An icon fades away and a community takes its place

Another icon of the print age has announced it's packing in the paper and ink and moving fully digital.

For 244 years, the Encyclopedea Brittanica has been publishing its heavy tome (32 volumes to be precise in its last printing), beginning with the first edition in Scotland. The company announced that the 2010 edition would be its last in print, although it will continue to publish online and develop content models with educational institutions.

The last few years have been tough for print reference books - all print products really. Only one major reference book continues in print form - the World Book. Everything else has moved digital as people have come to see the internet as one giant reference library.

Wikipedia - the online crowdsourced encyclopedia - has become almost as much a household name as Google. And, even though its articles are created, updated and enhanced by tens of thousands of contributors who need prove no expertise or knowledge of the content area, it is generally a well respected resources.

The New York Times, announcing the Brittanica shift, noted:

Since it was started 11 years ago, Wikipedia has moved a long way toward replacing the authority of experts with the wisdom of the crowds. The site is now written and edited by tens of thousands of contributors around the world, and it has been gradually accepted as a largely accurate and comprehensive source, even by many scholars and academics.

Wikipedia also regularly meets the 21st-century mandate of providing instantly updated material. And it has nearly four million articles in English, including some on pop culture topics that would not be considered worthy of a mention in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

There is no doubt that print publications haven't become obsolete - but they can see it from here. That's not news. But the question is what takes their place? Is all information created equal?

The internet, the growth of search engines, the new specter of the smartphone and tablet increasing the expectation of immediate delivery of information - everywhere all the time -- make finding information awfully easy. My 83-year-old mother informed me the other day that she was doing research on the internet to provide some backup for a letter to the editor of her local newspaper!

But how do we assess the accuracy, credibility or objectivity of the information? Wikipedia maintains a staff of editors who check and source content to make sure it meets the site's guidelines (remember the New Gingrich flap a few months ago). But alongside the Wikipedias out there are millions of sites with nothing more to commend the expertise or accuracy of their information than a really good SEO guy.

Crowdsourcing - the process of having the community provide information for the development of articles or research - is a great tool that our mobile and connected world makes possible. But it has pitfalls, especially when it comes to assessing the accuracy of the information and the expertise of the authors.

A proletarian web-enabled information source also demands a more attentive community. The days when you could pull the top three search results and call it good are - and should be - gone.

The conundrum between open and accessible resources is a discussion that we'll be having more and more of as people turn to internet resources rather than print. The New York Times, in its pretty interesting, but not highly publicized , Room for Debate feature has five collaborators on varying sides of the topic.

Where do you stand? Have you ever responded to a crowdsourcing request from local media? Or updated an online Wiki? Add your comments below and stand out from the crowd!
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