Sunday, 23 December 2007

Tied Up In Knols?

Google revealed their latest 'killer app' last week, and this time Wikipedia is the target.

Google Knols was revealed on December 13th at the official Google blog, which trumpeted it as "a way to help people share their knowledge". It is currently in a private testing stage, and speculation has already begun regarding the effect of the upstart knols on Wikipedia and its forthcoming social search site Wikia.

Steve Rubel at MicroPersuasion proposes that "knols are going to kill Wikipedia", citing the potential loss of the advantage Google gives Wikipedia articles in search results and the enormous financial clout that they have to put behind the project. TechCrunch are more circumspect, describing such statements as "a fanciful proposition".

Aside from the above, Google Knols brings two major innovations to the table. For the contributers to their repository of knowledge there is the prospect of income via an AdSense-like system of revenue sharing. For the users, knols provide the connection between content and author that Wikipedia's single-article, open-contribution model leaves behind.

The Google release of 13 December describes the latter as the 'key idea' behind knols. It could also, however, be its fatal flaw.


Having spent a little time editing and 'patrolling' (checking recent changes/new pages for vandalism, spam and general idiocy) Wikipedia, I have seen how fiery and entrenched disputes over content can get. Take a look at the 'Lame Edit Wars' page (Link) if you want to see some of the daftest disputes that have taken place there.

Google state that "For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing". But given that Wikipedians got into a serious argument about the presence of a single exclamation mark in an article (Berwick-upon-Tweed), would you bet against Google finding themselves with, well, too much of a good thing?!

It is far from clear how controversial or debatable topics that will likely end up with tens or even hundreds of knols will be dealt with. Google have already stated that they will neither serve as an editor nor 'bless' content. Rating systems can be manipulated by vested interests, as Comment is Free discovered this week when they had to suspend their 'best blogger' awards following an attempt to rig the poll (Link). The 'knol' rated most highly for a given subject may in the same way end up being the one which most people were instructed to vote for, rather than the most factually accurate and objective.

A lack of an equivalent of Wikipedia's requirement for 'neutral point of view' (NPOV) may give knols the reputation of being a partisan, rather than reliable, source of information - and may even reflect negatively on Google itself.

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