knol: content w/out context, collaboration, capital, or coruscation

Isaac Newton famously stated, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” This metaphor is commonly used to highlight the way that knowledge is not a single-author process. We build on what others do, explicitly and implicitly. While folks generally understand this, our culture focuses on the contributions of individuals. In the world of publishing, there is often a single author on the cover and little is known about the large and small contributions of a whole team of folks – the editors, the grad students, the reviewers, etc. (I especially love books “by” politicians where the ghost writer is never acknowledged.) More problematically, when people are measured by what they can attribute to themselves as individuals, there is pressure to either avoid collaborating with others or to steal credit. Neither of these are healthy.

I’m a big fan of collaboration and collective knowledge production and public good projects. This is one of the reasons that I love Wikipedia. Not only are Wikipedia entries the product of collective contributions, but both the small and large contributions are visible to all. Of course, contributing to Wikipedia needs to be an act of love because there are no traditional structures that reward such contributions. Wikipedia has its faults, but it is fundamentally the collaborative creation of a public good.

Google’s Knol takes an entirely opposite approach to knowledge production. Knol’s entire structure is built around single authors, control and individualism. There aren’t even mechanisms for multiple authors and the tools available for collaboration are extremely limited. “Collaboration” still assumes a primary author. Linking between knols doesn’t appear common and so there’s no network of information. They key is authorship.

Since Knol launched in beta, folks have been comparing it to Wikipedia (although some argue against this comparison). Structurally, they’re different. They value different things and different content emerges because of this. But fundamentally, they’re both about making certain bodies of knowledge publicly accessible. They just see two different ways to get there – collaborative anarchy vs. controlled individualism. Because Knol came after Wikipedia, it appears to be a response to the criticisms that Wikipedia is too open to anonymous non-experts. The implication is that Wikipedia is the dribble of the unwashed masses. These same folks praise the control-centric Knol. Yet, I think Doc is right. A knol is quickly becoming a “unit of spam” instead of a unit of knowledge. Y’see – a system that is driven by individualism quickly becomes a tool for self-promoters. (And men…)

We’re quite a few months into the Knol experiment. What I find particularly fascinating is that most of the knols that they promote on their front page are health-related, primarily by people who claim to have health-related expertise (doctors, nurses, professors) who appear to be copying/pasting from other places. Why health? What’s motivating these people to contribute? (And why are they too lazy to fix the formatting when they copy/paste from elsewhere?)

Frankly, from my POV, Knol looks like an abysmal failure. There’s no life to the content. Already articles are being forgotten and left to rot, along with a lot of other web content. There’s no common format or standards and there’s a lot more crap than gems. The incentives are all wrong and what content is emerging is limited. The expert-centric elitism is intimidating to knowledgeable folks without letters after their names and there is little reason for those of us with letters to contribute. While I don’t believe in the wisdom of a crowd of idiots, I do believe that collective creations tend to result in much better content than that which is created by an individual hermit. (Case in point: my *$#! dissertation vs. any article I’ve co-authored.)

What makes me most annoyed about Knol though is that it feels a bit icky. Wikipedia is a non-profit focused on creating a public good. Google is a for-profit entity with a lot of power in controlling where on the web people go. Knol content is produced by volunteers who contribute content for free so that Google can make money directly from ads and indirectly from search traffic. In return for ?

When are we going to learn that the Internet is really good at collective action? When are we going to learn that getting people to develop and maintain bodies of knowledge on the Internet is an art? When the incentives are all wrong (e.g., Yahoo! Answers), the result is pure crap. When are we going to learn that experts alone never produce the best content? Hell, even a high school kid can improve most articles with some simple editing.

I don’t think that Wikipedia is the end-all, be-all, but I do think that they’ve learned a lot over the years. And I think that we need to take what they’ve learned seriously and improve on it. I do think that Wikipedia could benefit from the contributions of experts and I would love to see folks think about how such contributions could be incentivized and rewarded. That said, I don’t think that experts are enough. I think that they are only one part of the puzzle. I also think that Wikipedia is limited by its own scope. I’m glad that there are other projects under the Wikimedia Foundation, but I think that there need to be more and they need to be managed in context. For example, it’s pretty clear that we need a WikiHealth. Of course, I think that this area needs to be addressed cautiously.

