Assignment 4 – Wikipedia and Encyclopédie

Due 17 Feb 2010 at 5pm via bSpace.  Please limit your responses to 200 words.

McArthur observes (p. 105):
“Matoré points out… that Diderot’s Encyclopédie, however seminal, was still enormously difficult to produce and replete with errors of fact, repetitions, plagiarisms, and articles that did not knit together properly. In effect, the various strong-minded contributors tended to do their own thing to such an extent that the ensemble lost the shape originally planned for it. Nonetheless… the Encyclopédie marked a turning point in the history of works of reference.”

These observations may bring to mind another “collaborative” exercise in the building of reference works, Wikipedia, of which many of the same criticisms have been made. The two projects have some features in common, but are very different with regard to others. Elaborate one or the other of these points of view: what similarities between the two projects are suggested by those parallels? In what important ways is the Wikipedia project different from the Encyclopédie, as McArthur describes it?


While Wikipedia and the Encyclopédie that McArthur describes share many of the difficulties of collaborative work, they are very different and these differences stem from the people and system involved in the collaborative effort.

The Encyclopédie was produced by small groups of authors of a higher educational class (p. 106). Like early dictionaries, they were defining the most comprehensive (and supposedly objective) higher truth that the rest of the people were to learn from (p. 100). Wikipedia is a collaborative effort of anybody with internet access across all social classes. Ideally this information comes from people with a deeper knowledge or experience with the subject allowing for more first-hand wisdom. The Encyclopédie writers sought to educate the masses from the top down while Wikipedia is from the common people and for the common people.

The collaboration system of Wikipedia is closer to that of Philological Society’s collaboration system for a dictionary. This system sought to pull directly from various sources to create a collection of original texts which people could interpret themselves (p. 127). Similarly Wikipedia emphasizes the use of direct quotations, citations, and links to original source material in order to legitimize and objectify the information. –Rachel Y

Diderot’s Encyclopédie and Wikipedia have much in common being that both are multi-author compilations of articles that describe an ostensibly universal array of subjects. However, the most obvious difference between the two is that of medium—whereas the Encyclopédie was a tangible product, Wikipedia exists only digitally on the internet. Medium has tremendous implications for the ways in which the two projects work. Unlike the Encyclopédie, which was published and republished upon revision as a single physical entity, Wikipedia features articles that are created, edited, and made accessible to the public instantaneously and independent of each other. The online, open source nature of Wikipedia thus allows for multiple authors to contribute to a single article. While the Encyclopédie was also a compilation of incongruent articles authored by numerous individuals, the open source nature of Wikipedia, a characteristic owed to the relatively widespread availability of the internet and (computer) literacy, allows for the final product to be constantly and instantly modified, often times anonymously. These results are produced to the public in real time—and so there is no fixity on Wikipedia—while individual editors discuss and debate the contents of pages on the discussion pages of articles. This open, instantaneous dialogue is absent in the Encyclopédie, for better or worse. –Yi

Although the Diderot’s Encyclopédie and Wikipedia may be genealogically connected and may have several features in common (collaborative classification of knowledge, Illuminist goals, democratization of society, multidisciplinary contents, “future-directed and innovative” vision, “idea of social progress and the desirability of change”, 105), they represent completely different ways of generating and organizing information. Of course the Encyclopédie was revolutionary, both in its formation (“it featured articles by leading radical thinkers”, 105) and its effects (it was “one of the major intellectual forces that impelled France towards it Revolution in 1789”, 105); however, Wikipedia is very different. Content in Wikipedia is generated and managed by common people, and not necessarily by specialists or experts (user generated content); errors and inaccuracies are fixed by other users (open source improvement); there is no limit to the quantity of information, and information can be easily updated; it’s easily accessible and consultable; hyperlinks make the navigation among related information possible; there are no translated versions of an entry but different treatises in different languages (this is extremely useful for cross-checks). The common problem, however, is that in both the Encyclopédie and Wikipedia there are “ une sottise voisine d’une chose sublime, une page écrite avec force, pûreté, chaleur, jugement, raison, élégance au verso d’une page pauvre, mesquine, plate & miserable.” (Denis Diderot in (my translation: “foolishness next to a sublime thing; a page written with strength, purity, ardor, wisdom, rationality, elegance, on the back of a poor, mean, flat and miserable page”)  -Marco

