Wikipedia Won The Encyclopedia War

Posted by on March 15, 2012 at 8:48 am

Who would’ve guessed fifteen years ago that tons of credible information about virtually anything would’ve been available on the internet… for free? Unless you’re Jimmy Wales, it probably wasn’t you. When it came time to research anything of value while I was in college (despite IMDB being so awesome!), the best sources of information were still checked out of a library. Well, those times they do change. We knew that print was on the decline, but we weren’t sure how the confluence of web 2.0 and Wikipedia would spell out the doom for print encyclopedias. Well, after 250 years, Encyclopedia Britannica has announced that they’re going online exclusive and that their print volumes, which comprised 1% of their revenue last year, would be going away forever.

My parents were more than happy to make sure I had tons of info growing up, making sure we not only had a stack of Britannica on hand (although I was partial to Compton’s companion books as a kid because of the higher picture-to-text ratio) but Microsoft’s Encarta (which came on DISCS!) as well. I’d usually pick out a volume and just read. Naturally, that worked for a time, but my lack of research papers in elementary school made sure I didn’t grab them for reference too often.

When Wikipedia started to grow in the early aughts, it wasn’t just the raw, still mostly unchecked knowledge that drew me in, it was the linkability. If you’ve used Wikipedia for more than a few minutes, you’ve no doubt been draw into a Wiki-trip, in which one article causes you to open tangentially-related information, which then sends you down the rabbit hole from which there is little return. The web allowed for not only a flexible format to put the world’s content on, but an addictive one as well, something that Britannica’s tomes couldn’t reproduce.

Now that Britannica’s massive print library is being put to rest, it makes you wonder how much relevance its name will have going forward. Sure, they have over a thousand full-time editors bringing tons of curated content to the world, but what kind of future is that when plenty of citable information can be crowd-sourced. The famed encyclopedia maker has already taken flack over the years for how infrequently they update their articles (generally twice a decade) and who could ever use them for fast-moving topics? Reading about video games in a print encyclopedia is disgusting.

Will people ever need to know what a Britannica is when they know what a Wikipedia is?

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