There are huge costs to having inaccurate information available when it comes to health. It’s one thing to get the wrong diagnosis for your computer problem and accidentally destroy your machine. It’s an entirely different reality to get the wrong diagnosis for your health problems and brick your body. You can say that people shouldn’t take advice from the Internet, but be realistic. Our insurance/health system is so broken that most people can’t afford to go to the doctors… and besides, doctors are amazingly good at being wrong. So what’s the right structure for collective knowledge production around health? And no, Google, the answer is not people who self-report as doctors writing “definitive” entries about topics.

So, if I were to evaluate Knol, I’d give it a D. Maybe a C for effort, but points off for being so arrogant. Your thoughts?

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37 thoughts on “knol: content w/out context, collaboration, capital, or coruscation

  1. Adam

    Hey danah,

    I absolutely see your points, but disagree with your conclusion.

    First, let me get a disclaimer out of the way: I work for Google (doing webmaster outreach), and my officemate was one of the earliest and most successful knol authors (he penned an entry on “how to backpack.” I don’t have any other affilation with Knol, and haven’t even written an article (unless you count my overlong and kind of lame bio page).

    Starting with Ryan’s knol… is this even something that would be appropriate for wikipedia? I like wikipedia and have contributed a bunch of edits to it in the past, but — holding aside the issue of collaboration vs. individualism for a moment — it seems that some stuff just doesn’t fit into wikipedia.

    For instance, I wrote up a blog entry on Apartment Hunting Criteria a while back (because, well, I was apartment hunting and had already written the whole list, so why not share it?). How on earth would this fit with wikipedia? Yet, I have considered sharing it on Knol.

    Would I get rich from doing so? No. Though Google has offered to share AdSense revenue with Knol authors who choose to show AdSense content on their knols, I can’t imagine that people’d get rich off of this, and I have chosen not to put Google ads on my own web content at this time anyway. But it’d provide a chance for me to share something with *MY* voice. My *opinionated* voice.

    * * *

    Touching upon the idea of collaboration vs. individualism, I feel you’ve assumed that a beta product is indicative of future intent (and, of equal bummerness, you’ve claimed that Knol’s been live for “quite a few months,” when in fact it was opened to the public just a few *weeks* ago). Again, I have no inside info on this stuff (I’m not on the Knol team), but I would be surprised if collaboration options weren’t expanded and encouraged as the product matures. In the meantime, I personally think it’s a wonderful thing to focus on an author. If someone writes an outstanding article on Sondheim musicals, why shouldn’t they be able to highlight their work via Knol… particularly if they lack either the interest in setting up a blog (with all the “must regularly publish” baggage that may suggest to them)? And, more to the point, why shouldn’t they be able to point to that Knol in, say, a college application essay with “Hey, *I* wrote this! *I* take responsibility — and deserve credit — for these words!” I heartily disagree with your implications that individual authorship is inherently less enjoyable, less factual… and that desiring it or claiming it is inherently more selfish.

    * * *

    Lastly, regarding the “icky” feeling you get… I have no right to criticize how you feel or question your gut. But I can hopefully balance it with this: Knol articles are put into the creative commons by default. Given this and other issues, I see this as a giving back to the net, not a taking from.

    Time will tell. And I agree with you that the early emphasis on medical knols was offputting, that there’s some spam in Knol, and so on. But I know some of the folks working on the project, and I have faith this will grow into something that will add to the useful info and positive color of the web.

  2. David Petherick

    Very thought-provoking article Danah, and similarly, the comment from Adam. Only time will tell, as you say. I think Knol has a long way to go, and it has some big elements missing at the start which really surprised me – and what I see as being a big missing element is that there is no structured community for feedback to Knol’s developers built into the Knol system.

    Some interesting things I’ve noted about Knol:

    1) Only about 1650 Knols are in Google’s Index so far – you can check yourself at

    2) I got to Page 1 in Google Search with one Knol within 24 hours with 12 million+ pages behind me, but have no placing at all for another Knol.

    3) Duplicate content is being spotted automatically (and highlighted with links to the duplicate content on the offending Knol), but does not seem to be penalised in any way for search relevancy.

