By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 6:49 pm
Back in December, Google said it was working on a platform for knowledge sharing called Knol–and I wrote what seems in retrospect an unusually cranky post about it. I admitted that it could be neat, but I said I was tired of Google hopping on bandwagons, and that Knol sounded like a me-too project. I was also irked by the fact that Google said at the time that it wasn’t sure whether it would ever actually launch Knol. In short, I was just plain pissy.
Flash forward to today: Knol has indeed been launched at knol.google.com. And maybe I just happen to be in a better mood today, but I’ve gone from grudgingly admitting it might be OK to being…well, enthusiastic about it. Or at least guardedly optimistic.
What’s Knol, in one sentence? It’s Wikipedia–except that the content is written by identifiable individuals, in theory experts in their field, who are allowed to have a point of view, and who can get a cut of Google advertising displayed on the entries they write. Over at Wired News, Steven Levy has a very nice piece on the idea, with opinions from Knol advocates (including Google’s Udi Manber, its inventor) and Knol naysayers (such as Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia).
Knol is not exactly a radically new idea. It sounds a little like an open-admissions variant of About.com, and even more like Seth Godin’s Squidoo. But mostly, It’s impossible to talk about Knol without comparing it to Wikipedia.
I love Wikipedia–I read dozens of entries there a month, and can’t quite believe it’s only been around since 2001. (Side note: I learned that last fact by checking the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia.) I think there’s a place for Knol, too, and it boils down to one principle: On Wikipedia, individualistic perspective is bad, but on Knol it could be the whole idea.
I’m reminded of a Wikipedia article I recently happened to peruse, on composer Jimmy Webb. (The “MacArthur Park” guy, not to be confused with Jimmy Wales.) “Jimmy Layne Webb is an American songwriter who has written some of the most memorable and innovative music of his generation.” it began-and I pretty much lost interest then and there. It was obviously written by a passionate Jimmy Webb fan who couldn’t help but reveal his enthusiasm. In the objective world of Wikipedia, you want people who can put their passions away in a little box.
But you know what? Passion is cool, especially when it’s combined with deep knowledge. I’d gladly read something on Jimmy Webb written by an ardent fan, in the right venue. And I’m hoping that Knol might turn out to be that venue.
Right now, Knol is mostly blank slate, except for a smattering of entries that Google commissioned. At the moment, the featured Knol is about “How to Backpack,” and it’s a fun, highly personal read by a guy who loves his subject and seems to know a lot about it.
Almost every other Knol on the home page at the moment, though, is health related: There are ones on Bronchiectasis, Conjunctivitis, Constipation, Malaria, Croup, Urinary tract obstruction, and more. I felt a little queasy just scanning them, and was relieved when I came across one on the ever-popular topic of Toilet clogs.
Like Wikipedia, Knol will ultimately succeed or fail on the strength of its content. Google says it wants experts, but isn’t screening authors other than to give them the option of verifying their identity via an automated telephone call or a credit-card check. (I just used the telephone option to verify myself; it took all of 45 seconds.) It seems a safe bet that there will be superb Knols, decent ones, and ones that are just plain lousy; the platform includes user ratings and comments which should help Knol perusers find the good stuff and avoid the misfires.
Of course, the worst entries in encyclopedic works of any sort are the ones on topics you actually know something about, since they’re the only ones you’re qualified to judge the accuracy of. Steve Levy’s Wired story starts with the interesting tidbit that Udi Manber is a fan of New Yorker cartoons, and has written a yet-unpublshed Knol on Peter Arno, perhaps the greatest of all magazine cartoonists. Oddly enough, Manber’s passion is one of mine, too; I look forward to reading his Knol, and would be delighted if he contributed more on New Yorker cartoonists. (Wikipedia has very little on wonderful artists such as George Price, Sam Cobean, and Helen Hokinson, and it has nothing whatsoever on Whitney Darrow or B. Tobey.)
Over at TechCrunch, Jason Kincaid has blogged about Knol, theorizing that the fact it’s an ad platform will lead people to spam it with entries on topics likely to be monetizable, and discourage them from writing anything with an audience that’s not huge. (That won’t be the case with Manber, apparently, unless he has a secret theory that the world is teeming with Peter Arno fans.) I’m not really worried about that prospect: If the Web has shown us anything, it’s that people will create content on their interests, whatever they be. And if Google has shown anything, it’s that there’s no topic on the planet that can’t be monetized.
I’m more concerned about something I wrote about back in my original crabby post about Knol: that it’ll turn out to be one of those interesting Google projects that doesn’t go much of anywhere. It could well happen. But for now, I’m glad that Knol is here. As it fills up with entries on topics other than painful diseases, I’ll have my eye on it…