Wikipedia v. Britannica: This time it’s personal

September 14, 2006 at 9:27 am 4 comments

Get thee over to the Wall Street Journal and read this gloves-off (you know, in a genteel way) debate between Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Britannica. Here’s a taste:

Mr. Hoiberg: No, we don’t publish rough drafts. We want our articles to be correct before they are published. We stand behind our process, based on trained editors and fact-checkers, more than 4,000 experts, and sound writing. Our model works well. Wikipedia is very different, but nothing in their model suggests we should change what we do.

Mr. Wales: Fitting words for an epitaph… …We are open and transparent and eager to help people find criticisms of us. Disconcerting and unusual, I know. But, well, welcome to the Internet.

Personally, it took me a while to get to the point where I feel a fair level of trust in the quality of Wikipedia. I think Wales has done an excellent job of creating a system that maximizes the benefits of open source collaboration, while minimizing the drawback and dangers of having too much openness. I’m reminded of the brilliant article Clay Shirkey wrote a few years ago, “A Group is it’s own worst enemy“. Shirkey, building off of the concepts expressed by psychologist W.R. Bion in his seminal work,”Experiences in Groups“, wrote,

Group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic [destructive] patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members. (emphasis is mine, pjb)

I remember being struck by Bion’s work when I first read him in a college psych class, but Shirkey really brings it home. Although Shirkey is mostly focusing on social software, the concepts expressed in “Own Worst Enemy” are applicable well beyond that topic, and you might find yourself reflecting on the structure and health of your library (or your Bridge club, or your — um, make that OUR — government). Geek confession: I keep a copy of Shirkey’s article in a “Ponderables” binder on my night table and re-read it regularly.

But I digress. Point is, Wales has done a great job of keeping Wikipedia from being it’s own worst enemy, and I’ve seriously warmed up to Wikipedia as a trusted source.


Entry filed under: Information literacy, Internet, Reference, Research, Search Tools. Tags: , .

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  • 1. Anonymous  |  September 14, 2006 at 2:44 pm

    I don’t have time to verify all the facts on something I read on Wikipedia or any other Internet source. I need a Britannica that I can go to and be assured that they have checked the facts as closely as possible.

  • 2. Hanna in Cleveland  |  September 17, 2006 at 3:32 pm

    The problem with Wikipedia is that it is yet to be seen if it is a sustainable model. Sure it works now (kind of, in theory) but already there are cracks to been seen.

    Not too many years ago, people felt that human edited directories online were the wave of the future. Now Yahoo has abandoned theirs and DMOZ is full of corruption and suffering from a serious lack of motivated volunteers.

    Right now, people are excited about wikipedia and are more than happy to help out for little or no pay.

    Once the honeymoon is over, and the vultures move in to capitalise on the fact that wikipedia ranks on page #1 in all search engines for a great many phrases (and therefore genterates an incredible amout of traffic for anyone blessed enough to get a link on the page), I am not so sure the model will hold up. Actually, I am 100% sure the model will not hold up.

    Trolls and gold diggers will tear it apart once the next latest and greatest thing comes along to distract people.

  • 3. Burkbum  |  September 26, 2006 at 11:25 am

    All one needs to do in order to get a real sense of the reliability and quality of many of the Wikipedia entries is read the discussion page for some of the articles. Especially, pay attention to the articles on which have been placed notes for disputed facts, uncited references or even grammatical shortcomings — the discussion is earnest and well thought out. Not to mention, the discussion often provides the exact sort of information one might be looking for concerning critical commentary on certain topics. (I for one find these pages the true gems if Wikipedia). The wikipedia community is icredibly active and protective of the integrity of the information across the entire site and I only see this intensifying as it grows.

  • 4. Anonymous  |  April 8, 2007 at 4:29 am

    The comparisons between Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia are very interesting.

    Encyclopaedia Britannica never thought that an open source product like Wikipedia would seriously challenge the credibility of its brand. They were wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. Industry analysis shows that the accuracy of both encyclopedic databases is similar.

    It is interesting that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is developing a new search engine. It is the combination of a) improved search engines and b) the success of Wikipedia that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many institutions and individuals are questioning the need to pay to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica when the content is free on the internet. Google even has free direct links to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s main database !!

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