    I’ve slowly and quietly been pulling together opinion and discussion about Knol in a Ning-powered network I started in December last year at (apologies for the blatant plug) and will add a link to this article right now.

    Regards from Scotland

  3. Arjun

    Nice blurp.

    Competing with Wikipedia is that competing with a non-profit is extremely hard to get to grips with. Wikipedia’s non-profit status is part of what holds it back in my opinion and it lacks any drive to improve its articles.

    I with you Danah about the knol project. Seems like it might turn into a spam farm

  4. Arjun

    I think google knol is going to turn into a spam farm.

    Competing with Wikipedia is that competing with a non-profit is extremely hard to get to grips with. Wikipedia’s non-profit status is part of what holds it back and my opinion is that it lacks any drive to improve its articles. But that’s a different story. We’ll see how the knol project turns out.

  5. Bertil

    I’m not sure who decided that Knol would compete against Wikipedia: aren’t they complements? I mean: danah is right in pointing out the differences, but how many ‘Citation needed’ could be resolved with a link to a Knol and a grad student CV?

    They aren’t that many so far – my guess is that calling the service ‘against’ Wikipedia was killing that link – but all the tips you now found of blogs, in spite of having little chronological value could be hosted there. I’m sure the crap-to-gems ratio is huge (say, almost as big as in blog entries ;^) but their are tons of filtering and selection system that can take the crap out, and among any other company, I trust Google most on sorting energetically the copy/paste medical non-sense.

    Will it work? Not unless Google understand why HTML wasn’t that big a success for individuals non-coders, Wikis aren’t so big outside of a few encyclopedic projects, and their previous, very similar ‘Pages’ attempt was a failure. My guess is that blogs (and comments in wiki) make sociability more central, and the real issue is not having ‘Knol-friends’ featured more prominently. I’d say you are very right about that, danah – but it’s a not such a huge feature to amend. Whithout encouraging signs for open-access publishing, I’d happily contribute, actually.

  6. Erich

    So far, Knol seems to be a closer competitor to than Wikipedia.

    Individual actions are required to give rise to the collective, but even so, the incentives for doing one well seem to exclude the other. From the beta, it looks like Google is trying to do both; a difficult proposition.

    However, if they (or anyone) can get it right, they have a Human Turk approach for taking the next step in scaling: from searching to summary.

  7. Xianhang Zhang

    I wouldn’t be so quick to disparage Yahoo Answers either. A CHI 2008 paper looked at the answer quality of various sites and found that Yahoo answers was the highest quality among the free answer sites and beat out Google Answers with a $3 rate.

    Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t appear to be free online but there’s a summary of the results here

  8. Kevin Gamble

    “Google’s Knol takes an entirely opposite approach to knowledge production. Knol’s entire structure is built around single authors, control and individualism.”

    This is not accurate. It’s not how Knol works. Knols can be just like Wikipedia– open to anyone to edit. It supports any and all types of authorship. The creator of the original know decides how authorship will happen. If you don’t like the way they did it– just create another with different rules. It really is pretty wide open– and also gets the intellectual property stuff right as well.

    This myth of single authorship has been making the rounds for too long. I actually addressed this last December when it was first announced:

  9. Louis

    Y’see – a system that is driven by individualism quickly becomes a tool for self-promoters. (And men…)

    I don’t see how arbitrary sexism helps you make your point. Would you mind elaborating on that parenthesis, as maybe there’s something I’m not getting here? I’m giving you a chance because I’ve liked a lot of your posts in the past: if I had just subscribed to your blog a week ago and this was one of the first posts I’d read, I’d don’t think I’d be inclined to stick around.

  10. Leonardo Boiko

    The only point I disagree with is this line:

    > Knol content is produced by volunteers who contribute content for free so that Google can make money directly from ads and indirectly from search traffic. In return for ?

    That’s misleading. The volunteers can get their share of the money too, should they choose to.

    As other people said, I think Knol has the potential to be the solution to Wikipedia’s [citation needed]. I often want to write “original research” on topics I’m “expert” enough such as, say, an article about the different kinds of Brazilian fast food, but wpedia frowns heavily upon such content.

    There’s another problem, IMHO very bad: I never understood why exactly the deletionists are so opposed to the very existence of topics they deem “irrelevant” – it’s not like this is a space-limited paper encyclopedia – but wpedia is becoming increasingly limited in scope because of their actions. It used to be the best single place to find information about pop culture, and now all that collaborative work is being just deleted away.

