William Beutler on Wikipedia

The Guinness Book of Wikipedia

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on September 22, 2011 at 9:31 am by William Beutler

A few weeks back The Economist published a brief appreciation of Guinness World Records that included a perhaps-not-too-surprising nod to Wikipedia:

Created in Britain in 1955, the first edition, then known as the “Guinness Book of Records”, was a marketing tool: a compilation of interesting facts distributed to pub landlords to promote Guinness, an Irish drink. Now this encyclopedia of extremes draws its statistics from around the world and is the bestselling copyright title of all time (a category that excludes books such as the Bible and the Koran), selling 120m copies in over 100 countries and spawning all sorts of copycat miscellanies.

Before internet search engines or the omnivorous Wikipedia, the “Guinness Book of Records” was already a popular trove of trivia. Its success lay in tapping into man’s innate curiosity about the natural world around him: the first edition included details such as the brightest star in the heavens (the Dog Star) and the biggest spider’s body (9cm long).

I’d never really thought about a connection between Wikipedia and Guinness’ venerable collection of unusual achievements, but as I recall my devotion to the thick paperback editions of my childhood—which was published in the U.S. in the 1980s as the “Guinness Book of World Records” and that is what I still want to call it—this habit of devouring Guinness-curated facts is more like how I came to be so interested in Wikipedia than any other comparable activity. And that includes blogging and the blogosphere, which is what I typically consider a forerunner to my involvement with Wikipedia.

The Economist goes on to note how Guinness’ book has changed over time: where it once included feats of derring-do like sword swallowing, those categories have since been retired in favor of ephemeral team efforts, like building the world’s largest burrito, sundae, pizza, &c. It so happens that my friend Boaz holds a Guinness record related to high-fives.

And where Guinness’ book was once a handy compilation of extreme facts about the world’s oldest, tallest, biggest, smallest, heaviest and tiniest people, places and things, the Internet broadly and Wikipedia specifically have taken its place. A similar fate has befallen Trivial Pursuit, as pointed out in Slate a few years back. Unlike Trivial Pursuit, however, Guinness has a second life: on Wikipedia, as a reliable source.

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