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Will you miss the encyclopedia?

March 14, 2012
by seth godin

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Britannica has announced what we all knew was coming: the print version is no more.

And they continue to proclaim that the digital version is far better than the free alternative.

Consider this entry on Rick Santorum (free this week only), and compare it to this one from Wikipedia.

The first is out of date, sure, but it also seeks to end the quest for information. The Wikipedia entry, on the other hand, starts the quest. There are more than a hundred outbound links on the page, all designed to help the student explore and discover.

Does it hold together? Can you follow one link to another to another and understand a coherent story about the person you’re researching? If not, what’s not right about it?

Are there hacks and mistakes and sock puppet issues in Wikipedia? No doubt about it. If you have a few hours to waste, read some of the Talk pages, like this one on paella. But since Wikipedia has never taken the position that it represents the end of the discussion, that’s not really a failing.

[Also interesting to note that the completeness we expect from Wikipedia is totally lacking in EB, which really grates. Entries like Boingboing and well-known authors are completely absent.]

Should there be truth? I hope so. I hope that we can find facts that are facts, things that aren’t open to he said/she said debate. It’s not clear to me, though, in a fast-moving digital world, that the way to attain this level of certainty is to write it down in a book. What Wikipedia represents is the digital artifact of an activity, not a thing unto itself. This notion of opening doors is at the heart of what I’m arguing for in Stop Stealing Dreams. We’re only going to honor our students when we push them to explore further, not to settle for what anyone (including an editor at an un-updated encyclopedia) tells them is the one and only answer.

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