Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

The Prajna of British Anicca

I went for the Encyclopedia Britannica's offer of free access to their online edition to web publishers (which includes frequent bloggers). As I understand, this is intended to help keep them competitive with Wikipedia. Whether it can succeed or not, I think it's important that they do it. Which of them is a more worthy project, EB or WP?Considering them separately first,

Encyclopedia Britannica is a classic encyclopedia, serving the traditional role of summarising academic knowledge for the general public. They've done this for many years, and are one of the better English-language general-purpose encyclopedia. Paging around on their site, all the articles I see have an appropriate length for the topic with no spurious content. The articles are well-written with consistent grammar, style, and tone. EB moves conservatively - information about current topics is incorporated carefully and slowly. EB feels like a very good realisation of what an encyclopedia is, as evolved over centuries.

Wikipedia is a collaborative tool to share information on various topics, using the efforts of contributors, in a "stone soup" mentality, to build content. Since being founded by Larry Sanger (with the green light from Wales, as Nupedia wasn't working as well as they had hoped), it's built considerable content on every topic imaginable. Articles vary widely in quality, and many articles lie well outside the bounds of encyclopedic interest in topic and content. WP moves very quickly - information about current topics is often inserted rapidly, before mainstream media or academic sources have adequately covered it. Readers who find problems with articles are invited to "fix" it - this can be as simple as making an edit or as complex as starting a six-month debate. Decisions are made through a mix of plebicite, reference to established policies, and executive judgement. Wikipedia demonstrates the power and weakness of collaborative efforts.

If the two were not competing on some level, and either were being offered to a culture that lacked encyclopedia, either would be a fantastic step forward. I think EB is a better encyclopedia, and that WP would be better off not calling itself an encyclopedia, as it in practice emphasises quantity over quality, is incautious, and on any topic of interest to otaku, it more resembles a fansite than an encyclopedia. WP is close to what we would imagine from denizens of Everything2 after a quarter of them read an encyclopedia. Wikipedia still manages to be very useful though, and even were it properly named and did it not attempt to be an encyclopedia, there remains the problem that it would still compete partly in the same "mindspace" as encyclopedia and may kill the market for them. Jimbo's rude claim to lay an epitaph for traditional encyclopedia may have a bit more truth to it than I'd like...

If we had to choose between EB and WP, which would we choose? Personally, I find the choice very difficult - WP is a poor encyclopedia but a great internet resource, and while the culture never was the point of the WP project, it did have the nice side effect of introducing to many people the notions of caring about neutrality, good writing style, and management of information. The fact that in practice they do not as a whole do a particularly good job is not necessarily a complete failure - just as the public education system does not make everyone as well-informed as we would like, it still makes them better informed than if they had not been involved - involvement in Wikipedia betters people, I think. The argument that for me has the strongest thrust is - Can we afford to lose encyclopedias as we know them? For me, the answer is no, and it's a more important factor than all the benefits (although they are very considerable) that WP produces to society - people are better off with the combination of Everything2-style "we allow everything but don't pretend to be an encyclopedia" and a vibrant encyclopedia tradition than with Wikipedia alone (if WP continues, I believe it will eventually be the only man standing).

There remain two questions: are there ways to do better than Wikipedia that address these concerns while retaining many of its benefits? If traditional encyclopedias should be preserved, how can we protect them from Wikipedia and cause it to leave the mindspace? As for the first, I believe the answer is yes - either Wikipedia can be reformed through a chance of practices and policy or one of the alternative projects like Citizendium or Scholarpedia could take off. Wikipedia's policies are too driven by plebicite - while this creates a very dynamic project, decisions that are ill-considered for an encyclopedia are frequent due to dominance of populist means of decisionmaking and a distrust for academic authority. A decisive victory for "deletionist" tendencies, the farming out of nonencyclopedic content to sattelite wikis, a lessened dislike for necessary central authority on style and content, and a requirement to cite everything from academic sources would fix much of what is wrong with WP. Scholarpedia is much closer to what WP should be (although I think it is too tightly controlled - the single-curator model should be changed to a multiple-curator one, and a division between concerns over writing style and accurate content should be made so field experts are not sole authority over the former). Moving on to what we can do if we believe WP is bad for encyclopedia, we can either hope that it is knocked over by accidental means (e.g. lawsuits it cannot afford) or support alternatives. For now when possible I want to support Scholarpedia and EB. I regret turning my back more throughly on a project with as strong a set of positive effects as Wikipedia, but I hold the preservation of academia and its careful approach to knowledge to be more important.

Labour Day's on Thursday.

Tags: wikipedia

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