Encyclopaedia Britannica

Encyclopaedia Britannica is the venerable institution that prints all of those bound volumes that you had at your house (or your grandparent’s house) when you were a kid. Interestingly enough, their headquarters is right here in River North Chicago, and I walk by the building often on my way to work (it is on LaSalle Street, just North of the Chicago River.

When I mention Brittanica, the first thing that most people say is “Are they still in business?” This was Dan’s exact question when I mentioned that they are headquartered here in Chicago.

Early on, when the web was first starting up, many companies had the idea that capturing information would be a big money maker. For example, Microsoft has an encyclopedia called “Encarta” that was big news back in the ’90s, when it was battling Brittanica for leadership. About this time Microsoft also started up their online movie database “Cinemania” which was also popular for a while as an attempt to create valuable content.

People did pay for content back in the early days, when the web was somewhat of a novelty. I remember a good friend who bought Cinemania and loved it, since he was a giant movie buff, and he got a big kick out of being able to search through all the data and reviews and see some clips, as well. I think at the time if you mentioned that this all would be on the web, it seemed pretty far fetched, especially since home high-bandwidth broadband was a long ways away and we were stuck with dial up (remember all those AOL CDs in the mail?).

Cinemania was one of the first to give up. Cinemania was supplanted by the all-encompassing IMDB, or Internet Movie Data Base. IMDB contains content generated by employees and also opens up content to individuals who make additions. It seems like IMDB is now unstoppable… with a mix of free content and paid content.

Encarta still lives, as does Britannica, in both print and online form. However, the unstoppable competition for both is of course… Wikipedia.

In an irony-laden move, I learned the most about Britannica from their Wikipedia entry. From the entry:

I would view Encyclopædia Britannica as a competitor, except that I think they will be crushed out of existence within 5 years.
Jimmy Wales, July 28, 2004

For those that don’t follow this type of internet trivia, Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia. While derided initially and compared unfavorably to Britannica, the critics missed a few essential points about what makes Wikipedia great:

1) people have a great desire to contribute and show off their knowledge, even if they are not being compensated for it, as long as they are recognized even with the community

2) things that people can continually improve upon (like open source software, and Wikipedia entries) inevitably beat closed systems because they continually get better until they overwhelm the “closed” model. No company is rich enough to support a closed model that can beat the army of motivated (if unpaid) individuals

If you remember back in the start up days of the internet, everyone was building their own content in-house, and if you said that an unpaid army of volunteers would build gargantuan mounds of content (and in ever-increasing quality as well as quantity) you’d be laughed out of the room.d

Here in Chicago we walk by the last of the old, clinging to the status of the paid “expert” model, while the unpaid “masses” model streaks by, never looking back, out in cyberspace.

Cross posted at LITGM

21 thoughts on “Encyclopaedia Britannica”

  1. I use Wikipedia. But I wouldn’t want my children to.

    Most freshman rhetoric teachers I know explicitly forbid it in their syllabi, discuss its inaccuracy and basic problems in class, and don’t accept it as a reference in research papers. It is not to be trusted when it is important – and in some areas, really, really not to be trusted. (Not that I don’t use it sometimes here and not that I don’t consider this important.)

    Of course, what we trust has become less and less easy to assess. My daughter’s college geography text speaks of Bono in glowing terms, Bush in nasty ones. What’s up with that? This is old territory, thoroughly discussed in Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police.

  2. I love the onion and that was the usual hilarious article.

    As far as the accuracy of wikipeda, one answer if you see something wrong is to FIX IT. I know that doesn’t always seem easy or make sense, but it is one option.

    I like to look up topics on wikipedia that I personally know a lot about; in particular music and military history. By and large I find the information very illuminating and interesting.

    The conceptual part about “is it right” as Ginny points out is harder to assess. As we know many historical books are at odds with one another. Recently the head of the Japanese air force had to step down because he said that the Allies pushed Japan into war… and in some contexts he is at least partially correct (the Allies cut off Japanese fuel and they were going to run out unless they acquired some… of course you don’t have to go to war to do it, but it certainly was a proximate cause).

