I’m sure everyone by now has heard that Google is testing a new service called Knol, short for knowledge. I spent all day Friday buying books and creating a Libguide, and all weekend reading a book instead of grading essays (which has been my usual weekend activity recently), so it wasn’t until this evening during my chat ref shift that I read my news feeds. The IHT wrote about Knol today. Here’s a Knol screenshot from Google. Since I’m periodically fortunate enough to get people to pay me to talk about Google, I figured I’d better at least have an opinion on this.
The IHT headline says, “Google tests content service that may one day rival Wikipedia.” Maybe. Knol is designed to let people create information pages just like on Wikipedia, except the author’s names are included and only the authors can edit the pages. Supposedly, Google hopes to attract experts to write pages, including competing pages on the same topic, that will become authoritative enough to make them first stops for information, much like Wikipedia is now for a lot of people. According to one of the Google people, they want to make it easy for experts to publish knowledge online. Google thinks some experts don’t share what they know with the world because it’s too difficult to do that now.
That’s the line that stumps me. If someone really has information to share that would be beneficial to the rest of us, as opposed to most of the information they share online, how hard is it these days to publish? It’s not like one has to be a web expert to publish online formation. One certainly doesn’t need to know any html or other markup languages. There are plenty of free wiki services about that let anyone put information online as easily as using Wikipedia, without the anonymity and porousness of Wikipedia. The proliferation of blogs shows allows all sorts of experts and non-experts alike to immediate publish whatever they please. Google already has a user-friendly Page Creator and will host web pages for free. So for some reason I don’t think that’s really why Google is doing this.
The only difference is that Knol would gather these pages together into a website that would be more likely to be found on a web search than somebody’s blog or personal website, especially, I would imagine, if one was searching the web with Google. If enough people contributed, then there would be enough links that Knol pages would start showing up along with Wikipedia pages as some of the first pages on many searches. That’s great for ad revenue for Google, but how great is it for the rest of us? Besides a revenue engine, what is Google trying to create?
It seems to be some hybrid of Britannica and Wikipedia. Like Britannica, they are trying to attract experts, but it doesn’t sound like they’re verifying anyone’s expertise, nor searching out experts the way Britannica or the excellent and free Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does. So it can’t have the authoritative expertise that librarians traditionally like in reference works and that makes them hate and fear the Wikipedia so much.
Unlike Wikipedia, if another expert sees something false or misleading or biased, there’s no way to edit the information to try to make it better. Many see this as a flaw to the Wikipedia, but this is actually its great strength, and you can tell from the discussion pages and page histories that plenty of people take Wikipedia’s attempt at objectivity seriously. If launched, Knol will have some participatory elements, mainly a comments and a ranking feature. Presumably even with competing articles, the better ones will rise to the top through repeated high rankings, and the comments might lead to revisions or at least let people know about possible caveats, if people take the time to both read the articles and read the following discussions, which could be considerably longer than the articles.
It sounds like an interesting experiment, trying to create the traditionally authoritative encyclopedia in a freely available format. One benefit could be to bring together dispersed knowledge on topics that we might not have now, though that’s the main benefit I see of the Wikipedia and of the Internet generally. That the authors are known will make this “authoritative” in a sense, but the authority won’t be of the Britannica kind. Instead it’ll be more of the Internet Movie Database or Amazon reviews kind. “Rank: 7.5 based on 9,734 votes.” “5 out of 7 people found this Knol helpful.”
Most people don’t seem to mind the Wikipedia, but many librarians do. Will this Knol satisfy the reference source authoritarian streak so many librarians seem to have? Since there are authors and only they can edit, will this be the free online reference source that pleases the librarians? Or since there’s no central authority to guarantee the authority of the authors will it still be inadequate by librarian standards? Unless the “experts” are the sorts of scholarly experts we expect now, will Knol be any more authoritative than the Wikipedia or someone’s blog?
It seems like Knol will operate in some limbo between the sort of authoritative reference sources that librarians and scholars like and the often excellent but literally un-authoritative Wikipedia.
Most people don’t care about authority anyway, not in the way librarians do. If it’s popular enough, it’ll have authority. I think it would be great if Knol was successful and created a compelling and free encyclopedia of some kind. Maybe there’ll be good articles. Regardless of the quality of the articles, though, I think we can be sure they’ll show up highly in Google searches, and for many people that’s all the authority they need.