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Cautious Optimism for Britannica's Hybrid Web Community

Encyclopaedia Britannica continues to take baby steps into Web-based collaboration. In April, the Britannica Web site began offering free subscriptions to bloggers, journalists and other link-friendly folks, and now the company is cautiously embracing community collaboration. From Wired:

Britannica is going halfway to where it’s never gone before: it is opening up its site to the crowd, but keeping the gates up against the barbarians as far as the official version of the publication [is] concerned …

Members of the company’s community of scholars and registered users will be able to post about new topics without intervention, but the company says all articles on new topics will be fact-checked and vetted before appearing in the main edition.

It’s easy to toss off Britannica’s conservative Web initiatives, but in this case they deserve credit for bridging the gap between top-down “expert” articles and user-generated content (UGC). In fact, Britannica’s efforts might finally reveal viability in the commingling of crowdsourcing and editorial content. If the company can successfully attract useful UGC and then bubble the best of this content up into its core editorial products, we might finally see the beginnings of an actual UGC business model (other than OhmyNews).

That’s an optimistic attitude, especially in light of failed citizen journalism efforts. But the Britannica model appears to acknowledge — in a general way — two common UGC pitfalls: lack of editorial guidance and little/no incentive to participate. Learning from past mistakes is certainly a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, Britannica’s official announcement has a number of red flags that could undermine this initiative. Vague talk of incentives only seems to apply to Britannica experts, not the regular folks who make successful Web communities vibrant. In the same vein, the company’s messaging continues to push non-experts to the sidelines. Here are two recent examples:

Example 1: The level of quality and professionalism among Web publishers has really improved, and we want to recognize that by giving access to the people who are shaping the conversations about the issues of the day. Britannica belongs in the middle of those conversations. [Emphasis added.] — From Britannica’s free subscription announcement in April

Example 2: These efforts not only will improve the scope and quality of Encyclopaedia Britannica, but they’ll also allow expert contributors and readers to supplement this content with their own. The result will be a place with broader and more relevant coverage for information seekers and a welcoming community for scholars, experts, and lay contributors. [Emphasis added.] — From the recent community project announcement

Neither statement is egregious, but both show a misunderstanding of community. The goal with any Web community is to create an inclusive, interactive platform for discussion and collaboration (Wikipedia knows this). Marginalizing a community with pats on the head and “lay contributor” branding will stifle Britannica’s project.

My criticisms are certainly nitpicky, but I’d hate to see this promising UGC effort fail to gain traction because of easily rectified communication issues. Even if Britannica only sees a modest success, we’re bound to learn techniques that can benefit a variety of Web community initiatives.

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