    I like wikipedia for the same reason I like blogging – a chance to show off what you know and (hopefully) contribute a bit to the overall world of knowledge. So I am biased, I guess, and probably not all that neutral.

  3. I find it very useful for technical things,in spite of the occasional error.One uses it as a departure point if you need more.For things of a political nature I would be very skeptical.

  4. I recently found a Wikipedia entry about a person who is no longer alive and to whom I had a distant personal connection. This Wikipedia page had a number of significant factual errors (where the person grew up and was educated, and maybe other things too). It was clear to me, from looking at the page and its references, that whoever wrote it had gotten the bad info by misreading an online obit. These were gross errors of reading comprehension in which the Wikipedia author, when presented with ambiguous information, had guessed at meanings and gotten them wrong. I am not going to get involved in correcting such errors, because 1) the entire process and culture of Wikipedia editing are obviously corrupt and 2) there is no guarantee that any corrections I made wouldn’t be overridden by somebody like the person who screwed up the page in the first place.

    How many other Wikipedia pages are similarly screwed up? I have no idea but I’m sure it’s a large number. And this page was made inaccurate by simple mistakes. There are probably many other pages that are full of lies because the people maintaining them have agendas, and in many of these cases it is difficult or impossible for non-experts to determine the nature and extent of the distortions.

    Wikipedia is not like blogging, it is like anonymous blogging where the reader can’t easily determine which anonymous author wrote which blog post.

  5. wiki tends to be more accurate for subjects that have no importance to anyone such as the story of Chartres cathedral in 13th century. It becomes unreliable for subjects in which some one has a personal or political stake – such as entries on George Bush, Obama, North Korea, Rhodesia, Global Warming or strip mining. It is best to treat Wiki like the editorial page of a newspaper.

    But, this is true of just about any book you find in a library.

  6. I’ve come to consider Wikipedia to be a lot like the MSM, and for similar reasons. When I was young and naive (a long time ago) I believed whatever was in the newspaper. Then I was involved in several things that were “news” and were covered in the paper. To my shock and surprise, nearly everything written had errors in it, some of them major errors of fact. My boss at the time gently explained to me that this was the norm, and, of course, I’ve found that to be true throughout the course of my life…..everything that I’ve been personally involved in that was covered by the media has been filled with errors, which obviously leads to the conclusion that this is true of the rest of their coverage. Like Jonathan, I feel the same way about Wikipedia. I use it like I use stories carried by the MSM; as a starting point only.

  7. Even uncontroversial wikipedia entries run the danger of being ‘captured’ by a self-elected expert, who will resist any input from others. Another IAG member writer did a lovely young adult novel about the spiritualist Fox sisters, and did a huge amount of research about their lives and times. Based on her research, she repeatedly attempted to do some corrections and additions to the entry about them – but each time, the same editor removed her input. Basically, this other editor acted like he “owned” the entry – no one else could add material, and have it remain in the main entry.

  8. Agreed with all of the above but I’d summarize it as

    “It might be useful, be careful”

    That is pretty much what all of us do with the mainstream media, anyways (MSM)

    I will say one more thing in wikipedia’s defense –

    while not all articles are unbiased, at least they publicly ASPIRE to be unbiased. If you look at the editing behind a lot of the main pages you can see people diligently attempting to remove bias and point to accurate citations.

    Sadly, most of the MSM doesn’t even ASPIRE to being unbiased.

  9. I think it’s worse than the MSM, and a flawed information model. MSM have easily identifiable brands and authors, as do well-written blogs. I know what kinds of biases to expect when I read NYT editorials or columns by George Will or Instapundit. But I don’t know what to expect when I read a Wikipedia article, because I don’t know who wrote it or what his biases are. I can figure out the biases if I already know a lot about a subject, but then why would I need to consult Wikipedia. For some subjects these issues don’t matter much; for many subjects they matter a great deal.

