that includes, most famously, the Encyclopédie of 1780, composed by leading French philosophes of the day such as Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire. Far from being the crusty, conservative genre we generally take it to be, the encyclopedia has long served as an arena for the redeployment of knowledge power:

In its seminal Western incarnation, the encyclopedia had been a dangerous book. The Encyclopédie muscled aside religious institutions and orthodoxies to install human reason at the center of the universe–and, for that muscling, briefly earned the book’s publisher a place in the Bastille. As the historian Robert Darnton pointed out, the entry in the Encyclopédie on cannibalism ends with the cross-reference “See Eucharist.”

But the dust kicked up by revolution eventually settles. Heir to the radical Encyclopédie are the stolid, dependable reference works we have today, like Britannica, geared not at provoking questions, but at providing trustworthy answers.
Wikipedia’s radicalism is its wresting of authority away from the established venues — away from the very secular humanist elite that produced works like the Encyclopédie and sparked the Enlightenment. Away from these and toward a new networked class of amateur knowledge workers. The question, then, and this is the question we should all be asking, especially Wikipedia’s advocates, is where does this latest revolution point? Will this relocation of knowledge production away from accredited experts to volunteer collectives — collectives that aspire no less toward expertise, but in the aggregate performance rather than as individuals — lead to a new enlightening, or to a dark, muddled decline?
Or both? All great ideas contain their opposites. Reason, the flame at the heart of the Enlightenment, contained, as Max Horkheimer famously explained, the seeds of its own descent into modern, mechanistic barbarism. The open source movement, applied first to software, and now, through Wikipedia, to public knowledge, could just as easily descend into a morass of ignorance and distortion, especially as new economies rise up around collaborative peer production and begin to alter the incentives for participation. But it also could be leading us somewhere more vital than our received cultural forms — more vital and better suited to help us confront the ills of our time, many of them the result of the unbridled advance of that glorious 18th century culture of reason, science and progress that shot the Encyclopédie like a cork out of a bottle of radical spirits.
Which is all the more reason that we should learn how to read Wikipedia in the fullest way: by exploring the discussion pages and revision histories that contextualize each article, and to get involved ourselves as writers and editors. Take a look at the page on global warming, and then pop over to its editorial discussion, with over a dozen archived pages going back to December, 2001. Dense as hell, full of struggle. Observe how this new technology, the Internet, through the dynamics of social networks and easy publishing tools, enables a truer instance of that most Enlightenment of ideas: a reading public.
All of which led me to ponder an obvious but crucial notion: that a book’s power is derived not solely from its ideas and language, but also from the nature of its production — how and by whom it is produced, our awareness of that process, and our understanding of where the work as a whole stands within the contemporary arena of ideology and politics. It’s true, Britannica and its ilk are descendants of a powerful reordering of human knowledge, but they have become an established order of their own. What Wikipedia does is tap a long-mounting impulse toward a new reordering. Schiff quotes Charles Van Doren, who served as an editor at Britannica:

Because the world is radically new, the ideal encyclopedia should be radical, too…. It should stop being safe–in politics, in philosophy, in science.

The accuracy of this or that article is not what is at issue here, but rather the method by which the articles are written, and what that tells us. Wikipedia is a personal reeducation, a medium that is its own message. To roam its pages is to be in contact, whether directly or subliminally, with a powerful new idea of how information gets made. And it’s far from safe.
Where this takes us is unclear. In the end, after having explored many of the possible dangers, Schiff acknowledges, in a lovely closing paragraph, that the change is occurring whether we like it or not. Moreover, she implies — and this is really important — that the technology itself is not the cause, but simply an agent interacting with preexisting social forces. What exactly those forces are — that’s something to discuss.

