Monday, October 13, 2008

Google knol, Wikipedia, and the ownership of ideas

I don't know how many people even know that Google Knol exists. It's a collaborative encyclopedia, kind of like Wikipedia except that the articles are more conventionally authored: someone writes an article about a topic, and if someone else doesn't like it, the critic writes a competing piece rather than editing the first one. Rumor has it that Google will eventually share ad revenues with the authors of the articles.

I hope Google puts some muscle behind promoting Knol and making it a lively complement to Wikipedia. The collective authorship of Wikipedia will always have strengths that a single-author model can't beat: one of the under-discussed miracles of Wikipedia, for example, is its ability to track fast-changing phenomena of popular culture.

Wikipedia tends to be mediocre and sometimes worse, however, in areas where scholarly expertise holds sway. Scholars usually don't apply their expertise to Wikipedia, even when those scholars (like me) are generally happy to share their thoughts in public for free. When I hear of my colleagues asking students to critique Wikipedia, I sometimes suggest that part of the assignment could involve making Wikipedia better. I don't think I've hooked anoyone on the idea, however, and I admit that I might hesitate to do the same thing myself, largely because the work of the class could be undone by subsequent editors.

I am therefore interested in Knol's model of having authors own articles, not only in the sense that they might someday get a little cash from them but also in that (as far as I can tell) the site doesn't let other people mess with the authors' text. In Google's system, I can more easily imagine asking a class to invest time in creating a set of linked pages--or even doing a set of Knol articles and editing a parallel set of Wikipedia articles to compare the experiences. And I can much more easily imagine myself and my colleagues writing articles of more scholarly and interpretive interest on Knol.

I wonder whether any of my readers are Wikipedia devotees or critics who have opinions about Knol's prospects. Anyone?


Seth Gitter said...

I thought about writing a knol article on something I'm an expert in, but I was unsure how popular knol will become and if I'll ever see money from it or kudos.

If Google wants Knol to suceed they should start a fund, and pay some reasonably well known names to write some article, I think a kick start would get more qualified people to write articles.

I think wikipedia is usefull for finding information you just want a close answer, nothing exact or technical. Wikipedia is good at answering fact questions, but in terms of opinions/analysis not so good.

I have thought about asking students to look at Wikipedia articles and critique them, but I'm not sure that they have the skills to do that.

Taran Rampersad said...

I tend to agree with your analytic comparison of Knol and Wikipedia. Wikipedia is notably weak in some areas, and also does not hold more than one perspective well - that perspective being what Wikipedians in power deciding what it should be.

Knol has a lot of potential. But then, so does having one's own website. Reinventing the web in that way is somewhat mundane. Sort of like having private messaging on a website where it updates one by email...

Regarding Seth's comment about not writing because one is not sure whether Knol will become popular... well, that is really not something to worry about. If you're going to write, do it somewhere - on a subway wall or in the sky. But write.