The Category of Traditional Encyclopedias Has Changed. Forever.

Microsoft is killing off Encarta later this year:

While looking around Encarta’s homepage today, I stumbled on a message that Microsoft was getting rid of MSN Encarta completely: “On October 31, 2009, MSN Encarta Web sites worldwide will be discontinued, with the exception of Encarta Japan, which will be discontinued on December 31, 2009. Additionally, Microsoft will cease to sell Microsoft Student and Encarta Premium software products worldwide by June 2009.” Looks like employees at Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica will be throwing parties tonight.

This is all on the FAQ page because Microsoft wants to clarify why it is doing this. The software giant says that the “category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed” and that “people today seek and consume information in considerably different ways.”

Speaking of that different way, Wikipedia was likened to a city by Noam Cohen in the NYTimes on Sunday:wikipedialogo.gif

With its millions of visitors and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, its ever-expanding total of articles and languages spoken, Wikipedia may be the closest thing to a metropolis yet seen online … The search for information resembles a walk through an overbuilt quarter of an ancient capital. You circle around topics on a path that appears to be shifting … Wikipedia encourages contributors to mimic the basic civility, trust, cultural acceptance and self-organizing qualities familiar to any city dweller. Why don’t people attack each other on the way home? Why do they stay in line at the bank? … The police may be an obvious answer. But this misses the compact among city dwellers. Since their creation, cities have had to be accepting of strangers — no judgments — and residents learn to be subtly accommodating, outward looking. [...]

It is [the site's] sidewalk-like transparency and collective responsibility that makes Wikipedia as accurate as it is. The greater the foot traffic, the safer the neighborhood. Thus, oddly enough, the more popular, even controversial, an article is, the more likely it is to be accurate and free of vandalism.

My choice of quotes was lifted from Nicholas Carr, who calls the metaphor “a nice conceit, and not unilluminatin.” But a Potemkinpedia:

Except, well, that’s not entirely true. One of the main reasons that the most popular and most controversial Wikipedia articles have come to be more “accurate and free of vandalism” than they used to be has nothing to do with “sidewalk-like transparency and collective responsibility.” It’s the fact that Wikipedia has imposed editorial controls on those articles, restricting who can edit them. Wikipedia has, to play with Cohen’s metaphor, erected a lot of police barricades, cordoning off large areas of the site and requiring would-be editors to show their government-issued ID cards before passing through.

He’s right, of course. But then cities have police and governments and community activists and so the metaphor works just fine for me. Carr doesn’t disagree:

The shame of it is that Cohen’s metaphor, and article, would have become even richer had he given us the full story of how order is maintained on the crowded streets of Wiki City.