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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Battle of the Encyclopedias

2:39:00 PM Posted by Oscar Berg No comments

We live in historic times; Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia are heading straight into a potentially spectacular battle. They are now both changing their routes, heading for a collision course as they both obviously aim to become THE encyclopedia in the world - meaning the most comprehensive, accurate and readily available encyclopedia for anyone everywhere anytime. 

In short, Britannica is slightly opening up to the world to be able to compete with Wikipedia on breadth instead of accuracy alone, and Wikipedia is taking measures to repair some of its flaws so that it can compete with Britannica on accuracy: 

"Britannica Takes Aim at Wikipedia" by Mathew Ingram at Internet Evolution:

After years of more or less ignoring its open-source competitor, the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) will soon be taking a page from Wikipedia's playbook and allowing members of the public to contribute to articles and other content at Britannica.com.  

"Wikipedia May Restrict Public’s Ability to Change Entries" by Noam Cohen:

Stung by criticism after vandals changed Wikipedia entries to erroneously report that Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd had died, Wikipedia appears ready to introduce a system that prevents new and anonymous users from instantly publishing changes to the online encyclopedia.

The new system, called Flagged Revisions, would mark a significant change in the anything-goes, anyone-can-edit-at-any-time ethos of Wikipedia, which in eight years of existence has become one of the top 10 sites on the Web and the de facto information source for the Internet-using public.

 The idea in a nutshell is that only registered, reliable users would have the right to have their material immediately appear to the general public visiting Wikipedia. Other contributors would be able to edit articles, but their changes will be held back until one of these reliable users has signed off, or “flagged” the revisions. (Registered, reliable users would see the latest edit to an article, whether flagged or not.)

So how will this battle end?  

First of all, I do not believe that the new restrictions imposed to the Wikipedia editing process will hurt Wikipedia. In fact, I think it is the other way around. Those who are serious contributors to Wikipedia (pro-ams, as Chris Andersson calls them) will have no problem identifying themselves and seeing their contributions being approved by before the they are published.

The “Flagged Revisions” system will inevitably slow down the speed of making changes to Wikipedia. Some contributors will probably also choose not to contribute anymore. But as the accuracy increases it will be worth it for the majority of the users as well as for the majority of the contributors. As any attempts of vandalism can be more easily stopped, it is likely to assume that changes will need to be done less often. Making changes frequently is not necessarily a good thing. What will continue to be important for Wikipedia’s continued success is that anyone (who is willing to identify himself) can easily contribute with their knowledge to Wikipedia - and get credit. If that can be done while minimizing the risk that some anonymous user destroy their contributions, I think most of the contributors are willing accept that. But the decrease in speed brings opportunity for competitors such as Britannica to catch up with Wikipedia.

So what is the the risk - or chance depending on how you wish to see it - of Britannica catching up with Wikipedia? I believe it is minimal. Britannica has a great distance to travel if they aim to catch up with Wikipedia on breadth. Wikipedia can afford to slow down a little to repair any flaws in its construction before it continues its journey at a steady but somewhat slower pace.

Britannicas sudden change of strategy to allow pro-ams they have neglected for years to contribute to their respected encyclopedia is courageous. Still, it is inevitable if they are to be able to compete with Wikipedia on more than accuracy. But the key question is if the pro-ams will be willing to contribute to Britannica? Will Britannica be able to convince them that they honestly want and appreciate their contributions? I think it is likely that the folks at Britannica have a huge barrier of distrust in-between them and the pro-ams that they first need to break down, brick by brick, to make the pro-ams contribute also to the new and slightly more open Encyclopedia Britannica. 

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