August 6, 2009

Tombstones and milestones


Britannica, the end of an era and the evolution of authority

Christopher S. RollysonMy family lives on Lake Shore Drive, just east of Lakeview, a Chicago neighborhood that is known for mobility in every dimension. Consequently, one is accustomed to seeing all manner of abandoned flotsam and jetsam along Aldine and Roscoe avenues, even when not really paying attention. Many a stroll presents once-significant objects that don’t make the move, their value deemed less than the cost of moving or even donating them. Returning from the neighborhood grocer recently, I saw this paragon of authority standing tall, perhaps not realizing its new status.


As I approached, I expected the spines of this tower to reveal some Reader’s Digest collector’s edition. However, as I approached, I thought I recognized something else (click to enlarge). In disbelief, the familiar spines came into a focus that didn’t lie: the Encyclopedia Britannica, once the dream of families and a jealously hoarded jewel of libaries’ reference collections, was marooned by the roadside, apparently too worthless to merit space on the bookshelf any longer.

It is one thing to reference, as I often have in good company during Web 1.0, the comparison of Britannica with Encarta and now, in the throes of Web 2.0, with Wikipedia. These are well bantered facts. It is another thing altogether to see a complete set of books for which the former owner likely paid $3,000-$4,000 USD littering the curbside. Arresting for me, as I have used Britannica for many a research project: the articles themselves were uniformly excellent, and the bibliographies yielded more treasures.

I am surprised at how I am still reeling from its stark apparition. Mourning.

Remember, too, that both of Chicago’s once-famous dailies, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, filed for bankruptcy in 2008. They are being joined by newspapers around the country. Truly an epitaph of two publishing models that once stood for authority and country.


The decentralization of computing has morphed into the Internet’s infrastructure, which is increasingly known as “the cloud.” These distributed processing and storage resources form the infrastructure of The Knowledge Economy. Evolution is also distributing authority, which is increasingly established by interacting with “the crowd” rather than having hierarchial powers control information creation and distribution.

As The Long Tail aptly chronicles, the means of production and distribution, which heretofore were capital intensive, are now essentially free and in the hands of ordinary citizens. The dominance of the producer-consumer rhythm is dissolving fast.


Where does this leave publishing and authority? Clearly, most publishing leaders do not know, and the market is a stern taskmaster. As a recognized advisor on Web 2.0 and social networks, I have been party to numerous conversations in which hue and cry ensued: “Bloggers say anything they want and have no code of ethics, and they are destroying our newspapers…” It is natural to regret the appearance of an antithesis to a virtuous thesis like Britannica or the Chicago Tribune, but the antithesis simply challenges and proves the irrelevance of something that has outlived its usefulness. But let’s not mistake the antithesis for a new thesis: bloggers will not “replace” newspapers per se.

The synthesis seems quite clear. Expertise is being reorganized, and organization is increasingly emergent. Collaboration among actors with various roles will become dominant in many situations. Here is a very short list:

  • ProAms — Collaboration among Professionals and Amateurs is producing fantastic results in astronomy
  • OhmyNews, an exceptionally popular newspaper in South Korea, 80 percent of whose content is written by citizens
  • Wikipedia needs no introduction nor hyperlink ,^)

Parting shots

  • For the last several years, I have used Britannica online alongside Wikipedia. Last year, I allowed my Britannica subscription to lapse because it too rarely had articles on subjects I was seeking. Yes, Wikipedia’s articles are of uneven quality, but they are usually relevant, and some are amazing; they often have solid links as well. I can add to them, and I do.
  • You certainly noted the irony above in which I linked to Britannica’s entry in Wikipedia; unfortunately, the other way ’round is less easy.
  • Can I take pictures as well as a polished newspaper photojournalist or write as well as a trained reporter? Certainly not. But I — and we — are everywhere, and we work for free. By combining amateurs and professionals, we can produce high quality at a far lower price. Publishers that recognize this and act on it will thrive, and I wager that quality will even be superior in many cases, once people understand the ProAm concept and its best practices emerge.
  • The Industrial Economy featured a paternalistic system in which the “common man” was a minor actor and a consumer. In the U.S., this has had disastrous results because people also consume media: citizen awareness and capacity for independent thinking has been falling precipitously for decades.
  • Creating content is more active and can motivate people to take more charge of their destiny. Of course, there will also be disasters and mistakes as with all human endeavor, including old-style publishers (recall the Tribune’s headline of Truman’s defeat at the hands of Dewey?)
  • Companies will only thrive by inviting customers and their publics to get actively involved in pervasive innovation.
  • For related thoughts, I highly recommend David Weinberger’s Transparency is the New Objectivity.
  • Tombstones are milestones. What do you think?

Christopher S. Rollyson is a partner in and managing director of CSRA, a management consultancy that advises enterprises and startups on social business strategy and execution. Contact Christopher by email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.

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