I’m Sorry, You’re Out

Imagine the world without Google or Wikipedia

July 6, 2010

Joseph Janes

Let’s see, which of my various forms of geekdom have I copped to in this column? Game shows? Check. Olympics? Check. On to reality TV, I guess. Not the Bachelorette / Real Housewives / Jersey Shore type of show (ick); think more Amazing Race, Dancing with the Stars, and of course Project Runway.

I love Runway because of the clever challenges: Here’s some gum, chicken feathers, and duct tape; make a prom dress. The way it rewards creativity and originality, Heidi’s faux-sincere air-kiss sendoffs, not to mention the occasional hissy-fit meltdown. For years, I’ve wanted to devise a way to incorporate similar ideas into my teaching, and I finally took a shot this year with a series of small assignments under the inevitable rubric of “Project Reference” (insert groan here).

It worked pretty well; I got some ingenious responses to a challenge to evaluate a Wikipedia article in four tweets (gotta learn how to use new tools for traditional tasks), and in particular I loved the final challenge: Come up with tasks for next year’s class.

Quite independently, I was part of an ALA/Reference and User Services Association preconference in Washington, D.C., in June, and I offered the “challenge” idea as a small-group activity. The planners agreed, and we used the winning entry from my class (thanks to Wesley Nelson, James Rosenzweig, and Lee Staman): Google buys every major search tool and is then shut down as a monopoly, and in the same week Wikipedia goes bankrupt. Choose three freely available websites as the best starting points for the widest possible range of inquiries.

Some very good ideas emerged, especially with only 20 minutes to work on this: BBC and nytimes.com, PubMed, Project Gutenberg, OAIster, Intute, and several fact and statistics sites like the Census and usa.gov. I was particularly intrigued by choices like Facebook and Wolfram Alpha. The celebrity panel of judges chose joint winners: the Wayback Machine, loc.gov, and britannica.com (Lois White of the Getty Research Library, Christine Cox of LDS Church History Library, Lisa Jett of Washington County (Va.) Public Library) and Britannica along with ipl2 and WorldCat (Chad Crichton of the University of Toronto in Scarborough, Lisa Johnston of Sweet Briar College, Robin Canuel of McGill University).

Each of these covered similarly varied areas: something bibliographic (and yet nobody picked Amazon . . . hmm), something encyclopedic and, while we’re at it, the most respected and authoritative, and a natively web-based tool. One wonders how strongly these choices are flavored by librarianship and a penchant for comprehensiveness, authority, a balance between books and the web. Would civilians, do you think, have come up with similar ideas and combinations?

This was fun, and my thanks to everybody who played along. The unasked question is what the information world would look like without these titans of the free web. Yes, we all recognize that if this really happened, new tools would arise quickly to fill the voids that would be left. How closely would they resemble the dearly departed?

Would a “new” search tool look or feel or work differently, be based on different assumptions or algorithms? And would the world turn to Citizendium or Knol, or would yet another “new” kind of encyclopedia arise, minus the bureaucracy and edit wars? Or would something entirely new happen? Do the current ideas of search and encyclopedias get in the way of some truly novel and dramatic innovation in information-finding? (And, what would the library community do? What would we build? How would we respond?)

The best suggestion of all? Give everyone a shotgun and some gasoline—losing Google and Wikipedia simultaneously would undoubtedly lead to a Mad Max–like fall of civilization, so it’d be every person for themselves. Might well be true . . . but that’s another story.

JOSEPH JANES is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle. Send column ideas to intlib[at]ischool.washington.edu.



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