As was the Encyclopédie, Wikipedia is a combination of manifesto and reference work. Peer review, the mainstream media, and government agencies have landed us in a ditch. Not only are we impatient with the authorities but we are in a mood to talk back. Wikipedia offers endless opportunities for self-expression. It is the love child of reading groups and chat rooms, a second home for anyone who has written an Amazon review. This is not the first time that encyclopedia-makers have snatched control from an élite, or cast a harsh light on certitude. Jimmy Wales may or may not be the new Henry Ford, yet he has sent us tooling down the interstate, with but a squint back at the railroad. We’re on the open road now, without conductors and timetables. We’re free to chart our own course, also free to get gloriously, recklessly lost.

another round: britannica versus wikipedia

britannica-to-wikipediasm.jpg The Encyclopedia Britannica versus Wikipedia saga continues. As Ben has recently posted, Britannica has been confronting Nature on its article which found that the two encyclopedias were fairly equal in the accuracy of their science articles. Today, the editors and the board of directors of Encyclopedia Britannica, have taken out a half page ad in today New York Times (A19) to present an open letter to Nature which requests for a public reaction of the article.
Several interesting things are going on here. Because Britannica chose to place an ad in the Times, it shifted the argument and debate away from the peer review / editorial context into one of rhetoric and public relations. Further, their conscious move to take the argument to the “public” or the “masses” with an open letter is ironic because the New York TImes does not display its print ads online, therefore access of the letter is limited to the Time’s print readership. (Not to mention, the letter is addressed to the Nature Publishing Group located in London. If anyone knows that a similar letter was printed in the UK, please let us know.) Readers here can click on the thumbnail image to read the entire text of the letter. Ben raised an interesting question here today, asking where one might post a similar open letter on the Internet.
Britannica cites many important criticisms of Nature’s article, including: using text not from Britannica, using excerpts out of context, giving equal weight to minor and major errors, and writing a misleading headline. If their accusations are true, then Nature should redo the study. However, to harp upon Nature’s methods is to miss the point. Britannica cannot do anything to stop Wikipedia, except to try to discredit to this study. Disproving Nature’s methodology will have a limited effect on the growth of Wikipedia. People do not mind that Wikipedia is not perfect. The JKF assassination / Seigenthaler episode showed that. Britannica’s efforts will only lead to more studies, which will inevitably will show errors in both encyclopedias. They acknowledge in today’s letter that, “Britannica has never claimed to be error-free.” Therefore, they are undermining their own authority, as people who never thought about the accuracy of Britannica are doing just that now. Perhaps, people will not mind that Britannica contains errors as well. In their determination to show the world that of the two encyclopedias which both content flaws, they are also advertising that of the two, the free one has some-what more errors.
In the end, I agree with Ben’s previous post that the Nature article in question has a marginal relevance to the bigger picture. The main point is that Wikipedia works amazingly well and contains articles that Britannica never will. It is a revolutionary way to collaboratively share knowledge. That we should give consideration to the source of our information we encounter, be it the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia, Nature or the New York Time, is nothing new.

britannica bites back (do we care?)

Www.wikipedia.org_screenshot.png britannica header.gif Late last year, Nature Magazine let loose a small shockwave when it published results from a study that had compared science articles in Encyclopedia Britannica to corresponding entries in Wikipedia. Both encyclopedias, the study concluded, contain numerous errors, with Britannica holding only a slight edge in accuracy. Shaking, as it did, a great many assumptions of authority, this was generally viewed as a great victory for the five-year-old Wikipedia, vindicating its model of decentralized amateur production.
Now comes this: a document (download PDF) just published on the Encyclopedia Britannica website claims that the Nature study was “fatally flawed”:

Almost everything about the journal’s investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading.

What are we to make of this? And if Britannica’s right, what are we to make of Nature? I can’t help but feel that in the end it doesn’t matter. Jabs and parries will inevitably be exchanged, yet Wikipedia continues to grow and evolve, containing multitudes, full of truth and full of error, ultimately indifferent to the censure or approval of the old guard. It is a fact: Wikipedia now contains over a million articles in english, nearly 223 thousand in Polish, nearly 195 thousand in Japanese and 104 thousand in Spanish; it is broadly consulted, it is free and, at least for now, non-commercial.
At the moment, I feel optimistic that in the long arc of time Wikipedia will bend toward excellence. Others fear that muddled mediocrity can be the only result. Again, I find myself not really caring. Wikipedia is one of those things that makes me hopeful about the future of the web. No matter how accurate or inaccurate it becomes, it is honest. Its messiness is the messiness of life.


