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March 20, 2012

[2b2k] 14 reasons why the Britannica failed on paper

In the straight-up match between paper and Web, the Encyclopedia Britannica lost. This was as close to a sure thing as we get outside of the realm of macro physics and Meryl Streep movies.

  1. The EB couldn’t cover enough: 65,000 topics compared to the almost 4M in the English version of Wikipedia.

  2. Topics had to be consistently shrunk or discarded to make room for new information. E.g., the 1911 entry on Oliver Goldsmith was written by no less than Thomas Macaulay, but with each edition, it got shorter and shorter. EB was thus in the business of throwing out knowledge as much as it was in the business of adding knowledge.

  3. Topics were confined to rectangles of text. This is of course often a helpful way of dividing up the world, but it is also essentially false. The “see also’s” and the attempts at synthetic indexes and outlines (Prop├Ždi) helped, but they were still highly limited, and cumbersome to use.

  4. All the links were broken.

  5. It was expensive to purchase.

  6. If you or your family did not purchase it, using it required a trip to another part of town where it was available only during library hours.

  7. It was very slow to update — 15 editions since 1768 — even with its “continuous revision” policy.

  8. Purchasers were stuck with an artifact that continuously became wronger.

  9. Purchasers were stuck with an artifact that continuously became less current.

  10. It chose topics based on agendas and discussions that were not made public.

  11. You could not see the process by which articles were written and revised, much less the reasoning behind those edits.

  12. It was opaque about changes and errors.

  13. There were no ways for readers to contribute or participate. For example, underlining in it or even correcting errors via marginalia would get you thrown out of the library. It thus crippled the growth of knowledge through social and networked means.

  14. It was copyrighted, making it difficult for its content to be used maximally.

Every one of the above is directly or indirectly a consequence of the fact that the EB was a paper product.

Paper doesn’t scale.

Paper-based knowledge can’t scale.

The Net scales.

The Net scales knowledge.

 


I should probably say something nice about the Britannica:

  1. Extremely smart, very dedicated people worked on it.

  2. It provided a socially safe base for certain sorts of knowledge claims.

  3. Owning it signaled that one cared about knowledge, and it’s good for our culture for us to be signaling that sort of thing.

 


The inestimably smart and wise Matthew Battles has an excellent post on the topic (which I hesitate to recommend only because he refers to “Too Big to Know” overly generously).

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July 19, 2009

Britannica: #1 at Google

Today, for the very first time in my experience, The Encyclopedia Britannica was the #1 result at Google for a query.

It’s good to see the EB making progress with its online offering, but I’m actually puzzled in this case. The query was “horizontal hold” (without quotes), and the EB page that’s #1 is pretty much worthless. It’s a stub that gives a snippet of the article on the topic, but the snippet oddly begins with definition #4. The page then points us into actual articles in the EB, but they’re articles you have to pay for (although the EB offers a “no risk” free trial).

So, how did Google’s special sauce float this especially unhelpful page to the surface? And why isn’t there a Wikipedia page on “horizontal hold”? And does this mean that if there’s no Wikipedia page for a topic, Google gets the vapors and just doesn’t know what to recommend? Nooooo………

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June 10, 2008

Britannica tweaks the wiki

Britannica has announced that it’s going to enable some measure of reader participation in the extending of the online version of their encyclopedia. You can see the beta of the new site here.

The detailed overview of the planned site says:

two things we believe distinguish this effort from other projects of online collaboration are (1) the active involvement of the expert contributors with whom we already have relationships; and (2) the fact that all contributions to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s core content will continue to be checked and vetted by our expert editorial staff before they’re published.

Excellent! We needs lots of variations on the theme of collaboration. Editing and expertise add value. They slow things down and reduce the ability to scale, but Wikipedia’s process makes it possible to read an article that’s been altered, if only for a minutes, by some devilish hand. It all depends on what you’re trying to do, and collectively we’re trying to do everything. So, this is good news from Britannica. It’ll be fascinating to watch.

To pick a nit, I’m not as convinced by Britannica’s insistence on objectivity as a value, however. The blog post says “we believe that the creation and documentation of knowledge is a collaborative process but not a democratic one.” It lists three positive consequences of this. The third is “objectivity, and it requires experts.” In a reference that makes you wish they’d at least once use the word “Wikipedia,” the post continues: “In contrast to our approach, democratic systems settle for something bland and less informative, what is sometimes termed a ‘neutral point of view.'” I think it would be reasonable for Britannica to tell us that an expert-based, edited system is likely to yield articles that are more comprehensive, more uniform in quality, more accurate and more reliable. But haven’t we gotten past thinking that expertise yields objectivity?

Anyway, I think it’s amazing that the Britannica, in its 240th year, is taking this step. Britannica will be better for it, and so will we. [Tags: ]

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