Google Knol and the future of Wikipedia and Wikimedia

Google Knol is finally available for the public. I tested some basic features and the concept is a good one, as well as it is obvious that it will be developed more: it may include the most of useful wiki features in the future, like, for example, templates are.

There are two main differences between Wikipedia and Knol, introduced by Knol:

  • Author is the owner of the article. Of course, in the sense of having control over the content and if they choose so.
  • Author may make money from writing the articles.

I am fully aware about differences of two approaches: Orthodox wiki approach and the commercial one. Basically, those differences are in a long term the most important, while in a short term we may see that other characteristics of two projects are more important.

Orthodox wiki approach is saying that no one is the owner of the article. Formally, I am, as well as anyone else is, the “owner” of one Wikipedia article, like the authors of the article are. The consequence of this approach is collectivization of the knowledge, as well as more knowledge at one place.

Commercial wiki approach, which Google Knol introduced at the wider scale (while I am sure that similar projects existed or aimed to exist), individualize the knowledge output and motivates authors to work there by giving them a possibility to make some money.

I may see a perfect coexistence between those two concepts. If you want just to be introduced into some matter (no matter how deep!), you will go to Wikipedia. But, if you want to see some specific information from some field, you will go to the Knol and search for reliable authors. Of course, I may imagine a lot of cross-linking between Wikipedia and Knol.

But, this is about a perfect world from the not so certain future. In the sense of “now and here”, Wikipedia and Knol are rivals in the battle which Wikipedia will loose in any case, but it matters how much. Simply, Wikipedia is at the top and any serious competitor will get a part of the time which people are spending in reading and writing articles. And Knol is a serious competitor.

Wikipedia has a couple of main advantages over Knol:

1) It is not so easy to find a person who is using Internet and who doesn’t know for Wikipedia, while Knol has to make its own place under the Sun — even it is one more Google application and Google is known as well as Wikipedia is (somewhat better, but it is not so important in this case).

2) Wikipedia has well known software, MediaWiki (as well as well developed user-side Pywikipediabot), and, from the technical side, it is much better known than Google’s API, as well as it is possible to add hundreds of thousands of (good small) articles into Wikipedia automatically, while it is (still) not possible with Knol.

3) Wikipedia is “collectively owned” and, as such, it has significant economical advantage: One person is able to care about small set of articles, but even two persons are able to take care about bigger set of articles than two persons separately. Besides the fact that in the current stage people will mostly create “their own” articles at Knol, as well as it is not so expectable that a lot of volunteers will work on others’ articles without being payed. But, I am sure that Google is analyzing the concept of creating payed role of “administrators”.

4) Wikipedia is a multilingual project. It has more than 280 language editions. Making a commercially machinery for supporting such number of languages may be possible, but not in the near future. Because of that, while Knol may become popular soon as a source of knowledge in English, maybe a decade will pass until I would be able to suggest to some high school student from Belgrade to search for knowledge there, too. Until that, Wikipedia will be the most important non-English knowledge base.

But, Knol has some significant advantages over Wikipedia, too:

1) You may share your knowledge, for money or without it, in a much less hostile environment than Wikipedia is. Eh, “Imagine a world where every human being is able to contribute to the sum of human knowledge without being frustrated!”

2) I am still thinking about usage of Knol in my work: I have some wikis out of Wikipedia for organizing group works of students, but I am really thinking about a possibility that one student may be stimulated with money for sharing their knowledge. Of course, it applies not only for students. And this may be the biggest Google’s contribution to the human knowledge. What Wikipedia didn’t do, Google did.

3) Knol is, at last, a Google product, so Wikipedia articles will get significant competitors in Google search results.

4) Again, Knol is a Google product. Technical infrastructure of Wikimedia is a silly one in comparison with Google’s one.

So, what should we do?

As I said, it is very predictable that a number of Wikipedia contributors will start to decline. Or, at least, number of edits will start do decline. And it will not be a seasonal fluctuation, but a permanent one. A good fraction of, which is the worst, good editors will fly to Knol; or, at least, a good fraction of good editors will start to spend significant amount of their time at Knol, instead at Wikipedia. In other words, the question is not would we loose some editors, but how much editors we will loose? The question is not anymore what should we do to make Wikipedia better, but what should we do to keep Wikipedia alive until the better times.

