• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

An experiment in media

In July 2008 the German publisher Bertelsmann announced what has been called a first in print publishing history: a one-volume encyclopedia with 90,000 authors made up of the 25,000 most popular articles from the German Wikipedia (Wikipedia: Die freie Enzyklopädie). Published in September 2008 and planned as an annual series, it offers the inimitable riches of the online networked resource between the covers of a conventional book. Or does it?

Lost in translation

Conversion from web to book – a case study in the perils of agoraphobia – has crippling implications for Wikipedia as a dynamic entity (that is, as it was meant to be). Translation to the brick-and-mortar medium may seem an attractive option, but substantial sacrifices are necessarily involved. We can identify at least five major discrepancies between the eAgora and tAgora forms of the project, five ways in which the textual artifact falls far short and markedly compromises the value and usability of Wikipedia. Here they are, arranged from most to least obvious:

1. Limited number of entries. The one-volume tAgora artifact reduces the presentation to about 3% of the German Wikipedia’s current contents, already a very modest percentage that will only diminish further as more entries appear in the online resource. Issuing annual Wikipedia-volumes will expand and update coverage somewhat, but the overall contents will still be curtailed severely.

2. Limited number of authors. 90,000 people sounds like a large collective of authors, and it certainly is – for a book. But how many authors involved in creating the other 97% of the entries have been denied publication in that thin slice of an ever-enlarging whole? And how many authors who will revise and augment existing entries as well as contribute future entries have been or will be excluded? In an environment of not only multiple but distributed authorship, the game changes.

3. Fossilized entries. The lifeblood of the international Wikipedia project is an active, participatory community involved in continuous updating and ongoing improvement of online contents. The core advantage of eEntries, in other words, lies precisely in their non-static, non-fossilized character. They respond to change, they counter the foreshortening imposed through print-fixation by keeping the discussion open. They morph along with discovery and maintain currency (as well as the promise of ongoing, future currency), a process that annual “snapshots” of a process always in motion cannot support. To mount once-living entries as exhibits in the tAgora museum is an exercise in taxidermy.

4. No linked network. There is text-reading and there is web-surfing, and they are categorically different. tEntries in the Bertelsmann volume are cross-referenced in conventional tAgora fashion, but the medium prohibits the kind of network one finds in the online Wikipedia. I emphasize two issues here: page-bound cross-referencing can’t ever simulate electronic hyperlinking, and the field of possible references to other entries is shrunk by 97%. Though it goes against the grain of our cherished textual ideology, networks of potentials are far more powerful investigative tools than fixed rows of print, no matter how authoritatively edited (and even that supposed authority must always be an illusion from the perspective of evolving knowledge). tAgora entries are and will remain freestanding islands of data with very short half-lives of usability because they simply can’t morph. They can’t evolve along with the ever-changing world of information and insights, the world where their creators and users actually live and learn.

5. Dramatically diminished and markedly narrower audience. The “other end” of any communication – fully as crucial as the creator/sender – is the user/receiver. No matter how effective the advertising, or how assiduous the acquisitions librarian, the real-world audience for a tAgora, brick-and-mortar Wikipedia will inevitably be restricted to a very small and parochial segment of the eAudience for the online resource. Most basically, the book is strictly a pay-to-play option, whether the financial enabler is an individual or a representative of an organized group. Just as importantly, all book distribution systems do their work by involving one or another highly selective and undemocratic demographic. In contrast to the web arena, where anyone with a browser and an internet connection can readily access free-of-charge resources, commercial and university presses interface with relatively miniscule, and again highly parochial, segments of the human population. By translating an eAgora resource to the tAgora, the potential pool of users shrinks drastically in number and drastically in diversity. Information traffic drops off the table, along with usability and democracy.

“Good enough to sell books”

Notwithstanding these drawbacks, Arne Klempert, the executive director of Wikimedia Germany, waxed enthusiastic about the migration to the tAgora. While extolling the value of the free online encyclopedia, he also observed of the monetized forthcoming publication that “it’s a nice experiment to see if the Wikipedia content is good enough to sell books.”

This comment, from an important and very knowledgeable eAgora administrator, reveals the subtle media bias that is everywhere at work in the information biosphere we currently inhabit. Somehow the core concern gets deflected – from how and to what extent online content can be transferred to a book (I would say only very, very partially) to whether web-reality is of high enough “quality” to merit enshrining on the altar of the page. If it is, Mr. Klempert seems to be saying, then tAgora dynamics will take over: books will sell, money will flow, and Wikipedia will have graduated to print. Not a word about the 3% ceiling on entries, the wholesale loss of connectedness and networked power, or any of the other fatal flaws we’ve identified.

With these thoughts in mind, we might see our way clear to adjust the comparison and rephrase Mr. Klempert’s comment. Recognizing the stark disparities between media-technologies, between the eAgora and tAgora, I suggest that we stop automatically privileging published texts as the holy grail, the one true and inherently superior goal toward which all communication aspires. Turn the logic around and cease defaulting to a manufactured fact. Quality simply is not an absolute [textual] concept across agoras. The reality is that, like it or not, the book will never be a good enough vehicle to house Wikipedia.

From living reality to museum artifact

For the sake of argument, let’s bend over backwards. Let’s give the Bertelsmann project the benefit of the doubt and imagine that the 25,000 entries (culled from more than 750,000) are somehow representative of the whole, and further that the 90,000 authors who composed those entries amount to a creditable caucus of the much larger group. Even then, however, the selected eEntries are irremediably frozen: they can’t evolve, they can’t respond to change. And they remain forever singular and freestanding, spatially segregated: cross-referencing must proceed via page-turning and thumb-inserting, or indirectly via combing indexes—not via clicking on hyperlinks. What’s more, the limited and parochial audience chooses itself by opening their pocketbooks or joining the membership of book-distribution systems. If you can’t afford the book or it’s simply not stocked in your bookstore or library, you’re disenfranchised. You’re not part of the privileged oligarchy that transacts its business in the text-marketplace. You’re out of the loop.

Whatever else may be claimed, the plain fact of the matter is that most of the eAgora value of Wikipedia necessarily perishes with its conversion to a tAgora artifact. No matter how many authors and entries the printed volume boasts, it can never emulate the living, networked, democratically open, and universally available resource.

As a book, it may be an interesting and unprecedented experiment, but as Wikipedia it’s dead on arrival.