Exploring the displacement of Encyclopedia Britannica by Wikipedia through Media Convergence
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Once the leading reference material for the general public, publishers of traditional encyclopedias are struggling to compete with Wikipedia (Garfield, 2022; Messner & DiStaso, 2011). Encyclopedia Britannica, the most successful and perceived by the public as the most reliable reference collection (Garfield, 2022; Messner & DiStaso, 2011) dominated the industry for over two centuries, which is why it’s displacement by digitized media and the arrival of Wikipedia make it a valuable case to unpack. Using Jenkins’(2001) concept of media convergence we can track Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia’s performances on each of the five media convergence processes after Wikipedia launched in 2001. Comparing them in this way can help us explore where Wikipedia was able and is able to maintain a greater share of users. A high volume of users highlights Wikipedia’s educational value and improves its reliability by generating more edits and contributions (Greenstein & Zhou, 2018). During this process we will see Wikipedia’s optimization of cultural, technological, social and global convergence led to its ultimate success in terms of both reach and modern relevance over Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Encyclopedia Britannica was the dominant reference material for the average person in the Western world for over two centuries but its model was completely disrupted by the digitization of media (Garfield, 2022). The print edition quickly became obsolete as people turned to their computers with questions. Even Britannica’s digital version did little to salvage its relevance, particularly when Microsoft’s Encarta encroached on market share (Garfield, 2022; Messner & DiStanso, 2011). Wikipedia and other social media, however, disrupted the industry to an even greater degree, ultimately bankrupting Encarta and further threating the survival of Encyclopedia Britannica’s print and offline offerings (Garfield, 2022; Messner & DiStanso, 2011).
Encyclopedia Britannica stopped publishing its print volumes in March 2012, shifting focus to its online version. The following table describes the difference in scale between Encyclopedia Britannica’s website and Wikipedia as of October 2023, according to the traffic tracking website SimilarWeb.com.
Pages per visit
Time spent per visit
Global website rank
$50-$75 million USD
$75-$100 million USD
Wikipedia is the equivalent of 2979.7 print volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica, across all languages (Garfield, 2022).
After just a few years, Wikipedia was achieving a similar accuracy and reliability ratings as Britannica (Messner & DiStaso, 2011), but it has struggled to assert itself as a credible source (Flanagin & Metzger, 2011; Huisman et al., 2021; Messner & DiStaso, 2011). For instance, Flanagin and Metzger (2011) found children ranked Wikipedia articles least reliable when they were shown on a Wikipedia-styled page but as the most reliable when shown on a Britannica-styled page. A more recent study found adults aged 50 to 80 saw Wikipedia as valuable starting point for health and medical information due to its convenience, coverage, topicality, comprehensibility, conciseness, and familiarity; second only to one’s doctor (Huisman et al., 2021). These findings were also supported by a similar study completed in 2011 (Reavley et al.). Wikipedia’s knowledge generation system is more agile, reflecting current knowledge and perspectives (Garfield, 2022; Messner & DiStaso, 2011) and is perceived as such (Garfield, 2022; Huisman et al., 2021). These virtues seem to outweigh any concerns users have about credibility, correctness, and completeness (Huisman et al., 2021) and is likely helped along by the fact that Google ranks Wikipedia articles very high in search results, increasing exposure (Huisman et al., 2021).
Both Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica aspire to a neutral point of view and comprehensive presentation of materials (Garfield, 2022; Greenstein & Zhou, 2018). Content analysis studies have found Wikipedia articles contain more biased language than Encyclopedia Britannica, however this becomes less true when comparing Wikipedia articles against Encyclopedia Britannica’s online edition (Greenstein & Zhou, 2018; Messner & DiStaso, 2011). This bias level also decreases with the number of revisions made to the Wikipedia article to the point where there is no greater bias when compared to articles authored by experts (Greenstein & Zhou, 2018). Wikipedia’s articles tend to be longer, potentially as a result of its lower cost to produce (Greenstein & Zhou, 2018). Overall, Wikipedia’s credibility and reliability rates are increasing as Encyclopedia Britannica’s are decreasing (Garfield, 2022; Messner & DiStaso, 2011).