As a frequent consulter, but not an editor, of Wikipedia, I’ve often wondered about what exactly goes on among the core contributors. A few clues can be found in the revision histories, but on a whole these are hard to read, internal work documents meant more for those actually getting their hands dirty in the business of writing and editing. Like choreographic notation, they may record the steps, but to the untrained reader they give little sense of the look or feeling of the dance.
metawiki.jpg But dig around elsewhere in Wikipedia’s sprawl, turn over a few rocks, and you will find squirming in the soil a rich ecosystem of communities, organizing committees, and rival factions. Most of these — the more formally organized ones at least — can be found on the “Meta-Wiki,” a site containing information and community plumbing for all Wikimedia Foundation projects, including Wikipedia.
I took a closer look at some of these so-called Metapedians and found them to be a varied, often contentious lot, representing a broad spectrum of philosophies asserting this or that truth about how Wikipedia should evolve, how it should be governed, and how its overall significance ought to be judged. The more prominent schools of thought are even championed by associations, complete with their own page, charter and loyal base of supporters. Although tending toward the tongue-in-cheek, these pages cannot help but convey how seriously the business of building the encyclopedia is taken, with three groups in particular providing, if not evidence of an emergent tri-party system, then at least a decent introduction to Wikipedia’s political culture, and some idea of how different Wikipedians might formulate policies for the writing and editing of articles.
On one extreme is The Association of Deletionist Wikipedians, a cantankerous collective that dreams (with considerable ideological overlap with another group, the Exclusionists) of a “big, strong, garbage-free Wikipedia.” These are the expungers, the pruners, the weeding-outers — doggedly on the lookout for filth, vandalism and general extraneousness. Deletionists favor “clear and relatively rigorous standards for accepting articles to the encyclopedia.” When you come across an article that has been flagged for cleanup or suspected inaccuracies, that may be the work of Deletionists. Some have even pushed for the development of Wiki Law that could provide clearly documented precedents to guide future vetting efforts. In addition, Deletionists see it as their job to “outpace rampant Inclusionism,” a rival school of thought across the metaphorical aisle: The Association of Inclusionist Wikipedians.
This group’s motto is “Salva veritate,” or “with truth preserved,” which in practice means: “change Wikipedia only when no knowledge would be lost as a result.” These are Wikipedia’s libertarians, its big-tenters, its stub-huggers. “Outpace and coordinate against rampant Deletionism” is one of their core directives.

A favorite phrase of inclusionists is “Wiki is not paper.” Because Wikipedia does not have the same space limitations as a paper encyclopedia, there is no need to restrict content in the same way that a Britannica must. It has also been suggested that no performance problems result from having many articles. Inclusionists claim that authors should take a more open-minded look at content criteria. Articles on people, places, and concepts of little note may be perfectly acceptable for Wikipedia in this view. Some inclusionists do not see a problem with including pages which give a factual description of every last person on the planet.

(Even poor old Bob Aspromonte.)
Then along come the Mergist Wikipedians. The moderates, the middle-grounders, the bipartisans. The Mergists regard it their mission to reconcile the two extremes — to “outpace rampant Inclusionism and Deletionism.” As their eminently sensible charter explains:

The AMW believes that while some information is notable and encyclopedic and therefore has a place on Wikipedia, much of it is not notable enough to warrant its own article and is therefore best merged. In this sense we are similar to Inclusionists, as we believe in the preservation of information and knowledge, but share traits with Deletionists as we disagree with the rampant creation of new articles for topics that could easily be covered elsewhere.

