In an announcement fittingly made through a blog post on its website, the management of the Encyclopaedia Britannica revealed that the longest-published English language encyclopedia in the history of the world would cease its print edition after 244 years. The encyclopaedia is far from over, with approximately half a million household subscribers to its $70 per annum digital edition, which surpassed print as the company's primary revenue source in 2006 (and will be free to access from Britannica.com for a week-long trial to mark the occasion), but the announcement marks the end of an era in knowledge curation and dissemination.
In The New York Times, Julie Bosman waxed lyrical about the totemic power the books once possessed: "In the 1950s, having the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the bookshelf was akin to a station wagon in the garage or a black-and-white Zenith in the den, a possession coveted for its usefulness and as a goalpost for an aspirational middle class." She highlighted that "only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold", a paltry amount in comparison to the 120,000 sets sold in the United States in one year two decades before. The Daily Telegraphlamented "The sad death of the Encyclopaedia Britannica", the Vancouver Sungave a nostalgic retrospective – as didThe Independent – CNN made the case for "Why Encyclopaedia Britannica mattered" (citing concerns that the Internet could be disabled by Chinese hackers) and Los Angeles Times, NPR, The Guardian and the Wall Street Journal also contributed their post-mortems.
The comprehensiveness, diversity and timeliness of web content, particularly that of Wikipedia, was widely cited as the nail in the coffin. Poynter highlighted the speed and intensity with which Wikipedia editors had responded to the development in the crowdsourced encyclopaedia's own article on the subject, with TIMEasking "is Wikipedia our new lord and master?", a prospect at which the Daily Mailfretted, declaring that Britannica's heir "encourages only the most blinkered voyage of discovery".
Jimmy Wales, who remarked of the reference work in a 2004 interview that "I would view them as a competitor, except that I think they will be crushed out of existence within 5 years", highlighted the dissent of Dan Lewis from the consensus pointing the finger of blame for Britannica's demise at Wikipedia, arguing that it was Microsoft Encarta, a CD-based competitor that rose to prominence in the 1990s, that first heralded its change in fortunes.
Although he had warm words for his erstwhile colleagues, former Britannica.com editor Charlie Madigan blasted the corporate management of the venerable institution for what he saw as their questionable ethics and narrow, profit-driven focus in recent years. Calling the abandonment of its print edition "inevitable", he expressed his disenchantment with the enterprise and his involvement with it: "I had high hopes for the idea of giving away knowledge. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what it was about. It was all about monetizing information and selling the Britannica brand." As part of a roundup at The New York Times – another print institution struggling to come to terms with the digital era – Wikimedia Foundation trustee and Signpost alumna Phoebe Ayers had this to say:
We need encyclopedias. The need has never been greater for accurate, accessible summaries of complex topics. But it makes sense for this essentially innovative format to keep up with available technology. When I read the news about Britannica, I went to the shelf and pulled down a volume: 23, from “Light” to “Metabolism.” It was heavy and awkward and beautiful, a masterpiece. But what matters is the promise of knowledge that it represents.
I asked other Wikipedia editors about Britannica’s ceasing print; were print encyclopedias as meaningful to them as they were to me growing up? Almost everyone replied they too had loved encyclopedias. One wrote: “I got the same feeling from them I now recognize from Wikipedia — the tingly and powerful sense that I could look up almost anything and find out all kinds of cool details, vast amounts of information just waiting to be absorbed.”
Curiosity, and the possibility of intimately knowing a vast world: that is why we read encyclopedias, and why we write them, too.
The announcement came a week after Wales had given the opening presentation at the Financial Times digital media conference in London. His activities at the conference included disavowing that the Wikimedia Foundation would be adopting a more overtly political footing following the SOPA wars (as Betabeat asked "Why Isn’t Wikipedia Blacking Out Over ACTA?"), advising journalists to avoid citing Wikipedia, warning that for the encyclopaedia to collaborate with Facebook would compromise the essentially private nature of its consultation, and cautioning that the secret of socially mediated content dissemination remained elusive.
