A few days ago, as explained by Udi Manber, Google announced a new service, called Knol, which seems to have approximately the same goal as Wikipedia: to create a more or less comprehensive repository of useful knowledge. Because Google is the super-juggernaut du jour, there is a lot of speculation that Knol will be a Wikipedia killer.

I disagree (not a unique point of view). Frankly, I don’t find the Knol idea all that interesting, and if it wasn’t Google proposing it, I don’t think anyone would have noticed. The basic difference from the Wikipedia collective-authorship approach is that articles are "owned" by a single person. Others may rate, suggest content, etc., but the owner is the sole arbiter of what the article contains.

Here’s why I think Knol is uninteresting in 2007:

  1. No microcontributions. It’s impossible to make a tiny contribution (e.g. fixing a typo). Sure, you can suggest that the typo should be fixed. But there’s a lot of value in the immediate gratification: people like to see that the article is better right away due to their (tiny) efforts. In aggregate, microcontributions have lots of value in and of themselves, but they are also a good way to lead people to making macrocontributions.
  2. No effort at consensus. It is left to the reader to make sense of the several competing articles on a particular topic. One of the huge benefits of Wikepedia’s approach is that this onerous task is more or less done for you.
  3. Single point of failure in article maintenance. If an author loses interest in an article, it’s difficult or impossible for others to take over and continue work.

These problems are orthogonal to whether Google is able to successfully incentivize authors with money or recognition (things Wikipedia can’t do).

I do agree with Manber that many people who have knowledge often don’t share it because sharing is hard. But, I do not think the right way to make it easier is to introduce a new Knol-style service. Rather, I think adapting the Wikipedia approach to be friendlier is much more promising, for example by implementing a WYSIWYG editor and making policy less byzantine.

(Particularly welcome in the comments are links to interesting analyses of Knol.)

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