For some, however, there can be no middle ground. One is either a Deletionist or and Inclusionist, it’s as simple as that. To these hardliners, the mergists are referred to dismissively as “delusionists.”
There are still other, less organized, ideological subdivisions. Immediatism focuses on “the immediate value of Wikipedia,” and so are terribly concerned with the quality — today — of its information, the neatness of its appearance, and its general level of professionalism and polish. When a story in the news draws public attention to some embarrassing error — the Seigenthaler episode, for instance — the Immediatists wince and immediately set about correcting it. Eventualism, by contrast, is more concerned with Wikipedia in the long run — its grand destiny — trusting that wrinkles will be ironed out, gaps repaired. All in good time.
How much impact these factions have on the overall growth and governance of Wikipedia is hard to say. But as a description of the major currents of thought that go into the building of this juggernaut, they are quite revealing. It’s nice that people have taken the time to articulate these positions, and that they have done so with humor, lending texture and color to what at first glance might appear to be an undifferentiated mob.

wikipedia, lifelines, and the packaging of authority

03comm500.364.jpg In a nice comment in yesterday’s Times, “The Nitpicking of the Masses vs. the Authority of the Experts,” George Johnson revisits last month’s Seigenthaler smear episode and Nature magazine Wikipedia-Britannica comparison, and decides to place his long term bets on the open-source encyclopedia:

It seems natural that over time, thousands, then millions of inexpert Wikipedians – even with an occasional saboteur in their midst – can produce a better product than a far smaller number of isolated experts ever could.

