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KNOL YER ROLL: Citizen-Generated Encyclopedias

Google just launched Knol, a Wikipedia competitor and what they describe as "moderated collaboration."

A knol is "an authoritative article about a specific topic." Readers can edit knols and the initial author can choose to accept, reject or modify their knol before the changes are made public. Google believes this will allow authors to maintain control of their content, adding in their release that "after all, [the author's] name is associated with it!" This is a huge change from the open community environment at Wikipedia. Wikipedia allows any reader to anonymously edit a wiki article, revert changes and negotiate content via article discussion pages.

Where Google treats Knol articles as the author's content, Wikipedia treats its content as a more organic and collaboratively discussed truth with multiple authors.

Knol also differs from Wikipedia in that authors will be given the option to include ads from AdSense with a revenue share model for these placements.

Citizendium, Knol and the always-criticized Conservapedia, are all attempts to usurp power from the well-heeled likes of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia's critics agree that they cannot get their perspectives to stick in this world full of gatekeepers and trolls. However, I see no reason why these same issues would not plague any alternative citizen-generated encyclopedia. In the case of Knol, the first person to a particular subject becomes the gatekeeper.

As we've already seen with Wikipedia, the first people to write articles were not likely to be academics, but amateur hobbyists. For this reason, when academics, special interest groups and corporations attempted to change wikis, they were then questioned for their citations and formatting.

I can understand how frustrating it is to have a 20-year-old hobbyist question your article on the aqua-lung when you're Jacques freaking PhD Cousteau. But at least in Wikipedia, your negotiation of the article is publicly aired.

In Knol, the 20-year-old can choose to ignore your article suggestions or take credit for the work you've spent your entire life producing, and the community is none the wiser.

Knol becomes less about the group mind and shared truth, and more about staking claim to some prime online real estate. Moreover, with the addition of the AdSense shared revenue model, Knol spammers can game the system by writing articles that trigger higher paying click-thrus (cancer, debt consolidation and class action lawsuits). You can bet spammers are not going to check their emails to add your revisions to their knol. They probably aren't even going to check the grammar on their pages before publishing them.

To combat abuse, Knol has a 5-star rating system. Similar to Yelp's voting system, the stars are meant to bury spam and poorly written articles, and shuffle the system's most relevant info to the top of the pile. However, as with any human-powered system, the flaw is that we cannot control the humans. In the same way that Mr. Splashy Pants was chosen as Greenpeace's Whale's name and 20,000 Canadians reported Jedi as their religion during the 2001 Census, we cannot assume that voters will choose to take Knol seriously. Should voting carry Knol into Urban Dictionary territory, let's just hope it is a deliberate and shared joke, as opposed to an assault on literacy and civilization.

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Recent Entries:
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