Death Knol for Wikipedia? Doubtful

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Lots of chatter this week on Google’s planned Knol offering. Considered by many to be a potential Wikipedia killer, I’m both skeptical of that claim and disinterested generally. Oh, I’m quite sure that there will be sterling examples of individually authored research, but I find it difficult to believe that a single author – even someone considered an expert and invited for that purpose – will be able to produce pieces that accurately and dispassionately represent differing perspectives on a given issue. And before you reply, “Well, Knol will offer the opportunity to provide feedback and corrections,” remember that it’s controlled by an author who may not agree with differing theories or evidence. And besides, what’s the incentive for someone to correct it, if a single author is to receive the lion’s share of the credit for the article in question?

At least that was what I was thinking when I read of the project and thought, “I wonder who’d author the Knol on global warming?”

More interesting, however, was the criticism of the could-be target of Knol, Wikipedia. Having read thoughtful criticisms of the Wikipedia authoring process for years now, I’m well aware that Wikipedia is hardly without flaws. But in my experience, the only people that perceive those flaws are would-be authors of articles in which they have expertise or the subjects of articles themselves. In other words, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the Wikipedia user base.

Most of the average users I know love Wikipedia. If they’re aware of factual errors at all, they’re treated either as par for the course – no medium ever being perfect, after all – or “cute.”

Far be it from me to contend that Wikipedia’s “mantle of ‘authority’,” as Nick Carr put it, is deserved. But I think it would be difficult to argue with the reality that it is granted.

For example, consider the search question. While quality varies from search to search, Microsoft, Yahoo and others provide search that is at worst comparable to Google’s. And yet the search authority – indeed, the word that has been absorbed into the language as a synonym for search – is Google, primarily because it is difficult to differentiate past a certain point. Is it possible Knol will be able to do that? Sure. But like Tim, I can’t see really any drivers – at least from what I’ve read thus far – that would compel me to use Knol over Wikipedia.

Unless, of course, Google gamed the search results to advantage Knol at the expense of Wikipedia, an action that would see the Big G pilloried. And rightly so.

When it comes to Wikipedia, ultimately, I’m with Churchill: it’s the worst form of knowledge management, except for all other forms of knowledge management.


  1. Why do people keep looking at Knol vs. Wikipedia? It’s more nearly equivalent to about.com which has been running the same apparent model for years.

  2. Oh, those of us editing Wikipedia are painfully aware of its flaws. It’s a work in progress (see the long lists of unwritten articles at the bottom of that page), a live working draft … the problem comes when people assume it’s a finished product.

    With Knol, the main thing we’d like to see is a proper free-content licence on it. The CC-by 3.0 on the mockup is a start. Wikipedia is not in fact a project to run a hideously popular and expensive website, but to create a reusable body of work. So if other organisations do this (Knol, Citizendium, Encyclopedia of Earth, OpenSite, etc.), then it’s all good.

    And, of course, if they don’t do that, they’re just recreating about.com or Yahoo Answers. Or Google Answers. Remember Google Answers? I’m sure Google does.

  3. As a general-interest blogger, I link to Wikipedia all the time, and I think its caveat emptor public image is a strength rather than a weakness. That’s because, as you imply, no single authority can ever really be as authoritative as the lovers of authority and hierarchy would like us to believe. There’s a real danger with traditional encyclopedias: it’s hard to see the inevitable biases until many decades after publication, if then. I think the marriage of wiki and encyclopedia was a stroke of genius, though imperfect and needing constant maintenance like all marriages.

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