On September 12 The Wall Street Journal ran an article titled “Will Wikipedia Mean the End Of Traditional Encyclopedias?” It featured a back-and-forth conducted via email between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Encyclopedia Britannica editor-in-chief Dale Hoiberg. There are no surprises–Hoiberg and Wales defend their respective platforms, with Wales touting Wikipedia’s openness and breadth of contributing community and Hoiberg citing Britannica’s tradition of scholarship and editorial control. It actually becomes fairly testy by the end. One interchange did cause me to spit out my coffee:
Mr. Wales: Artificially excluding good people from the process is not the best way to gather accurate knowledge. Britannica has acknowledged the value of having multiple contributors, although of course because they are proprietary rather than freely licensed they would have a very hard time attracting the kind of talent that we have.
Mr. Hoiberg: I can only assume Mr. Wales is being ironic when he says Britannica would have a hard time attracting the kind of talent that Wikipedia has.
(Emphasis supplied) I’ve yet to be convinced by the Internet-utopian argument that more cooks make for a better meal. I’m not talking about open-source software. Conveying authoritative information is not the same as writing functional code. Wales’ article of faith is that more contributors = more qualified contributors = better quality content. The irony is that Wikipedia is moving towards less openness and more control. The days of “hey, gang, let’s write an encyclopedia” are over. Britannica, on the other hand, is no longer defined by its multi-volume bound encyclodpedia (Hoiberg notes that “we publish principally on the Internet”) and has moved towards greater responsiveness and timeliness.
This is one of those Internet litmus-test issues that determines whether you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid: Wikipedia or Britannica? Open-source all the time or editorial control? A “transparent” or proprietary model? “Transparency” is not always a virtue. Just ask the Emperor in the new clothes.