Reading it, a strange analogy popped into my mind: “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Yes, the game show. What does it have to do with encyclopedias, the internet and the re-mapping of intellectual authority? I’ll try to explain. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is a simple quiz show, very straightforward, like “Jeopardy” or “The $64,000 Question.” A single contestant answers a series of multiple choice questions, and with each question the money stakes rise toward a million-dollar jackpot. The higher the stakes the harder the questions (and some seriously overdone lighting and music is added for maximum stress). There is a recurring moment in the game when the contestant’s knowledge fails and they have the option of using one of three “lifelines” that have been alloted to them for the show.
The first lifeline (and these can be used in any order) is the 50:50, which simply reduces the number of possible answers from four to two, thereby doubling your chances of selecting the correct one — a simple jiggering of probablities. wwtbam002.jpg The other two are more interesting. The second lifeline is a telephone call to a friend or relative at home who is given 30 seconds to come up with the answer to the stumper question. This is a more interesting kind of a probability, since it involves a personal relationship. It deals with who you trust, who you feel you can rely on. Last, and my favorite, is the “ask the audience” lifeline, in which the crowd in the studio is surveyed and hopefully musters a clear majority behind one of the four answers. Here, the probability issue gets even more intriguing. Your potential fortune is riding on the knowledge of a room full of strangers.
In most respects, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is just another riff on the classic quiz show genre, but the lifeline option pegs it in time, providing a clue about its place in cultural history. The perceptive game show anthropologist would surely recognize that the lifeline is all about the network. It’s what gives “Millionaire” away as a show from around the time of the tech bubble in the late 90s — manifestly a network-era program. Had it been produced in the 50s, the lifeline option would have been more along the lines of “ask the professor!” Lights rise on a glass booth containing a mustached man in a tweed jacket sucking on a pipe. Our cliché of authority. But “Millionaire” turns not to the tweedy professor in the glass booth (substitute ivory tower) but rather to the swarming mound of ants in the crowd.
And that’s precisely what we do when we consult Wikipedia. It isn’t an authoritative source in the professor-in-the-booth sense. It’s more lifeline number 3 — hive mind, emergent intelligence, smart mobs, there is no shortage of colorful buzzwords to describe it. We’ve always had lifeline number 2. It’s who you know. The friend or relative on the other end of the phone line. Or think of the whispered exchange between students in the college library reading room, or late-night study in the dorm. Suddenly you need a quick answer, an informal gloss on a subject. You turn to your friend across the table, or sprawled on the couch eating Twizzlers: When was the Glorious Revolution again? Remind me, what’s the Uncertainty Principle?
With Wikipedia, this friend factor is multiplied by an order of millions — the live studio audience of the web. This is the lifeline number 3, or network, model of knowledge. Individual transactions may be less authoritative, pound for pound, paragraph for paragraph, than individual transactions with the professors. But as an overall system to get you through a bit of reading, iron out a wrinkle in a conversation, or patch over a minor factual uncertainty, it works quite well. And being free and informal it’s what we’re more inclined to turn to first, much more about the process of inquiry than the polished result. As Danah Boyd puts it in an excellently measured defense of Wikipedia, it “should be the first source of information, not the last. It should be a site for information exploration, not the definitive source of facts.” Wikipedia advocates and critics alike ought to acknowledge this distinction.
wikipedia.png So, having acknowledged it, can we then broker a truce between Wikipedia and Britannica? Can we just relax and have the best of both worlds? I’d like that, but in the long run it seems that only one can win, and if I were a betting man, I’d have to bet with Johnson. Britannica is bound for obsolescence. A couple of generations hence (or less), who will want it? How will it keep up with this larger, far more dynamic competitor that is already of roughly equal in quality in certain crucial areas?
Just as the printing press eventually drove the monastic scriptoria out of business, Wikipedia’s free market of knowledge, with all its abuses and irregularities, its palaces and slums, will outperform Britannica’s centralized command economy, with its neat, cookie-cutter housing slabs, its fair, dependable, but ultimately less dynamic, system. But, to stretch the economic metaphor just a little further before it breaks, it’s doubtful that the free market model will remain unregulated for long. At present, the world is beginning to take notice of Wikipedia. A growing number are championing it, but for most, it is more a grudging acknowledgment, a recognition that, for better of for worse, what’s going on with Wikipedia is significant and shouldn’t be ignored.
Eventually we’ll pass from the current phase into widespread adoption. We’ll realize that Wikipedia, being an open-source work, can be repackaged in any conceivable way, for profit even, with no legal strings attached (it already has been on sites like and thousands — probably millions — of spam and link farms). As Lisa intimated in a recent post, Wikipedia will eventually come in many flavors. There will be commercial editions, vetted academic editions, handicap-accessible editions. Darwinist editions, creationist editions. Google, Yahoo and Amazon editions. Or, in the ultimate irony, Britannica editions! (If you can’t beat ’em…)
All the while, the original Wikipedia site will carry on as the sprawling community garden that it is. The place where a dedicated minority take up their clippers and spades and tend the plots. Where material is cultivated for packaging. Right now Wikipedia serves best as an informal lifeline, but soon enough, people will begin to demand something more “authoritative,” and so more will join in the effort to improve it. Some will even make fortunes repackaging it in clever ways for which people or institutions are willing to pay. In time, we’ll likely all come to view Wikipedia, or its various spin-offs, as a resource every bit as authoritative as Britannica. But when this happens, it will no longer be Wikipedia.
Authority, after all, is a double-edged sword, essential in the pursuit of truth, but dangerous when it demands that we stop asking questions. What I find so thrilling about the Wikipedia enterprise is that it is so process-oriented, that its work is never done. The minute you stop questioning it, stop striving to improve it, it becomes a museum piece that tells the dangerous lie of authority. Even those of use who do not take part in the editorial gardening, who rely on it solely as lifeline number 3, we feel the crowd rise up to answer our query, we take the knowledge it gives us, but not (unless we are lazy) without a grain of salt. The work is never done. Crowds can be wrong. But we were not asking for all doubts to be resolved, we wanted simply to keep moving, to keep working. Sometimes authority is just a matter of packaging, and the packaging bonanza will soon commence. But I hope we don’t lose the original Wikipedia — the rowdy community garden, lifeline number 3. A place that keeps you on your toes — that resists tidy packages.

