The differences between Wikipedia and traditional encyclopaedias

Before analysing whether Wikipedia fulfils its ‘encyclopaedia’ self-description, it’s first necessary to establish what exactly the term implies. Wikipedia describes encyclopaedias here as “a type of reference work, a compendium holding a summary of information from either all branches of knowledge or a particular branch of knowledge.” Wikipedia adds that encyclopaedias were traditionally published in volumes and editions and were compiled by “well-informed and well-educated” content experts and professionals. Media analyst Axel Bruns (2008) adds that they were products of an industrial production value chain, being that they were hierarchical in their production and distributed as finished products in a “one-to-many” style.

In contrast, Wikipedia embraces the collaborative capabilities of the internet, relying on openly-editable production and distribution modes. Wikipedia channels Tim O’Reilly’s (2005) Web 2.0 ethos for internet use by providing a “platform” to encourage “collaboration” and the “harnessing” of user-generated “collective intelligence”. It allows anybody with an internet connection to edit or contribute content, meaning that’s its users are also creators, or, as Bruns (2008) claims, “produsers”. The website is collaboratively created by thousands of people worldwide, from all walks of life. Law professor Yochai Benkler (2006:32) claims that this ‘produsage’ decentralises the control of information, knowledge, culture and ideas from the customary “industrial information economy” to a more democratic “networked information economy”. Unlike in traditional encyclopaedias, it’s not necessary to hold a pHd on a field to contribute information about it. This, Bruns (2008) adds, reduces the pecking order apparent in old-style encyclopaedias, changing the production and distribution to a more “heterarchichal’ “many-to-many” model. He also claims that differently to old encyclopaedias, the result is no longer a bound or final “product”, but instead a “palimpsest” – an unfinished artefact that is constantly being updated.

On the surface, this collaborative nature has proven effective with Wikipedia boasting here to have  “more than 82,000 active contributors working on more than 19,000,000 articles in more than 270 languages”. Wikipedia’s success has prompted Axel Bruns (2008) to declare it collaborative culture’s “foremost achievement to date”.

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One Response to The differences between Wikipedia and traditional encyclopaedias

  1. Pingback: Encyclopaedias are not popularity contests | Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia?

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