Why the Britannica Online Encyclopedia Will Fail

An analysis based on personal experience

The Encyclopedia Britannica for about a century has been the standard of a comprehensive, reasonable and balanced encyclopedia. However egalitarian projects like Wikipedia have rapidly overshot the Britannica. Recent moves to bring the Britannica into this modern age of egalitarian projects, have failed to override the oligarchic and arbitrary control which suppresses that knowledge which the public now demands.


This article should be cited as: "Why the Britannica Online Encyclopedia Will Fail", by Will Johnson, wjhonson@aol.com. Copyright 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Every English-speaking student in Western civilization is aware of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Almost since it's first issue, it has been regarded as an authoritative voice summarizing almost any subject known to man.  Print issues can be found in practically every library with the resources to spend a thousand dollars on any encyclopedia.  It has been the premier work to consult.  The world however has moved on.

Or at least the online world.  Ever since the advent of the Internet, knowledge posted online has increased exponentially.  Media outlets have tried various ways to utilize this to either increase their general presence, or to at least stay current with their competitors.  Britannica has not lagged behind in this approach.  Their initial issue on CD in the 1990s which had limited success, has given way to an internet presence here.  The first stab at providing the EB content online was as a subscription service.  It's not clear to me whether that had initial success until challenged by a competitive approach, or whether it never had much success.  Regardless, they created a new approach, to provide content free-of-charge for content-creators linking to it, allowing reader's clicks to carry through to the viewable EB content as well, without restriction.

What this means is that as a content creator, if approved, your links deep into EB content, can be viewed by your own readership, without you or them, needing to pay for anything.   You simply add deep links to your own content, and if any reader clicks on them, they zoom over to the EB content, read that, and hopefully return to your page, or perhaps the EB editors hope they will stay there and buy something.  This marketing move seems to speak to EB wanting to draw readers in, in new ways, because they are not getting enough hits, at least not the way they had originally expected.  Clearly Wikipedia is to blame for that.

The brainchild of Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia launched in 2001.  Growth was exponential.  Here, for the first time, was an encyclopedia which anyone could edit... and did.  What if you came across an article on your home town and found a spelling error?  Zap, fix it and move on.  The concept was brilliant and rapidly grabbed the imagination and sweat of hundreds then thousands of "editors", who have so-far created over two million English-language articles.  Not without problems, created by this ability for anyone to edit any article, Wikipedia nevertheless soon shot to the top of Google searches on encyclopedic topics, especially the more obscure ones, which had less competition.  This was ignored at Britannica, to their detriment, until it was too late.

Someone over at Britannica woke up one day and said, "Hmmm if we don't change, we're history".  After all, if a reader gets everything they want from Wikipedia, and Wikipedia generates a higher search position, then it doesn't matter if Britannica comes up lower in the search, because no one will ever get far enough along to click on that link and read it.  So over at Britannica, "Suggest Edit" was born.  "Suggest Edit" is Britannica's attempt to grab some of the Wikipedia steam-engine.

When you are reading an article at Britannica, you will notice an icon that looks like a pencil and says "Suggest Edit".  Clicking on that icon leads you to a screen, where you can enter your suggested edit, "Save", and then "Submit Changes".  These changes are filtered through a research desk and either added or rejected.  Unlike Wikipedia however, if your changes are rejected, there is no discussion, no method of complaint, and no reason provided.  You simply get an email, stating that your changes were rejected, and that's it! Go away and let us experts work! (I added that last bit.)

Wikipedia however, has provided encyclopedists with an entirely new paradigm, which Britannica has apparently not yet fully appreciated.  Amateur encyclopedists, similarly to amateur news reporters, amateur opinion writers and amateur biographers, want their voices to be heard and recognized.  Wikipedia has shown that it is possible for opposing voices to reach compromise language, to agree on citation value, presenting articles that are comprehensive, balanced and yet readable, using both inline and footnote citations.  Britannica on the other hand very rarely cites its own sources and when it does, it does so, in a manner guaranteed to be practically useless. That is, it does not cite to specific statements, but to entire works, ensuring that only topic experts will ever double-check Britannica articles.  Britannica does not seem to understand that we are not going back.  If it doesn't follow, then we will leave it behind.  The Britannica approach stills smells like an oligarchy whose self-appointed intellectuals feel that it is beneath them to argue their own positions.  Or to even present the evidence upon which their positions are based.

The day when a tiny intellectual elite can dictate encyclopedias for the rest of civilization is past.  If Britannica refuses to recognize and address that in a more affirming and inclusive manner, than the likelihood that they will last as a significant Internet presence is slim.



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