Diderot’s Encyclopédie was a revolutionary work even by today’s standards, containing many articles by controversial thinkers that contributed to the French Revolution of 1789 (McArthur 105). It’s collaborative nature was similar to the modern Wikipedia, and the two share issues including plagiarism, extremist views, and high accessibility. Yet Wikipedia can be said to be different to the Encyclopédie, especially in terms of editing and content moderation. One of the issues with the first encyclopedias was that “treasonous” or tenuous claims slipped into articles by revolutionaries were often not caught until the book had gone to press and been widely distributed (McArthur 106). Though later editions could be changed, those few copies could not. In contrast, Wikipedia is notable for just how mutable its entries are- many of its users adopt an almost militant attitude to scoping out the slightest errors and biases within articles, and promptly correct it, in some cases warning the user the content may be erroneous. Nevertheless, Wikipedia is such a vast resource that many errors go unchecked, and thus claims with little evidence find their way into popular culture. Ideally, however, Wikipedia was designed to be an unbiased source, corrected much faster than the days of Diderot’s Encyclopédie.  –Isobel

There are a couple crucial ways that Wikipedia differs from Encyclopédie, which center around the following quote:  “While a monograph advocating seditious or irreligious or treasonable ideas might easily be seized…, similar thoughts slipped in to various articles in an encyclopaedia might… had been distributed too numerously for their withdrawal ever to be achieved” (p. 106). For the Encyclopédie, the ability to sneak in articles was beneficial, because it bypassed a potentially oppressive government or religion that was against the spread of “irreligious” or “treasonable” ideas. This is not the case for Wikipedia, where the ability to slip in information is potentially detrimental, because a malicious user can create false information and pass it off as fact. Luckily, the other key difference directly addresses this issue. The Encyclopédie, once published and distributed, could not be withdrawn or edited until the next version was released. So, any falsities found were tough to correct until the next release. Wikipedia on the other hand, can be constantly updated by any user. Any falsities or malicious content can be withdrawn, without the delay found in the publishing world. –Zachary T.

McAuthur observes that the encyclopedia was still enormously difficult to produce and replete with errors of fact, repetition, plagiarism, and articles that did not nit together properly. Regardless of its faults, Matore points out that it was still a turning point in the history of works of reference (105). This type of examination brings to mind the same issues that are brought about in conversation about today’s new technological encyclopedia called Wikipedia. This is the modern version of Diderot’s encyclopedia that was created centuries ago. Even though the two Encyclopedias are separated by over 300 years, there are significant similarities between them. For instance, both of them have criticism on their legitimacy. The Encyclopedia in the 1700’s had concerns of error of fact that Wikipedia also faces in the 21st century. Wikipedia allows access and authorship to anyone across the world which challenges its validity. Anyone can sign on to Wikipedia and add their own input and there is no censorship on what the public can view. On the other hand, the encyclopedia faced the same problem even though only the great names of the modern world of that time such as Walter Scott, and Marie Curie were the only ones to write in it. This goes back to the concerns mentioned in class about what gives a certain person or body of people the authority of telling “facts”? Throughout history and even still to this day the question of truth plays a role in criticizing any information that humans receive. Can we trust scholars that claim to have truths or are we constantly being fed information in order to maintain a status quo? -Rachelle

Wikipedia does share some flaws with the earliest encyclopedias, especially in the “errors of fact, repetitions, [and] plagiarisms” found in Diderot’s Encyclopedie.  However, the Wikipedia project has unique characteristics which sharply distinguish it from its predecessors, the Encylopedie and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  There are two major changes Wikipedia has brought to the world of reference works.  The first is primarily conceptual:  Wikipedia, in theory, is a much more democratic source of information than Diderot’s Encylopedie because a much greater number of people have the power to edit or contribute information.  The Wikipedia Project has the potential to be an evolving compendium of the consensus knowledge of our society, rather than a codified and finite collection of the consensus knowledge of a particular publishing house.  The second difference is more concrete, and again is rooted in Wikipedia’s digital and online format.  As McArthur points out, print encyclopedias like the Encyclopedie and the Britannica needed to pick an organizational principle and stick with it.  He cites Collison as saying that “’the key’ to the success of the Britannica was ‘the retention of the single alphabetical sequence.’” (McArthur, 106)  Wikipedia, as an online reference work, is organized much more fluidly and organically than any print work. Wikipedia uses searches, hierarchical thematic organization, and hypertext to knit its information into a web, rather than a list.  While print works do include cross-references, indexes, etc., they can’t offer the same ease-of-use and fluidity that the online format does.  Wikipedia’s great innovation may not be that it reshapes the way we accumulate and share knowledge as much as that it makes accessing knowledge so convenient. –Daniel

Despite more than 250 years of gap, Wikipedia and Diderot’s Encyclopédie share the  same fundamental philosophy. Both forms of encyclopedia stem from ambitious Bacon-ian definition of human nature that everything that exists on earth is subject to human knowledge.

