Monday, April 20, 2009

An Idea Whose Time Had Long Come

Over the past decade, it has become common practice to depend on a select number of online resources for information. First came the phrase "let's Google it," which was later overtaken by the phrase "Let's Wikipedia it." I was watching ABC's "The Hollowmen" the other day, and that very line popped up when a flak in the PMO's office is asked to give a tour of the premises to a bunch of smarty-pants kids, and the flak, Chris, wants to appear knowledgeable. "Can you Wikipedia the Westminster System for me?" He asks a colleague in a panic. And sure enough, within moments his hands are filled with everything he needs to at least appear not entirely clueless.

Chris's fictional experience is not unlike then experience of hundreds of millions of other who daily or weekly pop onto Wikipedia to gather some factoid or another. Indeed the ubiquity and usefulness of Wikipedia is such that an entire generation of students is currently growing up believing that sourcing work need only mean including the phrase "found on Wikipedia," as a sign of legitimacy. That this grates on the nerves of tens of thousands of educators goes without saying, and the deleterious effects of this practice probably won't be felt for some time, but you can't stop progress.

For all of Wikipedia's success, a success that includes top of the page listing in most Google queries these days, there are yet areas where the average internet users faith in the site falters in the face to the overwhelming utility and authority of other sites dedicated to more limited topics. On of these sites is the IMDb, the Internet Movie Database. Need to look up some factoid on a film or television show? Wikipedia is not the option of first resort, IMDb is, and will probably continue to be so indefinitely. The site is chock full of useful information about all things celluloid that it, and it alone, has become the trusted authority in that area.

Another site that inspires trust and confidence the way IMDb does, and is the option of first resort for it's subject niche, is The Futon Critic. The Futon Critic is a site dedicated to collecting and disseminating everything related to the ongoings of the TV world, from an insider's point of view. There you can find weekly Neilsen ratings, the latest news on upcoming pilots, or on what shows have been canceled or currently sit on the bubble. There you can find not only what is airing tonight, tomorrow, or next week, but whether wahat is airing is a new episode or a repeat. For TV lovers, The Futon Critic is required reading.

Which brings us to another topic, both near and dear to my heart - reading. One of my eternal complaints with Wikipedia is that for a site with millions of articles in English covering seemingly the entire spectrum of human knowledge, pages relating to authors, or their works are either non-existent, or exists as mere stubs of a a bare line or two. The dearth of information is so acute that unless an author has set up their own website, the only way to find them online is to hop on over to or Chapters/Indigo and search for that specific author. If you aren't aware of that author's entire canon, this can be frustrating, especially when you come across very little contextual information that helps you discriminate between authors or books of the same name, or close but false positive results.

So what you're left with is a really hit and miss system, that often leads to frustration, and is entirely unhelpful if what you want is to find something that might catch the eye, and spark your readerly interest. Mind you, you can connect with publisher's websites, who sometimes do a good job of making their book list accessible, but not always. Jim Baen, founder of the Baen imprint, made sure to not only publish his entire catalogue online, but offers a significant number of titles free to readers, with the option to buy electronic versions directly from them at an incredibly modest price. This is fantastic for lovers of trashy sci-fi and fantasy adventure, like myself, but of little help to the rest of the reading world. What is needed is something more comprehensive, and it seems that something may have arrived.

At the moment it seems to be in beta stage, looking basic to an almost Craigslist degree, but nonetheless the new ISBNdb, has stepped in to do for books what IMDb has done for movies. While the service is in its infancy, it looks set to grow and become that very essential tool that will allow the average reader to throw off the tyrannical shackles of shoddy Amazon searches and fruitless online wandering, allowing them to finally find what they want, when they want, with the possibility of encountering a pleasant surprise on the way.


  1. The faith in Wikipedia is touching but mispaced in't it. I'm amazed that most people I've discussed it with don't realise it's not official, or necessarily even factual, information. Anyone can, and does, put anything on it.

  2. It's a real conundrum, because on the one hand Wikipedia can never be authoritative by any academic standard, yet the volume and general accuracy of information you get there is enough that it has become the de facto world encyclopedia.

    Out here in the Middle East, I find the situation even more pernicious, because the dearth of libraries results in students never having learned the concept of research, what constitutes an acceptable source, and why it is important not only to attribute information to a source, but to know where that source attributes its information from.

    Still, and I find this a real irony, having my students use Wikipedia as a source is a step up from what I encounter from them day to day... usually phrased as "Found on the Google."