    Wikipedia is not without value but I think its value is limited. It’s always going to be problematic, no matter how many checks and balances are incorporated in response to problems, because the open-source model doesn’t work well for things that are not as easily testable as software is.

  10. I would add that IMO aspirations are meaningless. Intrade’s predictions are highly reliable. What are its aspirations? Meaningless. What matters is empirical accuracy and, to the extent accuracy isn’t objective, a history that can be evaluated by results — did this author predict events accurately in the past? or did he always skew his predictions toward one side? has he been shown to be sloppy with facts or even dishonest in the past? — that kind of thing. You can’t easily get that with an open-source information model, because it’s too difficult to track or even identify authors, and because with no editorial control topics get captured by people with agendas.

  11. while not all articles are unbiased, at least they publicly ASPIRE to be unbiased. If you look at the editing behind a lot of the main pages you can see people diligently attempting to remove bias and point to accurate citations.

    Or rather, they say they aspire to be unbiased. I’m not sure I can believe them.

    I only have one strange wikipedia story to mention: once I was writing something on conspiracy-theories-as-control mechanisms, having found something earlier (or at least thinking I’d found something earlier) on the subject on Wikipedia’s entry for Karl Popper. I went back later to quote it and it wasn’t there.

  12. Rereading this exchange, I agree with Renminbi that Wikipedia is very useful for technical things. For example, in my experience it’s the first place to look for info about slightly-out-of-date computer technology. But this kind of information is both noncontroversial and easily testable.

  13. A recent study (http://wikipediareview.com/blog/20081005/wikipedia-vandalism-study-us-senators/) proved that for the 100 Wikipedia articles about the hundred U.S. Senators, they were wrong about 6.8% of the time. And when we say “wrong”, we mean silly, hateful things like Obama was a nudist, McCain murdered his wife, and Hillary Clinton has a penis; but also severely damaging and more difficult-to-detect things like, “Menendez and Jacobsen have since divorced because he was cheating on her”.

    The Wikimedia Foundation gleefully skips along, unconcerned about this sort of damage to real human beings (things you would have NEVER found in Britannica), because they’re protected by Section 230 of the CDA, and they operate from a general, hippie-dippy “free culture” mentality of utter unaccountability.

    Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia. It is an online promotion and revenge platform. If you view it as such, fine and dandy.

  14. Britannica free is you have a “web presence”, i.e, a blog. techcrunch.com/2008/04/18/encyclopedia-britannica-now-free-for-bloggers/

  15. I wrote the original Wikipedia article on mutual funds, back when they were asking for contributions on particular subjects. I tried editing it a couple of times after various contributions were added to it, then gave up. It seems to have calmed down and looks good now.

  16. Mitch, thanks for doing that. I find some decent financial information out there.

    Despite this thread, I am a big fan of wikipedia, and I really believe that, over time, if it sticks to its principles, it can be a very good source for lots of information.

    It will always be less useful for items that are subject to politics and personal preference.

  17. Wikipedia is a place to start for information but I agree that it does have its shortcomings when it comes to accurate information, which can also be said of any media as has also been pointed out. This discussion brought back a humorous memory for me though… Once I worked as a temporary administrative assistant in a plastic surgeon’s office and our computers were monitored by the IT department and if I went to a “blocked” site, a SurfPatrol warning would appear. Yikes!! My day was saved when during the slower periods, I could read wikipedia. At the time I had been engulfed in Patrick O’Brian’s books and spent my afternoon reading up on Horatio Nelson and nautical terms, which I’m pretty sure were scholarly.

  18. Encyclopaedia Britannia (EB) has been declining long before WikiPedia appeared. Many believe that the 1911 edition was the pinnacle of its achievement, and that its progressive focus on students (as opposed to, as originally, professionals of other fields) reduced its effective usefulness over time. EB was sold by a corps of dedicated traveling salesmen and became captured by this, its only volume sales channel. When margins dropped, EB could not afford this expensive sales channel but could not escape it. None of this has anything to do with WikiPedia. One could say that EB was doomed by its own choices. (And I say this as someone who owns three sets of the EB.)

    — perry

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