    If I want to write twenty pages about an obscure character in an old fighting game in Knol, I can. There’s no community trying to force its standards upon me. Perfect democracy can be perfect tyranny of the masses; egoless writing is great, but egofull creations have their own particular advantages.

    That said, I agree the spam problem is grave and unsolved. I also happen to think the visual interface is busy and ungoogley.

    Disclaimer: I work for Google, no relation to knol, my opinions only etc.

  11. James

    Adam: you could use Wikia, Jimbo’s latest get-rich-quick scheme, if you just want a wiki to edit things like Apartment Hunting Criteria on. Or wikiHow (which admittedly was full of crap last I saw).

  12. alan p

    Its not a just a tool for individualism – its a tool that pays for that individualism, ie rewards defective behaviour. In my view that exacerbates the spam dynamic Doc talks about.

    Your points on health are very apt, I predicted that the Knols will cluster around highly advertisable areas and health is one of the highest value ones.

    Question is – do you think Google knew this and launched regardless, or that they didn’t predict this effect?

    My thoughts in more detail over here:,-write-Knols.html

  13. zephoria

    For me, the comparison between Wikipedia and Knol is less about content than structure and approach to knowledge production. I wasn’t clear enough: I don’t think that the articles in Knol belong in Wikipedia. But I think that the structure Knol is built on is problematic and they’d be better off learning from Wikipedia’s structure. By centering it on people and incentivizing individualism, they lose much. The comparison should be about structures that work to produce public goods, not simply content comparisons. I didn’t do a good enough job making that clear.

  14. zephoria

    Xianhang – I saw that CHI paper. The abstract and conclusion makes it very clear that Google Answers is higher quality – “you get what you pay for.” The article talks about how certain types of questions are better answered by collectives at Yahoo! Answers (e.g., advice questions) than those that would be best answered by a reference librarian. More importantly, what this study is is an experiment where they ask the questions and see what kinds of questions are answered and how. They do not analyze the broad swath of questions that people ask on Yahoo! Answers. If you surf YA, you’ll find that the questions people ask are often things like “should I leave him?” and the incentive to participate is often driven by desire to get points. So people ask questions that are not about producing knowledge bases and they get answers that are driven by people’s desire to seek attention.

    I’d be happy to send you a copy of the actual article if you’d like.

  15. zephoria

    Louis – It might give you context if you take a look around my blog a bit. I cover gender issues pretty frequently, sometimes in more or less depth. The reason for “(And men…)” is that it’s actually a big issue and one that I wanted to reference without actually diving into, mostly because it would be a tangent that would make this post even more ridiculously long. As b notes, Wikipedia is heavily driven by male participation. The problem is that individualism and single authorship rewards tend to push towards even greater inequality in terms of gender and participation. This is a problem in publishing at large. Collaborative projects tends to attract more female participation than non-collaborative ones. High visibility projects tend to attract more male participation then low visibility ones. What Knol is doing is maximizing the things that traditionally generate more male participation. Thus, it’s not surprising that even on their showcase front page that is supposed to provide a representative sample of knols, the vast majority of knols are written by men.

    On a related topic, check out my analysis of gender patterns and blog linking:

  16. Eric Dewhirst

    Thanks for bringing this perspective of Knol to the forefront. I love the fact that there is debate and collaboration at the core of Wikipedia. Keeping documents open I think keeps them honest. Sure you can find examples of misinformation on Wikipedia – however when pointed out someone goes in and corrects it.

    There are those who want an authoritative answer to put their mind at ease and there are those who need to know where to go to keep searching. I think Wikipedia is the essence of what is great about the Internet and I agree with another commentator above – Knoll is another has a lot of good information – however it is there for the purpose of monetization from contextual ads.

    Thanks for this post.

    Cheers – Eric

  17. Neil Kandalgaonkar

    You ask, “Why health? What’s motivating these people to contribute?”.

    I’d guess money and reputation. Health is probably the most monetizable content out there as far as ads go. Health professionals also get a direct benefit from being seen as authorities, and the artificially-enhanced Pagerank can’t hurt.

