Wikipedia vs Britannica. Apples vs Oranges.

by Charles Miller on December 20, 2005

There was another round in the endless PR debate between Wikipedia and the Encyclopædia Britannica this week, with studies finding that in some selection of articles, the two contained about the same number of errors..

Andrew Orlowski from The Register shot back, leading to this weird juxtaposition in Google News:

Headline 1: Wikipedia founder shot, according to Wikipedia. Headline 2: Wikipedia as accurate as Brittanica

Whenever I see arguments like this, I can't help but think the question is wrong. I'm reminded of something out of a Cory Doctorow speech:

New media don't succeed because they're like the old media, only better: they succeed because they're worse than the old media at the stuff the old media is good at, and better at the stuff the old media are bad at. Books are good at being paperwhite, high-resolution, low-infrastructure, cheap and disposable. Ebooks are good at being everywhere in the world at the same time for free in a form that is so malleable that you can just pastebomb it into your IM session or turn it into a page-a-day mailing list.

(As an aside, you can apply this objection equally to the annoying web app vs desktop app debate. They do different things well, and different things badly. Shouldn't we just vive la difference?)

The biggest lesson of the information age is that all media is to be taken with a critical eye, and that no information is valuable until you also understand its source. (One reason for the success of blogs: the information and the source are intimately related, so you always know where you are.)

A simple numerical comparison of error frequency in each source is meaningless unless it's accompanied by some analysis of how they were wrong. What kind of errors were they, and how did they pass through each publication's (formal or informal) safeguards?

Several Nature reviewers agreed with Panelas' point on readability, commenting that the Wikipedia article they reviewed was poorly structured and confusing. This criticism is common among information scientists, who also point to other problems with article quality, such as undue prominence given to controversial scientific theories.

This paragraph of the Nature article, which was reported as little more than a footnote to the numerical smackdown headlines, sums up the problems I have with Wikipedia. Coming across a Wikipedia article that is both well-written and clearly organised is a moment to be cherished, because it happens so rarely. Half the time I visit the site, I end up on the edit page saying "Right, I'm going to clean this bastard up". Then I realise that this would consume forty-five minutes of my time that would be better spent elsewhere, and I wisely walk away.

But really, what have I lost? It was free, it was linked from Google, I got the information I wanted, it just wasn't as cleanly presented, as "paper-white" as I could have got from a dead tree encyclopædia. Different media good for different things.

The other thing I like to watch is the fanboy side of Wikipedia. While scientific and factual subjects may be heavily peer-reviewed and bludgeoned into respectability, the more you drift towards the fringes, especially to the kind of article that wouldn't make it into Brittanica in the first place, the more likely a subject's Wikipedia presence is maintained entirely by its own fans.

Take a walk, for example, through Wikipedia's incredibly detailed coverage of Pokémon, professional wrestling, or fan fiction. No aspect of the miscellany or trivia of their subject-matter is left uncovered. They satisfy Wikipedia's requirement of a "neutral point of view" by including a brief section on criticisms or objections, but are so clearly written from the inside looking out that they demonstrate perfectly how a neutral point of view is not necessarily an objective point of view.

(The Wikipedia article on Killology shows this sort of thing isn't solely restricted to silly forms of entertainment. Looking at the associated discussion page it's clear that editors are aware of the problems with the article -- "Is there any evidence that this word is in wide usage outside that one guy's book?" -- but it's just too much of a fringe subject for anyone to dare tackle it with authority.)

Britannica is good at being respectable, professionally edited, protected from subtle vandalism, and if necessary, useful as a bludgeoning weapon. Wikipedia is good at being free, accessible, up-to-the-minute, and occasionally wacky fun. Both are likely to contain errors, but to different extents, from different sources and for different reasons.

And if we can just get over the "us vs them" obsession for a while, despite the fact that it sells page-views, we might end up making both sources of information better.

Previously: Atlassian Christmas Party

Next: Christmas in Sydney