Sunday, April 20, 2008

Encyclopedia Britannica Going Partly Free, Wikipedia Impact Cited

Check out this piece from Tech Crunch, "Encyclopedia Britannica Now Free For Bloggers."

It turns out
Encyclopedia Britannica's moving toward an open-access online business model, a shift precipitated by a market challenge from Wikipedia:

According to Comscore, for every page viewed on, 184 pages are viewed on Wikipedia (3.8 billion v. 21 million pave views per month). In short, they are a classic example of the Innovator’s Dilemma (see also the Music Industry).

You can purchase the 32 volume Britannica, which has 65,000 articles and 44 million words, for just $1,400. Or you can access it on the web for $70 per year.

And now, you can get access to the online version for free through a new program called Britannica Webshare - provided that you are a “web publisher.” The definition of a web publisher is rather squishy: “This program is intended for people who publish with some regularity on the Internet, be they bloggers, webmasters, or writers. We reserve the right to deny participation to anyone who in our judgment doesn’t qualify.” Basically, you sign up, tell them about your site URL and a description, and they review it and decide if you’ll get in. I wonder if Facebook, MySpace and Twitter users are eligible? They all certainly “publish with some regularity on the Internet.”
Note this too, from Tech Crunch:

Instead of going free and opening up to all, they’re using the new program to simply price discriminate. Give people who may link to the site free access. Everyone else has to pay. So in effect they’re aiming to be half pregnant - they want the benefits of web linking but don’t want to give up the subscription fees from the fools who continue to pay them.

As an outsider, Britannica’s future is clear. Eventually, and if they don’t go out of business first, they’ll be forced to make all their content freely available on the Internet, and will probably create a wiki-like format that allows user editing. Their differentiating factor from Wikipedia will be that they have experts guiding articles, so they’ll have a claim to be more authoritative. This is, by the way, the business model of
Citizendium, created by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger in 2006.
I haven't used Encyclopedia Britannica since I was a kid.

But I check Wikipedia just about every day. I used to have a complex about it, as it's often criticized as not "scholarly."

Now, though, I don't worry so much about gettting a bad rap from citing Wikipedia.

According to Nicholson Baker, in "
The Charms of Wikipedia," Sanger's online "wiki" encyclopedia's got a well-deserved reputation, and its entries are routinely the most authoritative available:

Wikipedia is just an incredible thing. It's fact-encirclingly huge, and it's idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking, and full of simmering controversies—and it's free, and it's fast. In a few seconds you can look up, for instance, "Diogenes of Sinope," or "turnip," or "Crazy Eddie," or "Bagoas," or "quadratic formula," or "Bristol Beaufighter," or "squeegee," or "Sanford B. Dole," and you'll have knowledge you didn't have before. It's like some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks.

More people use Wikipedia than Amazon or eBay—in fact it's up there in the top-ten Alexa rankings with those moneyed funhouses MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. Why? Because it has 2.2 million articles, and because it's very often the first hit in a Google search, and because it just feels good to find something there—even, or especially, when the article you find is maybe a little clumsily written. Any inelegance, or typo, or relic of vandalism reminds you that this gigantic encyclopedia isn't a commercial product. There are no banners for E*Trade or, no side sprinklings of AdSense.
I meant to post on Baker's article earlier. Wikipedia's story is one of fascination and obssession, and the whole wiki culture of the contributors is apparently near-Stalinist in its gatekeeping authority.

Baker's asides about Wikipedia's addictiveness open up a window to that culture. He got caught up in his obssession with various Wikipedia editorial groups, which apparently work like roving bands of accuracy enforcers, deploying a cult-like propensity of deletion power and control:

But the work that really drew me in was trying to save articles from deletion. This became my chosen mission....

At the same time as I engaged in these tiny, fascinating (to me) "keep" tussles, hundreds of others were going on, all over Wikipedia. I signed up for the Article Rescue Squadron, having seen it mentioned in Broughton's manual: the ARS is a small group that opposes "extremist deletion." And I found out about a project called WPPDP (for "WikiProject Proposed Deletion Patrolling") in which people look over the PROD lists for articles that shouldn't be made to vanish. Since about 1,500 articles are deleted a day, this kind of work can easily become life-consuming, but some editors (for instance a patient librarian whose username is DGG) seem to be able to do it steadily week in and week out and stay sane. I, on the other hand, was swept right out to the Isles of Shoals. I stopped hearing what my family was saying to me—for about two weeks I all but disappeared into my screen, trying to salvage brief, sometimes overly promotional but nevertheless worthy biographies by recasting them in neutral language, and by hastily scouring newspaper databases and Google Books for references that would bulk up their notability quotient. I had become an "inclusionist."
If Encyclopedia Brittanica can generate that same kind of user obssession, perhaps by fully shifting to a "wiki-like format that allows user editing," then perhaps we'll see - through market competition - even better quality in online reference books than is true now.

(Bloggers take note: When you stop hearing what your families are saying to you, it's time to put down the mouse, step away from the monitor, and resume regular non-online-obssessive activities!)