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Joakim Ditlev

Trusting Information in the Digital Age: Four Lessons Learned from Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Demise

By on Tuesday, March 20th, 2012 in Trust

Last Tuesday this announcement made the news headlines. After 244 years, the printed edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica will discontinue when the current inventory is gone. This event is symptomatic of a radical change in the way we look at and rate information.  While the presses have stopped for the legendary Encyclopaedia Britannica, we can actually take away four valuable lessons about how we come to trust information in today’s day and age.

Encyclopaedia Britannica foldsTo some people the folding of Encyclopaedia Britannica is similar to seeing a bulldozer running over their childhood home. To others it’s just a natural step in human evolution. Whether you like it or not, the last copy of the 32-volume printed edition has been printed. Outdated articles and a price tag of around € 1,000 could not compete with much cheaper or even free content that’s updated instantly.

But if the Encyclopaedia is a thing of the past, why even bother writing about it on this blog?

Lesson 1: Crowdsourcing beats experts any day and in any business

The world is becoming less authoritative. You don’t take the doctor’s word for granted anymore. If you get sick you may look up the symptoms on a healthcare website and suggest the diagnosis to your doctor – or you might even skip that step and run straight to the pharmacy. That’s just one example where expert knowledge is beaten by instant access to loads of information created by you, me or anybody else. Wikipedia is another one and it’s probably the single most important factor in Encyclopaedia Britannica’s demise.

Lesson 2: Don’t take everything you read for granted

The advent of the Internet has given us loads of new information, and to be able to navigate, we have developed more fine-tuned filters. We use those filters in the real world too, and getting advice from the doctor or looking up facts in an encyclopedia is not the ultimate truth. Checking up facts on Wikipedia – a site that’s built and maintained by a crowd of volunteers – can be just as valid as an encyclopedia written and edited by experts. As long as you don’t forget to use your filters.

Lesson 3: Universal truth does not exist – it’s about trust

Humankind has been looking for the universal truth ever since the ancient Greeks wandered around. We still have not found it and the internet for sure has not made the task easier. Platforms allowing users to create and publish any kind of content – be it videos on YouTube, company reviews on Trustpilot or pure knowledge on Wikipedia – are all part of a new wave in which the consumer has the power.

One question remains in the crowdsourced age that took the breath out of Encyclopaedia Britannica: How can I be sure that the things I learned are actually true? The answer is: “You can’t”. However, it would be more relevant to consider everything you see and hear as biased and ask the question: “Can I trust what I just learned?”

Lesson 4: Trust comes from opening dialogues

It’s true that nowadays the power of many trumps the power of one. The wisdom of the crowds is more potent and more nuanced than a single entry in a printed encyclopedia.

And this is where trust comes in. Trust comes from opening dialogues, from having conversations and from making connections. When the people have the power, what is crucial and what makes it work is having a slew of viewpoints, opinions and thoughts.

No censorship of reviews

Whereas expert articles easily become outdated, crowdsourced materials such as reviews remain fresh, up-to-date and relevant. It’s the transparency that counts. Crowdsourcing gives way to more fully informed points of view. Millions of voices can be heard and it’s important to disseminate what they have to say, without censoring.

This is why we won’t censor or edit reviews on Trustpilot. We let our users have their say, and it’s the collective opinion, all points of view in one place, which is meaningful.

Sorry to see Encyclopaedia Britannica go. But the wisdom of the crowd is just more powerful and updated, and as a result the usefulness is higher. Don’t you think?

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