This trend, as well as Wikipedia’s agility, was particularly clear during the pandemic with the site had a massive influx of editors and contributors, at one point 163 edits per hour (Garfield, 2022). The constant collaboration between editors with differing viewpoints resulted in the steadfast, reliable and largely unbiased coverage (Greenstein & Zhou, 2018) of topics relating to the pandemic, which by April 23, 2020 included 4500 pages across all languages (Garfield, 2022).
“Welcome to convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect.” – Jenkins, 2006
Both Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia connect to the concept of collective knowledge, though Wikipedia to a greater degree. Print encyclopedias aim to improve the knowledge of one person (Garfield, 2022) whereas knowledge communities like Wikipedia aim to improve the knowledge of the entire community (Jenkins, 2006). This sets Wikipedia up for greater success in cultural, social and global convergence processes, all of which are enabled by Wikipedia’s optimization of technological convergence. As a result, if we were to break out each of Jenkins’ (2001) 5 processes of media convergence like a rainbow from a prism, as shown in Figure 1, would see how Wikipedia made the most of a general trend of media convergence since it launched in 2001.
Figure 1 If media convergence could be refracted into the five processes that act simultaneously for it to occur, it could be represented like this. We can then more easily see how Wikipedia was able to capitalize on the processes of media convergence.
This process refers to the digitization of media content and the way it can flow across platforms (Jenkins, 2001). It also includes the technology we use to access this digitized content and how a number of tools have come together into one, particularly smartphones.
This process disadvantages print encyclopedias because of the pressure to be agile. It also enables and prefers an accountability model of knowledge generation, drawing user skepticism of a reliance on gatekeepers and strict hierarchies of authority (Jenkins, 2001; Jenkins, 2006; Messner & DiStanso, 2011). Britannica was slow to innovate on technological advances in the 1990s and early 2000s and almost went bankrupt (Messner & DiStanso, 2011; Garfield, 2022) whereas Wikipedia was specifically developed to take advantage of what the internet could afford users (Garfield, 2022).
This process refers to the way businesses and industries integrate horizontally, branching into new sectors it had not previously had access to or activity in (Jenkins, 2001). This was a key opportunity for Encyclopedia Britannica because it had such a strong reputation for credibility. Wiki-style articles, eLearning, documentary streaming services, a connection with National Geographic all come to mind as possibilities when in reality the company sluggishly developed a website only as a last resort. It as since acquired Miriam-Webster, which has recently developed a strong social media campaign, improving it’s performance in this process to some degree.
Wikipedia also doesn’t necessarily capitalize on this process, though it does benefit from it since it is often used to track information from other converged sources. For example, Marvel fans may use Wikipedia to track canon and consider Wikipedia a centralized repository of information from movies, comics, and television or streaming series.
This process refers to the way users multitask to access and make use of information (Jenkins, 2001). This is where Wikipedia has excelled. Multiple studies found that even if Wikipedia was viewed as potentially less credible and/or its processes for generating and verifying information was unknown, its convenience embedded it seamlessly in the way users wanted to access information (Garfield, 2022; Huisman et al., 2021; Messner & DiStaso, 2011). Print materials are to quickly out of date compared to digital media and can’t be accessed in the moment as easily as on a smart device. Print materials can’t be shared or quickly clicked through to branching concepts. Moreover, Google’s search algorithm preferences Wikipedia over Encyclopedia Britannica’s website, setting up an advantage for Wikipedia in terms of speed. As a result, it’s common for people to search Wikipedia as they complete other actions or are in active conversation. For example, on a popular Dungeons and Dragons podcast, Dungeon11s and Daddies, the hosts often use to Wikipedia to fact check “on-air” and it’s contents have final say in a discrepancy on any topic.