    I have to agree that Knol doesn’t look like a winner, at least not in its current form. It’s trying to amass a lot of knowledge, like an encyclopedia, but absent community standards, it’s all pretty random. Some articles are encyclopedic, and others are like brochures.

    Knol may offer some semi-automated framework check credentials, but even that isn’t helpful, at least not yet. I found an article on growing healthful nuts that was marked as written by a verified teacher. A little searching shows that the author was an instructor in multimedia, although she is an enthusiastic hobbyist in horticulture. This has the paradoxical effect for me of devaluing her amateur knowledge, whereas on Wikipedia, if her article had survived community scrutiny, that wouldn’t matter.

  18. Charbax

    I think the point with Knol is also that there will be relevant articles for Google searches such as “What is the best way to prepare for an exam?”, “What is the worldwide bandwidth usage?” or any other kind of question. The point being that you should be able to ask a question on Google and it should give you a quick and short answer as well as let you read more detailed answers.

    Google could implement all kinds of ratings systems so the masses of experts can collaboratively filter up the best knols and so that facts in each knol is checked and confirmed by an advanced collaborative ratings system.

    Also Google could have ways for aggregators to republish knol content in the purpose of optimizing the structure of the knols, where revenue from ads could then be shared among several authors and that the people putting work into aggregating, re-arranging, sampling, fact-checking, rating, commenting, all those people could also get a share of the ad-revenue for their contributions in improving the quality and relevancy of knols.

    Knol is like a big collaborative blog where everyone can try to post the best blog post on any subject, sample and re-publish the best parts. Google can perfectly know who was the original author for any content since Google has indexed all the text ever published on the Internet. So when someone samples you content to republish, you keep your fair share of any potential revenue. The more you can get your work re-used in more knols, the more money you could make.

  19. Robert Marchenoir

    Why is it a problem if an encyclopaedia’s entries are mainly written by men?

    I thought that the point was whether they were accurate, useful, knowledgeable, wise, enlightening, original, talented, illuminating, etc, etc.

    When you call a plumber to your house, do you keep notes of their sex in order to call one from the opposite sex the following time? Or do you take notes about their skill, efficiency, punctuality, cleanliness, politeness and prices?

  20. Steve


    First a disclaimer. I have never looked at knol, and nothing I’ve seen here makes me want to, so unless it becomes too big to ignore, I’ll probably remain blissfully ignorant.

    That being said, a few comments.

    Wikipedia has it’s strengths and weaknesses. I’ve seen some outstanding articles there and some really bad ones. And, I’ve seen displays of noticeable egotism in some of the conflicts on controversial topics. (A fascinating research topic would be strategies of egotism and personal power in egalitarian environments).

    Perhaps authority based structures also have their place. Like collaborative structures, when they work – they work well. But if an authoritarian structure is to work well it needs to be genuinely authoritarian – like a moderated newsgroup or an old-style BBS where the sysop was effectively God. Or like Stewart Brand’s autocratic rule of the original Whole Earth Catalog (so I have heard at least).

    So, if the knol system was to work, it should probably replicate the traditional structures of a board of editors who invite, evaluate and edit contributions and who are responsible for assuring quality standards.

    In general, I’d say the authoritarian model has one important thing going for it which the collaborative model is weak in. There is personal accountability at all levels of the process and it is always clear where the buck stops. (e.g. hierarchical military command structures).

    Now, I wouldn’t want the authoritarian model to be the only one available. But it does provide an important counterpoint to the collaborative – just as commercial software provides an important alternative to open source – and I speak as one who has responsibility for helping a really user unfriendly open-source shopping cart program).

    Just some thoughts,

  21. Mayo FM


    Same Steve’s disclaimer. I don’t have anything to do with Knol.

    I feel many sympathy about this article; however there is a point I am less convinced.

    I have the impression that it would be useful to re-think individualism.
    Traditionally individualism was associated to the culture of success and egoistic – for proffit motivations. But the new technologies, together with other economical and social changes, are favoring the growing (mainly in the North) of a new type of individualism.

    Furthermore, the explosion of online communities has as one of its bases the individual public commitment. Depending on the type of contents, it could be better to give visibility to the contributions in one way or another, but in anycase I think the visibility of the individual actions and contributions in the building of a public good does not have to be necessarilly associated to an anti-common spirit.
    Individualism can be egoistic base; but also solidarian-commited base.


