Knol: Ok, It’s Not Wikipedia. But What Is It?

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.

What Wikipedia Founder, Jimmy Wales, Thinks about Knol, the New Google Competitor

Here is Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, being interviewed after Google debuted Knol. Interesting that his first thought is that users should copy Knol content and bring it to Wikipedia ... :

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Google’s Answer to Wikipedia Now Live

Last December, Google announced that it was testing a new content initiative — dubbed “Knol” — intended to rival Wikipedia. The fruits of their labor are now live (in beta), available for all to see.

As we mentioned in our initial piece, Knol caters to the individual author/expert, not to the wisdom of crowds (à la Wikipedia). Each encyclopedia entry is generally written, edited, and revised by one individual. The author reigns supreme here. But that doesn't mean that Wikipedia's collaborative approach is being entirely abandoned.

Google's model leaves ample room for collaborative writing. It keeps open the possibility that multiple authors will write an encyclopedia entry. And, they allow for "moderated collaboration" -- meaning that "any reader can make suggested edits to a knol which the author may then choose to accept, reject, or modify before these contributions become visible to the public." Collaboration is built into Google's model. It's just not taken to an extreme conclusion. (Get more info on the positioning of Knol here.)

Knol is not the only content platform trying to strike a balance between the author and mass collaboration. In June, Encyclopedia Britannica launched a beta of a new online encyclopedia that takes "a collaborative-but-not-democratic approach" to producing knowledge. Users can make contributions to a growing storehouse of knowledge. But whether these contributions get accepted remains up to the experts and editors. ("At the new Britannica site, we will welcome and facilitate the increased participation of our contributors, scholars, and regular users, but we will continue to accept all responsibility of what we write under our name. We are not abdicating our responsibility as publishers or burying it under the now-fashionable “wisdom of the crowds.”)

I have little doubt that the Google and Britannica models will generate some solid encyclopedia entries. That's a safe bet. But whether these encyclopedias will ever become as comprehensive as Wikipedia, or as widely used, is another question. And the same holds true for whether the content will generally be qualitatively better than what Wikipedia has to offer. When Google first announced Knol last December, I voiced my doubts. Now that the rubber is finally hitting the road, we can see whether my skepticism is warranted (or not).

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Encyclopaedia Britannica, Adopting Collaborative Approach, Whispers Uncle

Last week, the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica gave into the pressure created by Wikipedia when it announced that it is trialling a new service (see the beta site here) that will let the public write and edit articles. The difference, however, is that Britannica's model won't be democratic (not all can participate) and its editorial staff will enforce higher standards. Or, as the announcement put it, "we will welcome and facilitate the increased participation of our contributors, scholars, and regular users, but we will continue to accept all responsibility of what we write under our name. We are not abdicating our responsibility as publishers or burying it under the now-fashionable wisdom of the crowds."

This experiment with collaborative authoring may -- or may not -- yield a better encyclopedia (although some experts have questioned whether the general Britannica model has any inherent advantages). It's hard to know how things will turn out. But what's more readily clear is the speed with which the 240 year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica got outflanked by Wikipedia, born just seven years ago. We have seen this scenario played out over and over again. But it never ceases to amaze. The traditional institutions, just when they seem as permanent as things can get, suddenly get upended. And, they don't see it coming. Caught flatfooted, they try to adapt, usually by adopting the methods used by their competitor. But it's mostly too late, and the real game is over.

Britannica may stick around. But will this generation of children -- or the next -- grow up thinking of Britannica as the default research resource? A question that I'll leave to you to answer.

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