William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for March 2012

Death of a Wikipedian

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on March 23, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Public memorials are a phenomenon found in every society and subset: from war memorials to police memorials and semi-permanent ghost bikes to impromptu, impermanent flower displays, mourning and remembrance are universal. Wikipedia is no exception.

Since early 2006, Wikipedia has maintained a public memorial page called Deceased Wikipedians. While public in the sense that it is accessible by anyone, it is perhaps useful to think of it as semi-public in that it’s not part of the actual encyclopedia. You won’t pass by it on your way to work, or to reading about (let’s say) the Syrian uprising. To date, 39 late Wikipedians have been added to the English version of this page. 14 other language editions have their own versions, including the German, French and even Esperanto editions.

The first added to the English-language Wikipedian memorial was Caroline Thompson, an Australian physics enthusiast who worked on articles about quantum mechanics. Afterward, other names were filled in. The earliest current listed was a French editor using the handle Treanna, who died in late summer 2005. Considering Wikipedia began in early 2001, surely some others passed before him, but we may never know who they were.

On a website where anonymity is granted to anyone who desires it, determining that an absent editor is deceased and not just one who has drifted away is a matter of luck, and sometimes detective work. The inclusion of an editor named Xulin depended on the synthesis of available information on external websites. As a contributor primarily to the French-language Wikipedia, a candlelight vigil of sorts remains in his userspace there.

Criteria for inclusion isn’t crystal clear, but the top of the page does give this advice:

People in this list are remembered as part of the Wikipedia community: they have made at least several hundred edits or are otherwise known for substantial contributions to Wikipedia.

The names included do not not appear to have been controversial to this point, although one stands out as different from the others: John Patrick Bedell, known less for his contributions as JPatrickBedell and more for his disturbing role in the 2010 Pentagon shooting (which I wrote about at the time: “John Patrick Bedell: Pentagon Shooter, Wikipedian”).

Two other deceased editors are the subjects of Wikipedia articles based on contributions to their fields outside of Wikipedia: Tron Øgrim, a Norwegian journalist and activist, and Steven Rubenstein, an American anthropologist.

The most recent addition is a young man named Ben Yates, better known around the site as Tlogmer, who passed away earlier this month. An active contributor from October 2003 to October 2008, he was known for several remarkable contributions to the community. This included the original design for the logo of Wikipedia’s annual gathering, Wikimania, still in use to this day. He was also a co-author on the book, How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It, published in 2008 (free web version here). On a humorous note, he was the originator of the Wikipedia article “Metrosexual”. He also created some hilarious (to a Wikipedian) bumper stickers, which seem to be still available.

Of particular interest to me, he was also at one point the author of a blog about Wikipedia, simply called Wikipedia Blog. Yates’ self-selected favorite posts were three: “The Future of Open Source”, about Wikipedia and Linux; “Wikipedia helps show the economic value of social interaction”, about just what it sounds like; and “Wikipedia and COMMUNISM!”, ruminating on Wikipedia’s comparison to various “isms”. In the last one, he wrote:

Wikipedia will never fade away … its memories will not die with its members. As an open source project, it can always be forked, tweaked, sifted through various filters, read and written anew.

Very well said, and correct he was. So it goes.

Regarding the Uncertain Future of Encyclopædia Britannica

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on March 14, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Yesterday, Encyclopædia Britannica made the startling announcement that they would discontinue their print edition after 244 years. Once the current edition has sold out, they’ll become a collector’s item. Which is essentially what they are now, if it’s not too uncharitable to point out. Britannica is not finished as an operation, however: it will continue to publish on the web. It’s a startling announcement, sure, but it makes more sense than if it went on as if nothing had changed. Britannica’s editors acknowledged as much in a post on their blog:

A momentous event? In some ways, yes; the set is, after all, nearly a quarter of a millennium old. But in a larger sense this is just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge.

But Britannica’s grip on the evolution of human knowledge isn’t what it used to be—you can see where I’m going, right? As a well-known quote from Jimbo Wales goes:

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.

Since its launch in 2001, and especially since a (much-debated) 2005 Nature article comparing the two, Wikipedia has been a thorn in Britannica’s side. And its influence has long since surpassed its much older rival. A Quantcast comparison suggests that Wikipedia’s traffic is 30x that of Britannica’s. And as I tweeted last night, news organizations have been quick to note the competition.

Under the title “Death By Wikipedia: Encyclopedia Britannica Stops Printing”, ReadWriteWeb observes:

The usefulness of such reference materials has been on the decline for years, especially since the advent of Wikipedia. Whatever flaws its open, crowd-sourced editorial model may invite, Wikipedia is generally regarded as a comprehensive and mostly-accurate source of information, which can be accessed for free.

And in a Venture Beat article titled “Encyclopaedia Britannica wiped out by Wikipedia, selling final print edition” we find:

The extremely thorough Wikipedia article on Encyclopaedia Britannica … serves as the perfect example of why Wikipedia is coming out on top.

It’s true—Wikipedia’s article about Encyclopædia Britannica is very thorough. Britannica’s article about Wikipedia is not bad, but it is far more limited than Wikipedia’s article about itself, and Britannica has those annoying pop-up advertisements that do nothing for readers.

Yet Britannica president Jorge Cauz tells the The Washington Post:

This has nothing to do with Wikipedia or Google. … This has to do with the fact that now Britannica sells its digital products to a large number of people.

This is a little bit like Microsoft saying Windows 8 has nothing to do with the the iPad, merely the shift in consumer purchasing habits toward the tablet and mobile markets. That’s not to say the statement isn’t necessarily untrue, just that it’s complete. I don’t know a great deal about Britannica’s current business model, but it’s safe to say that non-print revenues have become far more important, as Britannica’s print sales have fallen. Whether they will succeed is another question; PC World and doesn’t think so, pointing out the closure of—speak of the devil—Microsoft’s online encyclopedia Encarta in 2009 (which I wrote about at the time):

Microsoft shuttered its digital multimedia encyclopedia, Encarta, in 2009, and the last trace of it, the online dictionary, closed last year. Encarta, though a digital product, was also made obsolete by Wikipedia’s free availability, constantly updated content and thousands of editors, contributors and volunteers from around the world.

At The Atlantic, expert on evolution and Bloggingheads impresario Robert Wright offers this (small) consolation:

Maybe, long after even the electronic edition of Britannica is gone, the idea of Britannica can remain for us what it once was for me–a kind of Platonic ideal that we aspire to evolve toward even if we can never reach it, something that has a kind of reality even if we can never touch it.

As someone who devoured Britannica in my school library when growing up, not to mention someone who relied on Britannica as a college student in the late 1990s (before Britannica added a pay wall)—much the same way as students today (notoriously) rely on Wikipedia —I’m sorry to see it go. But we no longer live in a world where a 30,000 page, 15-volume encyclopedia can be printed on an annual basis for profit. In fact, even Britannica sees itself as a collector’s item now; as Cauz tells the News Observer:

This is going to be as rare as the first edition, because the last print run of our last copyright was one of the smallest print runs.”

I’d love to own one myself, but at $1,395.00 for the “Final Print Edition”, I’m afraid I’ll have to pass. And perhaps Cauz is wrong; maybe the death of Britannica will be more like the Death of Superman.