December 15, 2007

Google's Knol vs. Wikipedia: Authors in the Sunlight

Greetings. A number of folks have been sending me copies of Google's blogged preliminary announcement regarding the early testing of their knol project, perhaps accurate to describe as something like an attributed online encyclopedia with broad user comment and contribution capabilities.

The key word here is attributed. While community submitted questions, comments, additional material, and the like would presumably not be subject to rigorous authorship identifications, the foundational article on each topic will reportedly be fully attributed to specific identified authors.

This may be something of a "hallelujah" moment, for knowledge of who wrote an entry presented as authoritative can be paramount to the reader's ability to judge the veracity and value of the text. I've long felt that any author who wants to be taken seriously should strongly desire to be attributed in all but a very narrow set of circumstances (e.g. anonymity can be important in "whistle-blower" situations and the like).

The knol announcement is being widely characterized as a direct attack on Wikipedia (even I framed it in "vs." terms in the title of this piece), but I'm unconvinced this is a completely accurate characterization.

While I certainly use Wikipedia in some situations -- for quick technical information lookups or movie synopsis details it's very handy -- I have long been concerned about the easy mutability of its articles combined typically with a lack of authorship information (for example Wikipedia and Responsibility, and Wikipedia Risks [CACM]).

Since knol is not yet open to the public, I have yet to see it in actual operation, and many important details are currently unknown (to me, anyway). But based on the information available so far, it appears to avoid the aspects of Wikipedia that I consider to be so problematic and undermining.

Wikipedia will still no doubt have its place. But if Google is able to grow knol successfully, I agree that it is likely to become a primary Internet resource for authoritative information of all kinds.

As with so much else on the Net, time will tell.


Update (December 16, 2007): I've been asked why I didn't mention the Citizendium project in the discussion above. It's really a very different ball of wax. While Citizendium does attribute authors and editors, a concept I obviously support, it still (as I understand it) continues to allow uncontrolled changes of most items at any time by anyone in their pool of accepted contributors (though particular versions may be flagged as "approved," further changes by any contributors to additional versions can apparently continue).

This appears very different from the Google knol model where comments and discussion of items are welcome, but the foundational essays themselves are controlled by the original author -- especially important for authors who have demonstrated expertise in that specific field. This is a world of difference, and personally I much prefer the reported knol methodology.

One other thing. Knol will allow authors to potentially receive some financial compensation for their work through ads if they wish. I think it's about time that we recognize a basic fact -- not everyone has the resources to write everything for free on the Net, and while I prefer that authors be paid on a direct basis for their work, the knol methodology at least gives them a shot at getting something in return to help pay the rent.


Posted by Lauren at December 15, 2007 09:44 AM | Permalink
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