The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a new piece (where I happen to get a small blurb) on Google’s Knol, asking what it will mean for students and professors. But it also deals, at least indirectly, with another question: Is Knol really intended to compete with Wikipedia?
When the content initiative was first announced, many assumed that this was Google’s way of trying to displace Wikipedia, whose links appear first in Google search results 25% of the time. But the company has since made it clear that they’re not trying to offer another encyclopedia. Rather, they’re simply offering a platform for experts to write about whatever they know. That could include entries on Rationalism, the stuff you’d expect to find in a traditional encyclopedia. But it also includes entries on how to organize your home in 15 minutes or less, or thoughts on whether people really go to heaven when they die. You can browse the range of entries here.
This approach makes Knol at once more expansive than Wikipedia and more difficult to get your arms around. By lacking a focus, Knol is a little slippery. As a reader, you’re not sure what you’ll get at Knol (academic content? recipes? how-to articles? medical information?). And, as a potential writer, you’re not sure what kind of larger body of information you’re contributing to — something that seems important for inspiring mass collaboration. This is not to say that Knol won’t yield a good amount of useful content. It probably will. But will it all hang together, and will it all contribute to another juggernaut Google product? Well, I’m less sure about that. If you disagree, feel free to make your case in the comments below.