Cultural convergence describes the ability of users to actively contribute to the creation of culture (Jenkins, 2001) and Wikipedia sits at the heart of this process as well. It utilizes the accountability model for its knowledge generation, giving grassroots contributors the chance to write, edit and debate as a community what is “known.” Encyclopedia Britannica does the opposite, however, relying on a gatekeeping model that has experts dictate the validity and value of some knowledge over others. Wikipedia’s decentralized authority allows for greater participation and diversity (Jenkins, 2006), which is key to Wikipedia’s success because it means more editors and users are engaging in the community’s knowledge generation (Greenstien & Zhou, 2018). Jenkins (2006) states the degree to which media produces and consumers are aligned predicts the success of those relationships. What users and Wikipedia want is aligned and we see the success in number of visits and breadth and quality of articles. Encyclopdia Britannica, either print or online, is at odds with a society where users are increasingly expecting a new relationship with the content they consume, and fails at optimizing on this process.
Global convergence refers to the convergence of cultures around the world. Wikipedia’s international reach makes keen use of this trend. According to Similarweb.com, Wikipedia is the 8th most visited website globally, whereas Encyclopedia Britannica is 712th. Both websites are available in a variety of languages, however it is much easier to find languages other than English on Wikipedia. More than that, any person can edit or contribute content from anywhere on Wikipedia; removing previous barriers to participation and increasing cultural hybridity and diversity (Jenkins, 2006).
Wikipedia has not been without its own struggles Misinformation can have compounding effects on knowledge communities (Jenkins, 2006) and Wikipedia is susceptible to this, though regulations brought in during its early years have helped to mitigate this and their success can be seen specifically in the development of pandemic related pages created and edited in 2020 (Garfield, 2022). Wikipedia has balanced these regulations and a contributor hierarchy with grassroots access, maintaining a key diversity in its contributors (Garfield, 2022; Jenkins, 2006). Newcomers offer the most substantive edits, meaning new articles and lasting content, often because they know something the current community does not (Garfield, 2022). Garfield (2022) quotes Katherine Maher, past Wikipedia CEO, in describing Wikipedia as a combination of structured and unstructured knowledge, mimicking Jenkin’s (2006) description of grassroots and collaborative knowledge in media convergence and again predicting its success in this movement.
Wikipedia’s dominance over Encyclopedia Britannica is demonstrative of media convergence and has impacts on education. For one, learners expect to access and interact with information differently. Learners are increasingly used to knowledge communities where they can participate to develop skills, learn, share, and remix content from similarly interested people (Jenkins, 2006) These actions certainly have a place in learning (Gee, 2017). Our relationship with expertise is shifting and gatekeeping knowledge and culture generation is feeling stale to many learners. Keeping learners engaged, interested, and motivated likely means accommodating this shift in pedagogy.
The length of Wikipedia’s articles, as well as the greater social context offered (Greenstien & Zhou, 2018; Messner & DiStanso, 2011) reflect the importance of context for digital information. When comparing content relating to Fortune 500 companies in 2006, 2008, and 2010 Messner and Distanso (2011) found Wikipedia included more information on corporate social responsibilities and ethnical issues than Encyclopedia Britannica did. The study also found Wikipedia used more biased language. This situation exemplifies important questions about bias and the possibility of neutrality that learners need to be asking as they navigate information in the digital world.
Going forward, it is important to consider the ethical implications of Google and Wikipedia’s relationship and the devaluing of expertise. Google highly favours Wikipedia above other reference websites and their specific relationship is unclear. Wikipedia’s content is generated and edited by unpaid individuals and, with enough eyes on an article, it can rival the accuracy and breadth of articles in Encyclopedia Britannica written and edited by recognized experts. As a society, how then do we value expertise? This is also important for educators and learners to think about and discuss as they engage with information and witness the processes of media convergence.
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