Last week, the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica gave into the pressure created by Wikipedia when it announced that it is trialling a new service (see the beta site here) that will let the public write and edit articles. The difference, however, is that Britannica’s model won’t be democratic (not all can participate) and its editorial staff will enforce higher standards. Or, as the announcement put it, “we will welcome and facilitate the increased participation of our contributors, scholars, and regular users, but we will continue to accept all responsibility of what we write under our name. We are not abdicating our responsibility as publishers or burying it under the now-fashionable wisdom of the crowds.”
This experiment with collaborative authoring may — or may not — yield a better encyclopedia (although some experts have questioned whether the general Britannica model has any inherent advantages). It’s hard to know how things will turn out. But what’s more readily clear is the speed with which the 240 year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica got outflanked by Wikipedia, born just seven years ago. We have seen this scenario played out over and over again. But it never ceases to amaze. The traditional institutions, just when they seem as permanent as things can get, suddenly get upended. And, they don’t see it coming. Caught flatfooted, they try to adapt, usually by adopting the methods used by their competitor. But it’s mostly too late, and the real game is over.
Britannica may stick around. But will this generation of children — or the next — grow up thinking of Britannica as the default research resource? A question that I’ll leave to you to answer.