    PD: Thanks for gender caring!!! In a research I conducted on the community it resulted 63% men/37% women balance. Online interaction is looks men predominant, however for this case if it is compered with the participation of the same community in offline meetings (where the men interventions increase sustantially), it resulted that online interaction favor the reducement of gender participation inequalities.

  22. Tex

    Well, now, each of these things serves a different purpose, no? Has different strengths and weaknesses.

    You’re conflating them under the guise of “information,” but information is not all created equal. You don’t use it all for the same thing. Based on your needs, you go to one source for one thing and another for another thing.

    Wikipedia, like democracy, gets both its strength and weakness from its collectivity. The information in it isn’t brilliant, new, or groundbreaking. But because it has the oversight of numbers, it’s also not particularly bad. It’s solid, dependable. Average. It finds the happy middle. But you wouldn’t go to it for specialized or specific information.

    As with any technocracy, Knol runs the gamut. It permits the occasional gem that truly shines, buried amongst masses of text that are so bad as to be considered downright worthless or harmful (made moreso by being wrapped up in the mantle of infallibility and expertise). When something’s good, it’s really, really good. But when it’s wrong, it’s horrid. And there is no oversight. There’s no one to correct the errors. You use it when you need something arcane or in-depth that Wikipedia isn’t capable of, but then you go and get a second opinion.

  23. Doug Holton

    Knol hasn’t even been out to the public for 2 weeks yet.

    They address some issues with Wikipedia but create other issues, too. They need a rating system to filter the crud from the better stuff. They need groups, so that for example teachers or parents and other interest groups and so forth can filter the content.

    It would help too if they were more open. They can import all kinds of content, but there is no exporting.

    And you don’t seem to like Yahoo Answers, either, but it’s been enormously popular and successful. It’s the second most popular reference site behind Wikipedia. Sure there is some sketchy stuff there like high school kids asking others to answer their homework questions, but is that something new?

  24. Laura Gibbs

    As a university faculty member for the past ten years, I’ve listened to my fellow faculty members complaining bitterly about Wikipedia for all that time – in fact, with their attitude getting worse and worse over time, presumably in reaction to students relying on Wikipedia more and more, to the point that many faculty simply ban the use of Wikipedia by their students.

    Now, with Knol, there is a chance for those people who do absolutely insist on attributed authorship to publish online. In my opinion, every university faculty member – at a minimum, all those faculty members at public universities – should be contributing to online knowledge in some form. Google’s Knol offers them a way to do that, with no special technical skills required, and with full credit for their authorship, without opening up their contribution for others to edit (the faculty fear about that is enormous).

    Because Knol content is, by default, Creative-Commons-licensed for reuse with attribution, it can find its way into Wikipedia… or not. But at least Google’s Knol gives me something to present to my colleagues when they whine about the Internet: if they really are prepared to contribute, there is no more excuse for delaying: Google’s Knol offers them what they claimed they wanted all along. I am certainly not prepared to give up on yet, and the idea of passing judgment on it after just a couple of weeks seems very premature.

    I’ve been watching and contributing to Wikipedia for these 10 years as well and it has certainly improved over time – I hope the same for Knol; we need them both exactly because they are quite different ways to contribute to knowledge online. I created a few sample articles on Knol in my own area of specialization (Aesop’s fables) in order to show my colleagues it CAN be done, quickly, easily and effectively. Will they finally step up to the plate now and make some online contributions? I hope so… and I’m not prepared to give up hope yet!

  25. Steve

    A comment on Mayo’s thoughts on individualism.

    I think there is more to individualism than the profit/success system. (Indeed, later developments of that system in our own historical period have become profoundly corporate and snti-individualist). The ideologues of individualism within libertarian circles would make the connection to the profit system and value it positively (e.g. Ayn Rand). But I think there’s more going on.

    Consider an act of creative insight, the moment the light bulb goes on in one’s head and you say “aha!” – either about comprehending a pre-exosting idea or discovering a genuinely new one. Surely most would agree that this is a necessary element of social/tecnical progress by most definitions. Yes, this often occurs in the course of animated social discussion – with or without chemical lubricants. But just as often, if not more, it occurs as a solitary moment in the privacy of one’s own thoughts (e.g. Kekule’s famous discovery of the ring structure of benzine. ANd even when a discover occurs in a social moment, it is usually also the fruit of long hours spent wrestling with paradoxes and questions in one’s own skull.

