Saying Bye-Bye To Britannica

Published in Online Spin, March 16th 2012

In 1999, Ken LaVan and I wrote a book called “The Real People’s Guide to the Internet.” In it, we marveled at the Internet’s size and power. “Currently, there are approximately 132 million people who use the Internet,” we wrote, “and, by the year 2000, it is estimated that 400 million people will access the Web.” According to Internet World Stats, that prediction was a bit high -- there were almost 361 million online at the end of 2000. By the end of 2011, however, that number had grown to more than 2.2 billion.

Our book described the many navigational guides available to Net surfers: Goto, Lycos, Infoseek, Altavista. The screen shot demonstrating the Yahoo! search results for “weather” showed 3,854 sites -- and lamented the “overabundance of information.” “Real People,” we said, “do not have time to look through that much information to find what they are looking for.”

Though we didn’t discuss it, at the same time as our book was being published, a whole new genre of website was being born: the online encyclopedia. And they struggled, at first. Nupedia, the peer-reviewed predecessor to Wikipedia, launched in March 2000, but by November that year, it had only published two full-length articles. Everything2, from the creators of Slashdot, gave writers experience points for contributing. Even Douglas Adams (of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame) launched a “Hitchhiker”-based online encyclopedia called h2g2 in 1999; however, his company TDV ran out of money in 2000 and the site got taken over by the BBC.

The future of online encyclopedias was anything but certain. But this week, with the announcement by Encyclopedia Britannica that it is discontinuing its print edition, the Internet has officially won.

We had the Encyclopedia Britannica in my house when I was a kid. I used it for many a homework assignment. It taught me the power of rephrasing, which is what you do when your homework is to write a description of something (a bluejay, a state flag, or some other such random thing that we were made to write mini-reports on), and you only have one reference text. But I loved it. That reference text put the whole world at my fingertips; all I had to do was open a book and I could learn about the Cherokee nation or the year the automobile was invented. The phenomenal tedium of the writing meant that I never actually explored any of these topics beyond what I had to do for school, but the fact that such a resource was at my instant disposal made me feel like a queen.

When I was in college, we used Lexis/Nexis, a service set up to make “legal and journalistic documents” accessible. Its focus on the “journalistic” made it a great providers of footnotes but nearly impossible to navigate.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Encyclopedia Britannica was a work of publishing art, it is right in ceding way to bits and bytes. And now that it’s doubled down on this here newfangled Interweb, how will it fare?

Nearly everyone points to Wikipedia as Goliath to Britannica’s David. Wikipedia is certainly an excellent resource -- and always, I tell students, a good starting place for online research. Britannica’s competition, however, is not just a different online encyclopedia; it is the whole World Wide Web. Increased content has meant that, when faced with my own ignorance, my first port of call is the search bar. If Wikipedia has the answer, I’ll get there through the SERPs; but I can just as easily access a YouTube video or eHow.

Now that Britannica is online only, it’s going to have to respond directly to this phenomenally competitive environment. Its move to digital marks a new era of information curation. I can’t wait to see what it has in store.

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