Sunday, October 16, 2005

The End of Doorknocking as we know it?

For many of us it was another group to add to the list of the door knocking brigade, the Encyclopaedia Britannica salesperson eager and ready to earn a healthy commission and sell another set of encyclopaedias, but recently this has been one group of door knockers that is rarely (if ever) heard or seen. This could be because of a change in selling tactics by Britannica, but more likely due to a range of factors that have attacked and taken over Britannica’s traditional market. These originally included CD versions of encyclopaedias such as Microsoft’s Encarta that vastly undercut print version prices. Added to this was the vast wealth of knowledge that the internet and it’s ever increasing reach provided. But it is recently from within the internet, that what could be regarded the biggest threat and the final nail in the coffin for Britannica has arisen, Wikipedia.

To those who are not familiar with it, Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia that is written collaboratively by anyone who has access to the internet and the desire to write an article. It works under the framework of what is known as a GNU free documentation license, which while allowing everyone to write articles also forces them to make these articles freely available under the conditions of the GNU license (of which more can be read about
here). This lends itself to an encyclopedia that goes vastly beyond anything that could ever be imagined in print, with for example there being 774,321 articles available when I wrote this blog (this number has undoubtedly risen by the time you have read this).

An instance of the amazing variety that this provides can be seen by comparing the Britannica article on Auckland to the respective article in Wikipedia . The Britannica article provides the average photo, a moderate sized 386 word article, delving briefly into a few generic aspects of the city and providing links to a few articles on New Zealand, Pacific Island’s etc. Compare this to the Wikipedia 3863 word article providing in-depth descriptions of many elements of the city, 10 photos (including a scrolling panorama of the city), together with an amazing array of links to other articles ranging from one on George Eden, the First Earl of Auckland (wow) to the Big Day Out (there’s even a link to an article on my secondary school- amazed I was).

Obviously with a resource so vast and amazing there has to be a ‘catch’ or downside, the major one of these being quality. This is because of the very nature of the Wikipedia, which in reversing the traditional norms that dictate an elitists view on the writing of articles, allows anyone to write. The result is articles that can occasionally be inaccurate either intentionally or merely because the writers do not have the underlying knowledge to competently cover a subject. This view is emphasized by a former editor of Britannica,
Robert McHenry, who makes an analogy between the quality of Wikipedia and a public toilet.

Proponents of Wikipedia refute this sighting that the Wikipedia is an ongoing collaborative process, and because of the underlying democratic nature of the site, low standard articles will be quickly edited to an acceptable standard of quality by other contributors. Added to this is the fact that there are a range of site volunteers who frequently ‘hunt down’ articles that are of low standard or quality, and do have the power to remove these articles (and the users). While this may be of great help, it has be to be noted that these people are still volunteers with their own biases and lack of knowledge. Further to this is the fact that with over 700,000 articles to maintain, it is a near impossible task for these volunteers to check every single one.

Obviously these are questions that have to be raised when approaching network media such as the collaboratively produced Wikipedia and wider network media in general. What I do know though is that Wikipedia regardless of it’s shortfalls is an amazingly interesting and highly addictive resource, which regardless of it’s accuracy should be maintained for it’s sheer entertainment value and abilty to remove just one group of the many doorknockers that haunt the modern suburbs in which we live.

Alisdair Hungerford-Morgan


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