Maybe Britannica is on to Something

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A few days ago we reported that Encyclopedia Britannica was planning to allow user edits to its online (and eventually print) reference products. The policy change was put in place as part of an effort to compete with Wikipedia, but we wondered if would have any real effect.

“Will user contributed content help Britannica to compete with Wikipedia? The bottom line answer is: probably not,” we concluded. “Wikipedia will continue to be the web’s top general reference destination because its results are accurate enough for most people’s queries. Simply adding user content won’t make Britannica a more attractive reference destination.”

However, we still think Britannica is making a smart move by allowing users more control over the encyclopedia content. Increased engagement with their users can only be a net positive for the brand, and tapping into the collected knowledge of the crowd could help broaden the scope of their reference coverage and make sure errors are caught and corrected.

One of the reasons Wikipedia has become so popular is that the range of topics it covers is so startlingly broad you can find an article on just about any topic. Britannica could never hope to match that depth of coverage using its traditional model of paying individual expert writers to author entries on each topic. By opening up their content to user contributions, they are potentially opening up for expansion. Vetting those user edits for accuracy will ensure that the encyclopedia maintains its high quality standards.

Another reason Wikipedia has come to dominate reference sites is its speed. When new information about a subject arises — such as the death of a famous person, or the sale of a company — it is added to Wikipedia almost instantly. That update speed is something that Britannica’s traditional model could never achieve. Though vetting user contributions will mean they won’t reach the site as fast as Wikipedia, it does likely mean that new content will be able to be added at a faster clip than in the past.

However, the reasons that Wikipedia is so popular, are also the reasons that it is so potentially dangerous. Information spreads fast on Wikipedia, but so to does disinformation. And that can be a real problem given how much power it holds. Hitwise reported last week that of the top 5 encyclopedia sites, Wikipedia gets 97% of the visits. That’s an almost complete monopoly of the space. Further, we noted in September that Wikipedia is one of the most powerful sites on Google. So disinformation on the site can have very damaging consequences.

That’s why, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is proposing flagged revision system that would place some articles under the care of expert reviewers who would fact check any major changes. What prompted Wales to make the suggestion was edits to articles for two US senators that incorrectly reported them dead last week. The false edits were corrected within minutes, but on a site as high traffic as Wikipedia, minutes could potentially be long enough to fan the flames of rumor. And sometimes rumors on the site have stayed unchanged in entries for months.

“This nonsense would have been 100% prevented by Flagged Revisions. It could also have been prevented by protection or semi-protection, but this is a prime example of why we don’t want to protect or semi-protect articles – this was a breaking news story and we want people to be able to participate (so protection is out) and even to participate in good faith for the first time ever (so semi-protection is out),” wrote Wales.

The flagged revision system has been in place on the German Wikipedia for a few months, but the up to 3 week approval time for changes in unacceptable to Wales. The system for the English version that he is proposing would have a much shorter approval time — less than a week — and only be active on a subset of Wikipedia articles. Though he doesn’t say which articles, or how they’d be chosen, presumably articles that have already been flagged as dealing with a contentious issue or are already receiving a greater than average number of edits would be prime candidates.

So while one major encyclopedia is moving toward user edits, another is planning efforts to curtail them. Both, however, are likely moving in a direction that will lead to more accurate and reliable reference content.