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.