Brianna Laugher, the President of WikiMedia Australia – a not for profit organisation dedicated to promoting access to and participation in free cultural networks, presented on ‘So we ruined the encyclopaedia – now what?’. Her talk first posed the question of whether the encyclopaedia really was dead, and concluded that printed forms of this media are not dead, but are now a niche market rather than a mainstream method of accessing information. The Wikimedia model of user-submitted and user-reviewed content had caused a paradigm shift in the industry – with encyclopadia manufacturers such as Brittanica now moving to a model of reader contributed content. Brianna questioned how long the current business model of enclyclopaedia producers such as Brittanica and Funk & Wagnall would be sustainable given that their product now has only a niche market.
Brianna then explored what had really been ruined with the introduction of Wikipedia and user-contributed content. In short, the quality of content had been diminished – the ‘brilliant prose’ of thick tomes replaced with brief, to the point articles on a much wider range of topics. But, Laugher posed, “is that enough”? Do people still need (or even want) the long-winded entries of Brittanica? In our just-in-time, instant gratification society, a two paragraph overview may be enough to answer somebody’s question.
Brianna went on to outline how the quality control standards at Wikipedia are tightening over time – with the marking of articles as requiring citations, introducing cross-linking so that articles are hyperlinked, and the introduction of ‘featured articles‘ which provide exemplars of the content standard that should be aspired to by budding Wiki-authors.
Challenges with the editing community that supports Wikipedia were also addressed in Brianna’s presentation – such as the high turnover of good editors, and the need to train and attract high calibre volunteers to the project. These are hurdles faced not just in the open source community, but also in the corporate and government sectors.