What are knols? No, they aren’t Dungeons & Dragons monsters, or small hills, they’re purportedly “units of knowledge,” and they are encyclopedia articles Google is inviting people to write. So Google is entering head-to-head competition with Wikipedia — not so much with the Citizendium (thankfully, we have a different niche: quality) — making things much more interesting. (Of course, philosophers have had a zillion different names for “units of knowledge,” and none of them could be used to describe a Web page.)
A reporter asked me some questions about Google’s announcement, which I answered by e-mail. Here are my answers.
What is your assessment of the Knol initiative?
There are a few problems.
First, quality. It looks to me as if Knol is a high-level attempt to do what many others have done. Countless websites already exist that invite signed essays and information (remember h2g2.com?) and other content for public rating. Time will tell, but Knol will probably resemble other such websites, and have a huge amount of mediocre content, with a little excellent content mixed in. The concept does not sound like a model that would attract many genuine experts. I say that because the notion that anyone may write a “knol” and be compared and ranked by “the crowd” — not by expert peers — is apt to attract relatively little notice from experts who are very careful about where they publish. Still, other Web companies have had reasonably good success making money with such Web services, and Google might make a lot of money with theirs.
Second, lack of buy-in from the free culture crowd. Many of the sort of people who contribute knowledge to projects like Wikipedia and the Citizendium are likely to be very skeptical of a giant corporation organizing such a project, particularly with Google Ads appearing on the articles. It does not appear to be in the spirit of the free culture movement. Still, it is good that Google has decided to make ads optional.
Third, lack of collaboration. (See below under your last question.)
Do you think it addresses your concerns about Wikipedia, namely, that expert opinion should have a larger role in shaping knowledge?
On the one hand, Knol would be a very different project from Wikipedia, first and foremost because it is not strongly collaborative. For that reason, the governance problems will be different and probably less difficult. (Google is wrong to think, however, that they can avoid making any editorial decisions. Such decisions will be forced upon them by people who try to abuse the system.)
On the other hand, Knol is apt to produce precisely the same sort of uneven content, with many of the same abuses, that Wikipedia has. Without actual editors, the same sort of problems about misleading and damaging information are apt to plague Knol. While I know that many people do not think that such problems are serious, we at the Citizendium do. And a growing part of the general public is coming to agree with us. In fact, producing a more mature, responsible source of information is one of our main motivations for working so hard under our new model.
How will Knol affect your own efforts with Citizendium?
The problem with the Internet is not the lack of information; it is the lack of findable high-quality information. Knol does not appear to be a serious attempt to solve this problem, but the Citizendium is.
So Knol is unlikely to change our efforts with the Citizendium at all. In fact, we are soon going to announce a new Creative Commons license, and in January we will turn toward a strong, concerted push toward “CZ 2.0.” This will involve adding a adding a Board of Directors and, generally, expanding our governance so as to empower many different people and groups to develop the project more proactively. We expect to grow strongly — and quite possibly explosively — in 2008. It is worth pointing out that the Citizendium actually produced slightly more words (about five million) in its first year than Wikipedia did in its first year. And our words were, needless to say, of much higher quality than Wikipedia’s were then.
Is this a project Citizendium might collaborate with? Or is Google’s project at cross purposes with your own?
A kind of collaboration seems possible. Obviously, the Citizendium provides two important things that the Knol model is missing: expert guidance and strong collaboration. I’ve already discussed Knol’s likely weakness in attracting experts. Another reason I am not particularly worried about Knol is that the quality and depth of encyclopedia articles written collaboratively by a huge global community, especially under expert guidance, will eventually beat out anything produced by individuals, regardless of their ability. Frankly, Knol is reinventing the wheel; the Citizendium is the future.
If Google allows Knol’s contributors to retain their copyright — something they would do well to comment on — then those writers could always bring their content to the Citizendium to be developed further, collaboratively. Maybe the only way Knol might collaborate with Citizendium is this: Knol allows their contributors to link prominently to a Citizendium article, as a locale where those articles could be developed collaboratively. If Knol removed the Google Ads from all articles that were being developed further in collaboration with the Citizendium, we might be interested in developing such a relationship. Of course, I’d have to check with the Citizendium community, for which I cannot speak definitively on such an important matter (it isn’t a dictatorship).
Thanks for asking my opinion.
P.S. It’s not lost on me that this is similar to http://www.whatsyourarticle.org/