I may list a good amount of mistakes made in past. But, it seems to me as something without a lot of sense. Instead of that, I will try to list a number of possible solutions for making Wikipedia more competitive:

  • First of all, WMF Board and staff have to talk with Google and make a common PR: Wikipedia is about a general knowledge, Knol is about specific; original research is not acceptable at Wikipedia, while it may be very useful at Knol; authors should keep their own articles at Knol, but they should be encouraged to participate in common knowledge repository at Wikipedia; and so on.
  • Flagged Revisions should be carefully, but as soon as possible, turned on: Only highly reliable contributors, as well as contributors with scholar background should get that tool. It doesn’t have a lot in common with being an admin or a bureaucrat at some project.
  • WMF should make extensive contacts with universities and it has to find a way how to deal with contacts which it gets from the volunteers. Public manual which describes how to handle university contacts and what are the benefits for one student, one professor and one educational institution — has to be made. Note that institutions like to communicate with other institutions and that at some point WMF (or chapters) has to be that institution for communication.
  • Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects have to become social networking place, too. Keeping volunteers around one passion, passion to collaborate in creation of the sum of human knowledge, may work up to the some point. But, relying on past time communication systems, like mailing lists or IRC are, is a good way how to loose a strong initial advantage. From looking into friends’ interests (but, not through always disputable and not so user friendly user templates), via integrated XMPP/Jabber client into MediaWiki interface, up to making an API for making free software games connected to MediaWiki interface. Yes, it is a non-encyclopedic content, but it is still impossible to build human knowledge without humans and humans have some more needs than writing the articles.
  • Build one community. The strongest side of Wikipedia is its diverse community. However, one thing is a diverse community, the other is a lot of different communities which don’t have a lot in common. Having a number of communities which treat Wikipedia as a hosting provider is a good way for educating contributors for others. If contributors treat Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects as hosting providers, they will fly to the better one when better one starts to exist. And, in some aspects, Knol is the better provider.
  • Brianna wrote a couple of days ago about a problem with deletionism. If you didn’t, read it.
  • Make Wikipedia not so hostile environment. How? I don’t know. Maybe someone else has some idea…
  • And, the most important: This is maybe the last chance to start to think realistically; especially, to start to think. Stories about “the sum of human knowledge”, “being a part of free culture movement”, about “changing the world” and so on — are very nice. But, we are living here and now. And we have some problems here and now.
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~ by millosh on July 24, 2008.

7 Responses to “Google Knol and the future of Wikipedia and Wikimedia”

  1. Only highly reliable contributors, and contributors with scholar background should get that tool.

    well, unfortunatly, a few of the worst POV-pusher I ever seen were scholars, so I guess don’t don’t always get the wisdom with the knowledge 🙂

  2. (sorry for double posting 🙂
    Although I gotta say, the article in there (at least the one at the front page) seems pretty well made, tho I’m not toooo sure about the copyright of some of the pictures used, or actually, the usefulness them in some case (for example, Type I diabete half of them seems to lie there just to be pretty, without solid relation to the subject)

  3. […] Google Knol and the future of Wikipedia and Wikimedia, par Millosh […]

  4. About scholars as POV-pushers: Yes, I found one high level scholar at sr.wp as a POV pusher. Actually, average young (POV-pusher or not) Wikipedians were making much more reliable articles than that one (with citing sources). However, we have to find a way how to deal with Flagged Revisions: it is not a simple maintaining task. It seems that we need both characteristics for contributors with those permissions: reliable AND with high knowledge.

    About Knol’s problems: Heh, they will have to pass a lot of stages which we passed. And, yes, established community with their own rules is one more advantage of Wikipedia. But, the main point is that Wikipedia got the first serious competitor. While Knol will be much more a direct danger for Citizendium and similar projects, indirectly, Knol is a significant danger for the consistence of Wikipedia’s community no matter how long Knol’s infancy will last.

  5. Hi, millosh. You might be interested in an article I wrote about the same topic: http://www.enotes.com/blogs/wikipedia/2008-07/5-mistakes-google-made-with-knol/

  6. There is the Verifiability of Knol. I never found anything relevant or reliable on knol. Knol is starting to be used as a spam platform and self promotion platform. There are high chances that the info you get from knol is false or subiective, not to say that I’ve found articles promoting xenofobism, antisemitism and a lot of ill guided authors. At this time knol seem to be nothing more than a blog platform (with clever marketing) where people can write anything they want. I hardly see any resilience between Wikipedia and Knol, Wikipedia has Verifiability (“editors should provide a reliable source for quotations and for any material that is challenged or likely to be challenged”) while on knol you can write any phantasmagoric or lunatic thing you want nobody really cares if it’s false or true or what repercussions may have on people seeking knowledge. Knol has nothing to do with knowledge, it’s just library of opinions not knowledge, unless we agree on the fact that anything that can be written by anybody is knowledge. So from my point of view knol should not be taken serious at this time, at least not more serious than anybody’s blog on the internet.

  7. Michael, thanks for the comment. Yes, I’ve supposed, at Knol’s beginnings, that bias may become its significant problem. It doesn’t have self-regulation and collaboration as a default, like Wikipedia has. And the product is obviously bad.

    We’ve got, also, one significant lesson: An organization which is very good in many businesses, like Google is, don’t need to be even average in another business. (Wikia is, for example, much better than Knol in that business.)

    Also, I think that voluntarily knowledge building can’t be built as a [commercial] business model. Nobody cares to make a lot of money to someone else and almost nothing for herself, but a lot of humans care to build knowledge for all of us.

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