May 02, 2005 – 03:01
When encyclopedias changed forever. Twice
By Jim Harris, Backbone Magazine
FOR MORE THAN 200 YEARS ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA DEFINED WHAT AN ENCYCLOPEDIA WAS: IT CAME IN 32 VOLUMES, EXCEEDED 30,000 PAGES, WAS UPDATED EVERY FIVE YEARS, WAS SOLD DOOR TO DOOR FOR US$1,599 A SET, AND WEIGHED 128 POUNDS.
That all changed in 1994, when a company that had never published encyclopedias became the number-one vendor overnight.
Microsoft began giving away a free copy of Encarta to customers buying $2,000 computers loaded with its operating system.
Integrating colour illustrations with sound and video clips, Encarta redefined the encyclopedia.
To survive, Britannica had to change everything. It puts its encyclopedia on the net and charged a subscription fee.
Encyclopaedia Britannica is a case of a company that changed its product, changed its distribution channels and marketplace, and changed customers. It wasn’t re-engineered, it was completely transformed, a degree of change that few can understand and which terrifies most executives and organizations.
And now, it will all change again.
Wikipedia is a free Web-based encyclopedia that is among the largest and most popular reference sites on the Web, attracting 80 million hits a day. Founded on Jan. 15, 2001, Wikipedia had grown exponentially, to the point where on March 18 of this year it surpassed 500,000 English articles and a total of 1.5 million entries in more than 150 languages. And Wikipedia’s content is created entirely by users.
Comparing Britannica and Wikipedia is very interesting. Britannica Online has around 100,000 entries, Wikipedia has 500,000. And Wikipedia is adding 1,000 articles a day, so it will break a million English entries by the end of 2006.
Britannica costs US$60 for a single user per year for those not at a university; Wikipedia is free. Britannica has 100 paid editors; Wikipedia has been built by 30,000 volunteer contributors.
That means anyone can help advance the state of public knowledge by creating an entry on Wikipedia, but you have to be a ‘professional editor’ to even get in the door at Britannica.
Britannica is proud to state that over the years more than 100 Nobel laureates have worked for the publication. Let’s look at that. A Nobel laureate, after a life of study in a specialized field, writes the ‘definitive’ article for Britannica and it takes only two hours for someone with reasonable editing skills to re-write and paraphrase it, and post it to Wikipedia.
Wikipedia has 400,000 more entries than Britannica, on topics like science, pop culture and current events, easily beating Britannica, which likely doesn’t even cover them. Where there are common entries to both, Wikipedia in the majority of cases is in the same realm of quality as Britannica.
Wikipedia’s entries are usually more current, on a wider range of topics and longer.
On subjects such as history and natural science Britannica tends to be better.
Professional librarians raise concerns about Wikipedia’s reliability and accuracy, as content can be changed by anyone and information is not verified by a professional editor. Pages are never ‘finished’ as they can be edited by anyone at any time, so incorrect information can be introduced.
This leaves Wikipedia open to ‘edit wars’ as people with a particular view dispute or remove the contributions of others.
Indeed, during the 2004 U.S. presidential election Wikipedia had to freeze the pages on George Bush and John Kerry because of continuous partisan posting.
Similarly, topics like abortion are frequently vandalized. But Wikipedia can block the IP addresses of malicious posters, and with 30,000 editors Wikipedia has reached a critical mass in which vandalism is corrected quite quickly.
Which means that, as a system, Wikipedia can learn, add content and correct itself faster than its competition.
The English-language edition has 25,000 edits daily.
An open system, Wikipedia initially began slowly, and had questionable quality, but now it has achieved critical mass and the growth in quality, volume of material, robustness and reliability will continue to increase exponentially.
Wikipedia flows out of the opensource philosophy and its success has spawned numerous sister projects, such as http://www.wiktionary.org, a free dictionary; free text books at http://www.wikibooks.org; and http://www.wikinews.org for free daily news.
So how do I use Wikipedia? As my starting point in a search, but then I verify any information with other sources.
Wikipedia is easy, addictive and very useful. Try it.