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?