Google Knol: death knoll for Wikipedia?

You may know that I write for the Wiki­pe­dia Sign­post, and recently, I wrote an art­icle for it on the com­par­is­on between Wiki­pe­dia and Google Knol. In the end, the art­icle I wrote was sub­stan­tially over­hauled by the edit­or because it was an opin­ion piece biased towards one view — inten­tion­ally. Although opin­ion some­times does make it into the Sign­post, the edit­or felt that was not the time nor place for it, and so he rewrote most of it in a more object­ive style. So it’s old news, but instead of wast­ing (some­what) good prose, here it is:

Google usu­ally makes a noisy entry wherever it dares to tread, and this week’s announce­ment of Knol, a site that will host user-gen­er­ated art­icles was no dif­fer­ent. Wiki­pe­di­ans, how­ever, should have noth­ing to fear.

Knol, which is cur­rently only access­ible to a select few who have been invited, will be a site that hosts user-gen­er­ated con­tent on a wide range of sub­jects. The term knol was coined by Google to mean a unit of know­ledge, and refers to the entire pro­ject as well as indi­vidu­al art­icles. While the jury is still out on wheth­er Knol will be suc­cess­ful, or wheth­er it will even make it to a pub­lic launch, the obvi­ous com­par­is­on that has sparked the Inter­net alight is with Wiki­pe­dia.

There are some imme­di­ately appar­ent dif­fer­ences between Knol and Wiki­pe­dia. The most import­ant one is that Knol is not a wiki. Con­tent pages will be owned by a single author and that sole author has the respons­ib­il­ity of main­tain­ing its con­tent; users can par­ti­cip­ate by sug­gest­ing edits, or by rat­ing or com­ment­ing on the art­icle, but that’s about it. There is no Wiki­pe­dia-style col­lab­or­a­tion mod­el; in fact, it is dif­fi­cult to see how there can be much of a strong com­munity. The single author approach admit­tedly has its attrac­tions, though; an author’s repu­ta­tion lives and dies by his or her words, and this builds trust into the equa­tion. How­ever, as many have noted, this denies Knol one of the more valu­able aspects of Wiki­pe­dia art­icles, that con­tro­ver­sial art­icles are likely to have been edited by a vari­ety of users who have had to com­prom­ise to pro­duce a rel­at­ively neut­ral and bal­anced piece of work. The com­pet­i­tion between dif­fer­ent Knol pages will not neces­sar­ily res­ult in great­er util­ity for the end user.

This com­pet­i­tion is what will define Knol, and this fur­ther dif­fer­en­ti­ates it from Wiki­pe­dia. Writers of Knol con­tent will have the abil­ity to insert Google advert­ising into their pages and earn a cut of the res­ult­ing rev­en­ue. Wiki­pe­dia, on the oth­er hand, is advert­ising-free, and the com­pet­i­tion on this site, if you can call it that, is one more akin to a friendly mer­ito­cracy than the harsh world of chas­ing advert­ising dol­lars. Knol, from its very found­a­tions, does not seem con­du­cive to a com­munity spir­it, some­thing that may keep edit­ors on Wiki­pe­dia.

But maybe Google doesn’t need a sense of com­munity. Cyn­ic­ally, all it needs is for people to link to Knol art­icles, have the pages appear close to the top of its widely-used search res­ults and then have its advert­ising cash registers chink­ing; by com­par­is­on, send­ing people to Wiki­pe­dia does Google no dir­ect fin­an­cial favours. Wiki­pe­dia could lose out by hav­ing less incom­ing traffic, and there­fore less expos­ure to new, poten­tial edit­ors.

Knol is an inter­est­ing idea that will surely stim­u­late debate about how the face of user-gen­er­ated con­tent should pro­ceed. It cur­rently appears as neither friend nor foe, but as anoth­er choice for users that will prob­ably sat­is­fy its own niche.

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  1. robojiannis’s avatar

    I abso­lutely agree. The ques­tion that comes in my mind though is:
    Which plat­form will provide bet­ter qual­ity of art­icles? Can a single expert com­pete the col­lect­ive intel­li­gence?

  2. Brendan’s avatar

    I first heard about Knol from this nice little case study, com­par­ing it to Wiki­pe­dia: http://​crooked​tim​ber​.org/​2​0​0​7​/​1​2​/​1​5​/​k​n​o​l​s​-​w​i​k​i​s​-​a​n​d​-​r​e​a​l​i​ty/

    But yeah, my own early thoughts tend to be along the lines of… Though I am pretty dubi­ous about the propensity of the col­lab­or­at­ive pro­cess to tend towards a neut­ral point of view, I’d still prob­ably trust it more than the exclus­ive view­point of one author, at least/​especially when I’m suf­fi­ciently unfa­mil­i­ar with the sub­ject mat­ter that I don’t have any idea who, exactly, the author is. As such, I don’t see Knol play­ing much of a role in my own… Research, if you will.

    If I want basic, entry-level inform­a­tion about a sub­ject, I’ll prob­ably stick to Wiki­pe­dia, both because of the NPoV issue, and… Because of my slight bias towards sites that don’t sport advert­ising. If I want more detailed, expertly-writ­ten inform­a­tion about some area I’m already slightly famil­i­ar with, then I prob­ably already have oth­er sources that I pretty much trust, like the Stan­ford Encyc­lo­pae­dia of Philo­sophy. Still, who knows, I’d prob­ably have to actu­ally read some of these knols before I really get a feel for them.

  3. Jason Moore’s avatar

    Actu­ally, “knol” was just the code­name for this pro­ject.

    Accord­ing to some sources, the actu­al name is “Uni­pe­dia”

    Sounds like a bet­ter name than “knol”.

    I quite like the idea that Uni­pe­dia will share rev­en­ue of any ads with the authors.

  4. Sally’s avatar

    “Knol” was just the code­name for this pro­ject. I know a google employ­ee who was work­ing on this pro­ject, but he says it is not what google call a “GP 1” an “urgent” pro­ject.

    He was called away to work on a GP1. He says the REAL name of the pro­ject is “Google’s Uni­ver­sal Encyc­lo­pe­dia” or “Uni Pedia”.

    Just thought you should know.

  5. Joel’s avatar

    Enoch: that last com­ment might be link spam..?

    And as far as I gath­er from what I’ve read about Knols, they don’t intend to be an encyc­lo­pe­dia, mak­ing the last few com­ments strange. In par­tic­u­lar, the inform­a­tion is more advice/how­to-ori­ented rather than dry fact; and numer­ous art­icles may appear on one top­ic, with dar­win­ist­ic sur­viv­al to nego­ti­ate between their rel­at­ive suc­cesses.

  6. Enoch Lau’s avatar

    Thanks Joel, for point­ing out the link spam!

  7. yuu’s avatar

    i love wiki­pe­dia and when i heard that google wants to make an encyc­lo­pe­dia i felt a bit annoyed. is google try­ing to actu­ally take over the inter­net? is it just me or they’re try­ing to copy wiki­pe­dia?
    any­way i don’t think wiki­pe­dia fans will want ro use knol

  8. Enoch Lau’s avatar

    It’s not neces­sar­ily as stark as you make it out to be. Knol is just anoth­er plat­form with which people can use to pub­lish their con­tent. Google owns Blog­ger already — you could think of it as anoth­er vari­ation on a theme.

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