The remit of Wales' new advisory role includes all government departments, though his audience will be bureaucrats rather than their political masters. Despite this, the International Business Timesinterpreted the move as Wales' grand entrance into politics (perhaps forgivably overlooking the burgeoning Draft Jimmy Wales for Senate movement). Andrew Orlowski of The Registerspeculated that the appointment "may prove to be a political gift" to the opposition Labour Party, describing it as "rather like putting foxes in charge of hen security" in light of the opacity of Wikipedia's internal bureaucracy, which Orlowski characterised as dominated by ideologically motivated pseudonymous apparatchiks. Techeye meanwhile wondered whether Wales would take to doling out "Malcolm Tucker-style grillings" to the civil servants.
WebProNews contributor Shawn Hess, having sifted through Twitter reactions to the announcement, remarked "Sounds to me like Wales is a welcome addition. It definately [sic] helps to have an experienced entreprenuar [sic] of his caliber onboard. I can’t wait to see what change he can bring about. When the public can be heard before legislation is passed, things are bound to change for the better." His colleague Jonathan Fisher couldn't resist the opportunity to snark that Wales was planning to "present all advice in the form of "Personal Appeal" banner ads":
While nothing’s been formally announced, it’s not hard to divine Wales’s first round of suggestions. He’ll probably lead off with the the idea of a legislative “sandbox,” where government officials can try out new policies and have them reviewed by anonymous peers before implementing them in the wider political arena. Then he’ll likely suggest abolishing the entire UK tax code, replacing the outdated funding platform with a series of annoying banner ads featuring financial pleas from Commonwealth subjects, Members of Parliament, and even the Queen herself. If the government is unable to reach its fundraising goal of some £560 billion by next March, the solution will be simple: the UK will just have to start charging for some of its services. Parking violations will also soon read: “[ citation needed ].”
It was a bumper week for Wales, after VentureBeat had reported that his for-profit wiki-empire Wikia had overtaken competitor IGN in the Comscore rankings to become the largest network of gaming sites in the world, accruing 26 million pageviews per month.
Unparliamentary conduct as MPs bios scrubbed
An analysis conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found evidence of thousands of edits to Wikipedia originating from within the British Houses of Parliament. The edits were found through tracking the contributions of two IP addresses, 184.108.40.206(talk·contribs·WHOIS) and 220.127.116.11(talk·contribs·WHOIS), which route the traffic from users of the Parliamentary network. Among the findings were that the articles on almost one out of every six Members of Parliament (MPs) had been edited by users of the network, and that in many cases, these changes were attempts at ameliorating negative biographical content concerning the 2009 United Kingdom parliamentary expenses scandal. The Bureau singled out the entry on Joan Ryan (a parliamentarian who resigned in the wake of the affair) as having been successfully scrubbed of any mention of expenses-related wrongdoing; Wikipedians have since updated it with details of both the scandal and the attempted cover-up. The Bureau also found plenty of innocuous edits, including the listing of a sitting MP as a notable DJ, finessing of a passage discussing the relative merits of characterising Pringles as crisps or cakes, and the correction of a misstatement of the full name of a former Mayor of London as "Kenneth Robert Livingstone Twatface".
The news caught the attention of the mainstream media, with reports in The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, and The Daily Mail. Contacted for comment, chief executive of Wikimedia UK Jon Davies drily remarked that "We would welcome any MPs who want to become editors".
Meanwhile, the BBC recounted new political forecasting techniques developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Peter Gloor using analyses of social media including Wikipedia edits. Gloor and his team followed the activities of the small group of highly active Wikipedians, their levels of respect and areas of focus. The methodology was used to successfully predict the outcome of Republican Party presidential primaries in the United States, and has been incorporated by The Huffington Post's election tracker. British parliamentarians may want to take note.
Brand value: The Brisbane Timesreports that Australian web users prefer Wikipedia over social networking sites for brand information—news that may well encourage opportunists to inundate the encyclopaedia with yet more self-promotion and hagiography.
Revenge by defamation?: Ars Technicareports on a defamation case in which a former employee is sued for making unflattering alterations to a company's Wikipedia article. In the writer's opinion, in determining damages the judge should consider how long the alleged defamatory material remained before it was reverted and how many page views occurred in the meantime.
The sum of all plagiarism: Webpronews staff writer Jonathan Fisher had a note of gallows optimism about the Wikimedia Foundation's Education Program: "Long derided by professors as an inaccurate and unacademic information source, Wikipedia might be able to garner a degree of academic respect (see what I did there?) if the program meets with continued success. At the very least, the students of tomorrow might be plagiarizing better-informed content." For in-depth coverage of the program, see The Signpost's incipient Education report.