Image via Wikipedia
Forgive me, but I think the recent news that the Encyclopedia Britannica is adopting a modified Wiki approach reveals not a brave embrace of new online realities, but rather a tepid response to the threat they are under. It’s the second example this week of organizations that apparently have lost their bearings with the changes online is foisting upon them.
Now, the proposed solution is quite elegant. In fact, it’s probably too elegant:
- Experts can create profiles on Britannica ala LinkedIn, and these personas will gather together their contributions. So far, so good.
- There will be three tiers to information — contributions from users, contributions from experts, and the final Britannica as approved and vetted by editors. Now we’re seeing the Achilles’ heel.
- Experts will received unnamed “incentives” to contribute. It’s hard to call something an incentive when it cannot be named.
My doubts about this are multiple.
First, Wikipedia is well ahead, and moving along nicely. It’s baked into the Web in ways that Britannica is not at all. It has a responsive, responsible user group. Is this just too little, too late?
Second, tiering information implies latency. This is the major weakness of old media, and a major advantage of Wikipedia, blogs, and podcasts. If responsiveness is compromised, there’s a long-term competitive disadvantage. Wikipedia’s entries will be absorbed by search engines, vetted by a knowledgeable audience, and quite correct by the time Britannica’s latency has pushed an entry through.
Third, unless experts are paid in cash or academic barter, what kind of incentive will work that Wikipedia can’t provide as well? Free copies of the 1980’s edition in print?
Finally, this whole “expert” thing makes me tired. Experts in military planning, economics, diplomacy, energy, health care, and law have a lot of explaining to do for the past decade we’ve lived through. I’m not buying the notion that we need more authority-driven thinking these days.
We’ll see if Encyclopedia Britannica can make this work. It seems complicated, doctrinaire, condescending, and slow — four things that the majority of online users are unlikely to tolerate.