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Friday, April 13, 2007

Note to Britannica: the medium is the message

From the why-didn't-anyone-tell-me dept.: Britannica Blog -- part of Britannica's long-overdue effort to embrace technology.

It's a good read, though the interface is a little overbearing (most of the space on the page is devoted to titles and "read more" links). If they can get Michael Feldman to write about nanotechnology, maybe they can hire Kottke as a blogging consultant.

Wait a minute: what's an English major like Feldman doing writing about nanotech? Even my tech.comm.-major eyes can tell that his well-written post is a gross oversimplification -- the tiny-motors model of nanotechnology is super-controversial (as wikipedia will tell you). Feldman's post is good enough for a newsmagazine, but this is Britannica -- they could have gotten Eric Drexler to write about nanotech for them. (They got Einstein, 60 years ago.) If they want to make everything accessible and bloggy, they could have gotten Rebecca Blood to co-edit every entry.

Britannica's most valuable asset, the very core of their brand (sorry about the business-speak) is expertise -- the ability to draw people at the nobel-prize level, the very top of their fields. So why isn't this reflected in the Britannica blog?

I think it's because people are misunderstanding blogs (and perhaps wikis -- got to get that plug in somewhere) in the same way that they've misunderstood comics (and hip-hop, and jazz, and back and back to the lowermost turtle):

Blogging is not a genre. The defintion of blogging isn't "writing autobiography", or "unearthing political bodies", or "becoming a de facto expert on a topic you don't have de jure credentials in". It's not about running your own site or having a column.

No: Blogging is a medium. Blogging is short-ish chunks of text with links in them, posted frequently to the internet. That's the extent of the definition.

You can do anything you want with the medium of Blog as long as you respect its inherent differences from print. Television and Film are both moving pictures, but they're different media: television is ad-supported, for example, and the screen is smaller, and nobody will yell at you to be quiet. As a result, TV shows are totally different from movies at every stage, from the time they're scripted to the time you watch them: the medium is the message.

* * * *

To put it another way: the Encyclopedia Britannica is a starting point for most people, and it looks like that's the way Britannica Blog is treating it: get a star-studded roster of writers, have them read the encyclopedia, have them talk about whatever comes to mind.

But for the EB company, the Encyclopedia is the ending point of their writing process. The most exciting thing about Britannica is the way it's written: convening (in theory) the greatest minds on the planet. The Britannica Blog is being pointed in the wrong direction. It should be offering a window into the process of writing. I'd love to hear geniuses muse about how to best summarize a field.

(Supplemental: WP on the EB. 85 kilobytes.)

Update: Former britannica editor-in-chief Bob McHenry responded to this post -- I'm pretty sure he misunderstood me, so it makes sense that a lot of other readers might have, too. Here's the exchange, and my clarification. (I've tightened up the post a little, too.)


Bob McHenry said...

"No: Blogging is a medium. Blogging is short-ish chunks of text with links in them, posted frequently to the internet. That's it."

So that's it, eh? That, and only that, is blogging? Well, OK, then. Let the word go forth.

And by the way, you are equally wrong about Britannica, which has never considered itself the end of any search for knowledge. It has always described itself as "a summary statement of the state of knowledge," or words to that effect. But of course, it is the real Britannica of which I speak, not the straw man so popular in certain circles.

Ben Yates said...

You've misunderstood me on both counts!

1. By "that's it" I didn't mean that the Britannica Blog had stepped outside of some definition of blogging that I want to propagate -- the Britannica blog is quite clearly a blog by any standard. I meant that the definition of "blog" is not very detailed, and that it only describes a format, which means blog creators have a lot of freedom.

I was making the opposite point than the one you thought I was making: I'm saying that Britannica Blog is too caught up in conventional notions of what a blog should be, and that in order to be a really great blog, it needs to become more Britannica-like (which is to say, more concerned with the large-scale structure of knowledge).

2. When I said that the EB was the "ending point" for the Britannica staff, I didn't mean that the staff thought Britannica should be a final destination for readers -- of course, they think it should be a starting point. Rather, I was making the sort of banal point that the EB is the end point of the Britannica writing process -- and that that writing process is very interesting, and that the blog should focus on it more.

Bob McHenry said...

Thanks for the clarifications. I did misconstrue your point, but I had a little help.

I still disagree (naturally) about what a "Britannica blog" ought to be. There is already an encyclopedia to be encyclopedic, and serious, and all that. But there are other ways to be smart, informative, even (dare I say it?) entertaining. Or to draw attention to the fact that the encyclopedia itself can sometimes be smart, informative, and still be (dare I say it?) entertaining.

Ben Yates said...

Fair enough.

Sage said...

For what it's worth, Ben, I thought your post was really insightful (and perfectly clear). The Britannica blog you envision is one I would really enjoy reading; I don't see much to get excited about in the real thing (though I'll keep an eye on it looking forward).