Is Encyclopedia Brittanica about to lose its shorts for the second time in a decade? A recent article in the Journal Nature suggests that this is certainly in the realm of possibility. The article compared scientific entries in Wikipedia against matching entries in Brittanica and found that Brittanica's advantage was minimal.
In the book, Blown to Bits, authors Philip Evans and Thomas S. Wurster write about how Brittanica mistakenly believed that their status as the gold standard of reference books would make them untouchable for years to come. This assumption would prove costly when the real reason for their sales was disrupted by technology. The average Brittanica customer wasn't buying their volumes because they had a keen understanding of Brittanica's quality standards. They were buying it out of a perceived need to provide an extensive reference source for their children.
Parental guilt about not providing enough for their children was a key part of the purchasing decision of many of Brittanica's customers and Microsoft Encarta negated their most powerful selling point. It wasn't because Encarta was a great product. It didn't even compare against Brittanica. It was actually a digital reprint of the laughable Funk & Wagnall's Encyclopedia on CD-ROM, but it provided enough of a resource to keep the fourth graders of the world pumping out one page history reports so that many parents didn't even get a chance to feel guilty.
Quite suddenly, Brittanica found itself in financial trouble and flat footed even before the greatest disruptive technology of the modern era would come into full bloom. We weren't even in the Internet age when this happened. This was the mid-nineties and it was the CD-ROM format rather than Microsoft or the Encarta product that dethroned Britannica. They learned the valuable lesson that availability can trump quality.
Not long later, Time-Warner would be guilty of the same arrogance and ignorance when America Online played the part of their Encarta by disrupting their power hold on the magazine industry. No respectable magazine or paper wanted to put their content online in those days, so AOL had to settle for second rate publishers who were willing to gamble. The results were similar. Once people had access to information, most don't seem to notice or care that it's not the best information they could have gotten. Most of the time you just need to know the basics and a lengthy volume could even be a hindrance.
I haven't been following the fortunes of Brittanica, but I assume that they figured out a way of maintaining their relevance even if they lost the power position they once held so tightly. These days, I barely hear their name and I only started hearing about them again since Wikipedia has been in the news. Apparently forgetting what their dismissal of Encarta brought them over a decade ago, Brittanica was on the airwaves on NPR a few weeks ago. A representative from the company was berating Wikipedia as a poor alternative of a reference source. Other publishers were also taking shots at Wikipedia.
Some of the criticisms thrown at Wikipedia recently are justified, especially in light of the John Seigenthaler as a phony Kennedy assasin scandal, but critics need to be careful about downplaying the potential of collaborative sources like Wikipedia. Anyone basing their criticisms on Wikipedia's methodology rather than the state of its overall quality needs to take a crash course in recent history. It may be ready to repeat itself even before it had a chance to be written and Brittanica could be one of the key victims again.
I hope I don't sound like I'm getting carried away because the study that compared Brittanica articles to Wikipedia was by no means an exhaustive study and nobody in their right mind will tell you that Wikipedia can even be compared to Brittanica when the entire range of subject matter is considered. The article in the Journal Nature is just one article and the ONLY one that I know of so far, but it certainly suggests that the methodology that produces the articles on Wikipedia may be more relevant than any publishing power wants to admit.
Wikipedia's success is no pop culture fluke. It has a long way to go, but if their methodology works, we may be a technological innovation or two away from unlocking the full potential of Wikipedia and other collaborative information sources.
Before I end this entry, I want to back away from all this praise I'm putting on Wikipedia and say that a lot of forces had to come together for Wikipedia to enjoy it's run of fame and infamy recently. Wikipedia did not invent online collaboration nor did they invent the wiki and five years from now, Wikipedia itself could be just a stepping stone to a more evolved open source encyclopedia.
The next big disruption in media may not be too far around the corner and current untouchables like reference sources and scholarly journals may want to take notice sooner rather than later.