Who ‘Killed’ The Last Of The Encyclopedia Salesman?


 Death Of A Salesman

I’m hazarding a guess.

There must have been at least one point in your life, where every time you heard the doorbell ring, you’d cringe. You knew it had to be another smooth talking, door-to-door salesman – about to wax lyrical about your house, your good looks and before realizing it; leaves you standing with the ‘Super Broom DMX 5000’ and $69.99 poorer.

Hey…it happens to the most discerning of us. No biggie. Do what I do – just pretend you ain’t home, even though your TV could be blaring loudly in the background. It’s not a very nice thing to do, but it works. This just got me wondering though…whatever happened to that bow-tied encyclopedia salesman? When was the last time you’ve seen one of those? They’re as elusive as the yeti, yet nobody seems to know why.

I have a few theories. It might have been Microsoft’s release of the less bulky, Encarta CD-ROM, in 1993. Or Encyclopædia Britannica’s electronic venture. Or quite simply, the Internet. But my most plausible theory for the disappearance of the encyclopedia salesman is due to one man – Jimmy Wales.

The founder of Wikipedia, who turned a radical concept into a global source for authoritative referencing (this is open to debate) in less than five years, Jimmy Wales has intentionally applied the chaos theory to the encyclopedic world. He, I believe, ‘killed’ the last of the encyclopedia salesman.

With more than two million Wikipedia articles (The Encyclopædia Britannica can boast only about a 120,000) in several different languages, there’s information about practically anything you could possibly think of. Try it out for yourself.

Do a search on Wikipedia for a topic of your choice, and see if it pops up. 

Search Wikipedia

You might want to try either of these independent search engines that specifically searches in Wikipedia as well:

  • FUTEF: search engine that currently searches Wikipedia only
  • Qwika: search engine that is specific to searching wikis in all sizeable languages

Wikipedia is the world’s largest encyclopedia. And you own it. As an owner, you are also given the license to write and edit any article that you think needs correcting or updating.

What if you may need to use the information for a project, but you’re afraid of infringing on any copyright law? No worries. Wikipedia’s free licensing mode gives you absolute freedom to do as you please with the information you see. You can copy it, redistribute it, repackage the information and sell it with no fear of receiving a cease-and-desist order.

Jimmy Wales describes Wikipedia as having free access to “the sum of all human knowledge” and it’s quite easy to see why. It’s probably the most referenced site on the Internet. It’s a blogger’s Holy book; turning to it for answers when they need it. Mainstream journalists are joining in the fray too. It’s hard not to turn your back on it when it’s perfectly built to be current and all-inclusive.

But of course, like most good plots, there must be a twist thrown in there somewhere. That comes in the form of what Wikipedia’s detractors would like to call, ‘credibility’, or the lack of it. What credibility can Wikipedia possibly have when any Harry, Dick, Jane and Sally (did I miss Tom?) is allowed to poke around and modify articles? A valid question. One that had me bothered too, until I heard Jimmy Wale’s reply.

He said, Wikipedia’s credibility is based on the social concept of cooperation. A policy of neutrality.  A close circle of volunteers (can’t remember the exact number) – are constantly monitoring the changes that any one of us makes. Once a change is made, it enters a page called, ‘Recent Changes’. If the changes are suspect, leaning towards vandalism, then this group of volunteers spring into action and revert it back to the original article. Communication among volunteers is conducted via technologies such as RSS and IRC.  

A very workable system I admit, but its still without its flaws. Apart from the occasional vandalism that slips through the cracks, the problem of unjust biasness towards a more familiar Wikipedian with higher standing is conceivable. Therefore, is there really equality when determining what materials gets published and what is dumped into the digital incinerator? How does one really determine that the article published has escaped any kind of slanted prejudice merely because of greater ranking within the Wikipedian ‘in-crowd’?

The nit-picking is elevated to a higher degree when questions about quality and accuracy of articles are posed. How do you know which entry to trust?

Another potential issue with Wikipedia is striking the balance between the past and present. Because Wikipedia is web-based, celebrity gossip and breaking news are fairly common entries. The very virtue, which sets Wikipedia apart from traditional print encyclopedias, appears to be a liability. Do entries about current events take precedence over past events? 

Ok, so I have more questions than answers, but I realize that Wikipedia is still at its embryonic stage. It will only get bigger and better. If you’re keen on familiarizing yourself a little better with Wikipedia’s less-than palatable internal operations, feel free to read Aaron Swartz’s, Raw Thought.

On a more optimistic note, it’s exciting times ahead for the educational sector as Wikipedia’s new project, Wikiversity, aims to provide access to freely licensed learning materials for all age groups. It is a community where teachers and learners are strongly encouraged to participate. It’s another fine example of what the wiki model can conjure up.

Now, if you had it up to your neck with all this talk of Wikis and you’re desperately in need of a ‘fixer-upper’, I have the perfect solution for you. I want you to mosey along over to wikiHow (you read that right, another wiki!) and type into its search box, ‘Save Me’. And see what pops up.

This wiki model works exactly like Wikipedia’s. It’s a community-powered how-to manual which aims to be – you guessed it – the world’s largest how-to manual. Never thought it possible to get rid of a hickey? Well…eh…now you can (can’t imagine the number of marriages this how-to might save!).

Hmmm, maybe Jimmy Wales could do something about those pesky bill collectors.

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One Response to “Who ‘Killed’ The Last Of The Encyclopedia Salesman?”

  1. 1 The Office 2.0: Trading Cubicles For Smarter Collaboration « Technopreneur

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