questions and answers

in 1980 and 81 i had a dream job — charlie van doren, the editorial director of Encyclopedia Britannica, hired me to think about the future of encyclopedias in the digital era. eb image.jpg i parlayed that gig into an eighteen-month stint with Alan Kay when he was the chief scientist at Atari. Alan had read the paper i wrote for britannica — EB and the Intellectual Tools of the Future — and in his enthusiastic impulsive style, said, “this is just the sort of thing i want to work on, why not join me at Atari.”
while we figured that the future encyclopedia should at the least be able to answer most any factual question someone might have, we really didn’t have any idea of the range of questions people would ask. we reasoned that while people are curious by nature, they fall out of the childhood habit of asking questions about anything and everything because they get used to the fact that no one in their immediate vicinity actually knows or can explain the answer and the likelihood of finding the answer in a readily available book isn’t much greater.
so, as an experiment we gave a bunch of people tape recorders and asked them to record any question that came to mind during the day — anything. we started collecting question journals in which people whispered their wonderings — both the mundane and the profound. michael naimark, a colleague at Atari was particularly fascinated by this project and he went to the philippines to gather questions from a mountain tribe.
wikipedia_logo.jpg anyway, this is a long intro to the realization that between wikipedia and google, alan’s and my dream of a universal question/answer machine is actually coming into being. although we could imagine what it would be like to have the ability to get answers to most any question, we assumed that the foundation would be a bunch of editors responsible for the collecting and organizing vast amounts of information. we didnt’ imagine the world wide web as a magnet which would motivate people collectively to store a remarkable range of human knowledge in a searchable database.
on the other hand we assumed that the encylopedia of the future would be intelligent enough to enter into conversation with individual users, helping them through rough spots like a patient tutor. looks like we’ll have to wait awhile for that.

nicholas carr on “the amorality of web 2.0”

Nicholas Carr, who writes about business and technology and formerly was an editor of the Harvard Business Review, has published an interesting though problematic piece on “the amorality of web 2.0”. I was drawn to the piece because it seemed to be questioning the giddy optimism surrounding “web 2.0”, specifically Kevin Kelly’s rapturous late-summer retrospective on ten years of the world wide web, from Netscape IPO to now. While he does poke some much-needed holes in the carnival floats, Carr fails to adequately address the new media practices on their own terms and ends up bashing Wikipedia with some highly selective quotes.
Carr is skeptical that the collectivist paradigms of the web can lead to the creation of high-quality, authoritative work (encyclopedias, journalism etc.). Forced to choose, he’d take the professionals over the amateurs. But put this way it’s a Hobson’s choice. Flawed as it is, Wikipedia is in its infancy and is probably not going away. Whereas the future of Britannica is less sure. And it’s not just amateurs that are participating in new forms of discourse (take as an example the new law faculty blog at U. Chicago). Anyway, here’s Carr:

The Internet is changing the economics of creative work – or, to put it more broadly, the economics of culture – and it’s doing it in a way that may well restrict rather than expand our choices. Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it’s created by amateurs rather than professionals, it’s free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die. The same thing happens when blogs and other free on-line content go up against old-fashioned newspapers and magazines. Of course the mainstream media sees the blogosphere as a competitor. It is a competitor. And, given the economics of the competition, it may well turn out to be a superior competitor. The layoffs we’ve recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can’t imagine anything more frightening.

He then has a nice follow-up in which he republishes a letter from an administrator at Wikipedia, which responds to the above.

Encyclopedia Britannica is an amazing work. It’s of consistent high quality, it’s one of the great books in the English language and it’s doomed. Brilliant but pricey has difficulty competing economically with free and apparently adequate….
…So if we want a good encyclopedia in ten years, it’s going to have to be a good Wikipedia. So those who care about getting a good encyclopedia are going to have to work out how to make Wikipedia better, or there won’t be anything.

Let’s discuss.

wikipedia compiles britannica errors

Whatever one’s hesitations concerning the accuracy and reliability of Wikipedia, one has to admire their panache. Wikipedia applies the de-bugging ethic of programming to the production of knowledge, and this page is a wonderful cultural document – biting the collective thumb at print snobbism.
(CNET blogs)