McArthur praises that “the Encyclopédie marked a special turning point in the history of works of reference” as “[i]ts worldview placed no necessary limits upon human knowledge” (105). For the creator of the first form of encyclopedia and his collaborators, it seemed possible to define the every earthly “things and subjects in their own right” by human ability. The deep trust in human capability is by no doubt a byproduct of “rational humanism … concept of ‘scientific method‘ [that] was developing throughout the seventeen and eighteenth century” (102). Wikipedia of the twenty-first century has further expanded the humanistic confidence. The internet has enabled human race to overcome the geographic, temporal, and cultural limits that the collaborators of 17th century suffered from, and enabled the random people from all over the world to define everything, from God to demon, from life to death.   –Yeon

Solitary words only become meaningful in reference to “things,” and because “the encyclopedia explains things” (102) in the context of nationalistic cultures, the compilation of the early encyclopedia was an immensely educational and referential tool. Today, hard covers are more or less being “replaced” by the ease and accessibility provided by the Internet; and it is no surprise that the encyclopedia has quickly followed suit and gone viral in the form of a search engine infamously known as Wikipedia. Juxtaposing the two projects, their inventive motivation appears indistinguishable: to provide a comprehensive resource which will enhance the public’s cultural discourse, through “the collective linguistic intent, skill, and taste of a relatively homogenous group” (94). Though both the early encyclopedia and Wikipedia celebrate the collaborative division of labor involved in compiling such an expansive reference catalogue, they are divided in the sense that the early encyclopedias (like the Parisian and Italian models) were more elitist, “excluding the vast majority” and “taking seriously only… the fittest’ persons at the royal court and the ‘best’ established writers” (94) to submit their writings. Conversely, Wikipedia sponsors any abled contributor with a working computer. This difference in authorship then begs the question of authenticity, and in that regard, Wikipedia suffers more criticism and skepticism. However, if both projects are “dedicated to the idea of popular education” (101), then Wikipedia is probably more effective in reaching a wider audience of readers, as there are usually multiple computers in every home, compared to the expense and exclusivity attributed to the earliest distributed copies of the encyclopedia. Thus, in relation to the “radical humanism” associated with the religiously divergent encyclopedia, and its inherent promotion of “social equality” (105), Wikipedia is less discriminatory in its readership and vernacular content, whereas the early encyclopedia was prided for its “authentic value,” despite the inevitability of “errors, repetitions, plagiarisms” (105), etc. reproduced by both parties. So despite the encyclopedia’s various forms throughout time (digital or bound), it remains “an impressive piece of imperfection” (133) that grew from the spirit of communal knowledge for the people, and by the people.     –Erica

The Encyclopedie described by McArthur was opened ended and future-directed. It is biased towards radical humanism and encourages change. Out of the 35 folio volumes, most of them were edited by Diderot himself. As it was an attempt to translate Chambers’ version, the Encyclopedie followed the hyponymic model (Figure 6, p103 McArthur). Wikipedia is different from the Encyclopedie in the way it can be edited and accessed. The difference with Wikipedia is that it allows anybody who has access to Wikipedia to edit the articles. And because of its large editor base, Wikipedia lays out style guides and policies to keep a neutral point of view. (It may be disputed as biased still, but having the policy set up is different from the Encyclopedie where rules were decided by Diderot himself.) From the Wikipedia site, there is around 1500 administrative editors that constantly check for articles in violation of its policies. (

However, it is clear that there are parallels between the Wikipedia and the Encyclopedie. The Encyclopedie envisioned knowledge with “social progress and desirability of change” (p105, McArthur), and this can be seen on the new articles on Wikipedia. Almost anything that has become significant in popular culture (even particular incidents or cultural phenomenon like “RickRoll” of Youtube) can be added as an article on Wikipedia. Wikipedia also somewhat follows that hyponymic model of Encyclopedie as it explains certain words with many different meanings through its disambiguation pages. (For example, check –Ka Man Michelle

Comments are Closed on this Post.