    So far, I have put forward an argument that the individual is necessary for the process of discovery. Let’s see if we can make an analogous argument on behalf of the collective.

    Consider the most rsbid individualist ideologue. Do they speak a language? Certainly. Did they invent it themself? Unless they are psychotic, they did not. In fact, even if they are psychotic, they normally express their views in a language derived from a pre-existing human culture. 🙂 Consider the technological artifacts on which their personal survival is based. Did they create those artifacts? In general, no. And even those who attempt a lifestyle of radical physical self-sufficiency will have to make the tools with which they make their tools with the assistance of tools made my others. (A blacksmith can make many things, but typically not his or her own anvil).

    In the realm of intellectual pursuits this is even more clear. Who would a Hawking, a Penrose or a Feynman be without the likes of Einstein, Minkowski, Riemann, Gauss or Planck?

    So this is the paradox. The act of intellectual creation occurs within individual human minds acting as individuals, but at the same time the process is profoundly social (which is why “intellectual property” is inherently an oxymoron).

    Counterposing Yin and Yang as adversarial is false to fact and serves nobody. It would be like trying to say that the piston downstroke in an internal combustion engine is “better” than the upstroke – or vice versa. Neither view would help one design a better engine.

    In the words of Daniel Webster (from Webster’s “Reply to Hayne”) “Liberty and Union! One and inseparable! Now and forever!

    Just a thought,

  26. Piers Fawkes


    I think you have a rosey-eyed view of Wikipedia. Sure – the intentions are admirable but the delivery has much to be desired – (and you hint at the need of improvement). From where I sit, I find that the mafia that are the key contributors to the site create a Wikipedia which has a BayArea view of the world.

    I’m sure Know was created for several reasons, but maybe one of them is that many of us are frustrated with the direction the groupthink has taken it.

    As an outsider or newbie, there’s no way to contribute. The mafia will delete and edit. As someone who would like my company ( to be listed on the pages, we’re not notable enough and the mafia will delete anyone’s addition of our details to it.

    Simply, for many of us – we don’t need a secret society to give us manipulated pages like this one: – Knol might not be the right alternative – but thank goodness someone is trying.

  27. Louis

    Explanation and context accepted. I also want to apologize for the tone of my initial comment, in retrospect it looks a little harsh. I was just a little thrown off by the offhand and somewhat dismissive nature of the comment, given that in general I’ve found your writing to be quite balanced. Of course I recognize that gender inequality doesn’t disappear online, and that the design and implementation of social software tools needs to take that fact into consideration.

    Robert Marchenoir brings up a point that at first seemed to follow through on the idea I was going for, but on reflection it is based on a false analogy: there is a significant difference between hiring a plumber and getting someone involved in online collaboration or conversation. In the first case, the only affected parties are you and the plumber, in the latter the societal repercussions are wider. If there are no (or few) women involved in a given discussion or online environment, this might make the environment discouraging for other women to get into. If, for example, Knol were to become widely used as a tool for academics to publish on the web, as Laura Gibbs suggests, the fact that it might have become an environment hostile or unwelcoming to women would clearly be problematic.

    But there is still something in that sentence – “Y’see – a system that is driven by individualism quickly becomes a tool for self-promoters. (And men…)”, that makes me a little anxious. The problem is that there’s a leap of logic in there: “men are individualistic” leads to “a tool designed for individualistic behaviour is sexist”It seems like generalizing behaviour patterns along gender lines to inform our design of social software is fundamentally problematic: how can you differentiate a social tool that appeals to certain behaviours and personality traits from one which discriminates based on gender when you make such a bold association of personality traits with gender?

    P.S. I read the article of yours you linked to, and found it interesting though somewhat vague statistically speaking, and I also very much liked Joe Clark’s rebuttal, which seemed to articulate some of the gripes I have with certain aspects of your view on this topic.

  28. Dafydd

    In some ways Everything 2 is similar to Knol, in that you can’t edit other people’s contributions. As opposed to the Wikipedia model of synthesising a coherent neutral point of view, E2 simply allows various points of views to be collected side by side. The incentive mechanism is based on peer approval and gaining some (modest) extra abilities as you contribute. The disallowal of external links gives it a somewhat introspective bent.

    Although some of the content is roughly encyclopedic in nature, E2 is best at opinion and fiction. Where content is factual, there is room for humour and caprice. I suspect that most E2 contributors writing factual content there have moved to Wikipedia since it turned up, which is probably a good thing as it lets E2 play to its strengths.

    Perhaps Knol and Yahoo Answers don’t need to have a high standard on average, though. I’ve only stumbled on Yahoo Answers when it’s turned up in search results and it’s frequently been useful.

  29. isayusay

    Thanks for sharing the insightful analysis. I agree with your statement “There is no life to the content.” From my first impression, Knol is a little intimidating and hard to relate to.

  30. Jean Vincent

    I believe that health knowledge is too important to be left under the sole control of the pharmaceutical industry and their so-called experts. Mainstream medicine has a long history of ignorance, failures, lies, and financially-driven interests.

    Most oncologists continue to deny the role of the immune system in fighting cancer thirty years after the discovery of NK ( cells in the 1970s.

    There are a large number of diseases uncured, some of which are frighteningly increasing in rate such as allergies and cancers. Current medical practices are failing to not only cure these but also to prevent their progression.

    After all, health is still a work in progress with many open questions. People need to have access to all available knowledge and opinions, because health is also a matter of opinion when you are facing a deadly disease for which conventional medicine offers you no hope (Metastatic cancers, Alzheimer, …).

    Wikipedia NPOV (No Point Of View) policy requires that all opinions be expressed as opinions and no bias towards a subset of opinions. This is going in the right direction and enables more knowledge about any subject to be represented in a single location. I don’t see how Knol will ever be able to address this issue.

    That said Wikipedia is far from perfect and still falls under the indirect pressure of another guideline which is the notability guideline. This guideline requires that any knowledge provided comes from so-called reliable sources, which means mainstream media, which is in turn controlled by financial interests which means advertising and in the end the pharmaceutical industry as far as health is concerned. This prevents the inclusion of knowledge and opinions coming from other cultures and experiences that are not red-stamped by the FDA or other well-founded research. I don’t understand why Wikipedia, which is a pure product of the Internet has such disregard for internet-borne content.

    I believe that all opinions need to be represented especially in the cases where definitive cures to deadly diseases do not exist. These opinions need to be clearly represented as such to enable readers to understand quickly the origin of such research, yet enabling the centralization of such knowledge and research.

    In the end new generation, internet-age, readers know that knowledge cannot be 100% trusted and that skepticism is the rule rather than the exception. They know this because of the widespread dissemination internet scams, spam, and other lunatic opinions now available. They also have been able to learn that so-called mainstream media is nothing more than opinions.

    What is changing with the Internet is not just what is available as units of knowledge but the trust that people now put in all past, present and future knowledge. The result is higher scrutiny and better ability to make personal choices. Both Knol and Wikipedia need to understand this.

  31. Dave

    Knol is a place where people without web presences can post articles securely and permanently in a place where they are possible to link to, be found, and be used.

    People who have blogs, of course, don’t need this — they already have a place setup to publish online. Picture, though, all of the experts in various fields who don’t necessarily have or want a website, but still have the ability to write valuable content. Where do they post that content now? I don’t think there’s ever really been a place for that kind of content. There are a few sites mentioned in the comments, but do any of them carry the weight of a Google tool? Are any of those sites easy to find for someone who doesn’t use the web frequently?

    Even if Google was doing a better job of reaching/advertising to those potential authors, Knol would still be an experiment because it’s a big “if” as to whether those non-authors can write quality, readable, usable articles.

  32. len

    Skipping past the sexist twaddle, the idea that individual work is spam is simply a crock. Groups don’t paint the Mona Lisa or compose the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig von Beethoven.

    They can steal them and defend their claims. The tyranny of the many or the loud few is well known in philosophy and history.

    I spent part of this weekend discussing Rand’s “Anthem” with my daughter. Objectivism has lost favor in your generation only to regain favor in hers. And so it goes.

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