Just a few days ago, I was commenting on a New York Times article about Wikipedia’s new approval system that the biggest problem with Wikipedia is anonymous authorship. By synchronous coincidence, Google unveiled Knol today, which is something of a cross between Wikipedia and Squidoo. It’s most salient feature is that each entry will have a clearly identified author. They even allow authors to verify their identities using credit cards or phone directories.
It’s a nice idea, since anonymous authorship is a a major factor in the adversarial nature of information retrieval on the web. Not only does the accountability of authorship inhibit vandalism and edit wars, but it also allows readers to decide for themselves whom to trust–at least to the extent that readers are able and willing to obtain reliable information about the authors. Without question, they are addressing Wikipedia’s biggest weakness.
But it’s too little, too late. Wikipedia is already there. And, despite complaints about its inaccuracy and bias, Wikipedia is a fantastic, highly utilized resource. The only way I see for Knol to supplant Wikipedia in reasonable time frame is through a massive cut-and-paste to make up for the huge difference in content.
Interestingly, Wikipedia does not seem to place any onerous restrictions on verbatim copying. However, unless a single author is 100% responsible for authoring a Wikipedia entry, it isn’t clear that anyone can simply copy the entry into Knol.
I know that it’s dangerous to bet against Google. But I’m really skeptical about this latest effort. It’s a pity, because I think their emphasis is the right one. But for once I wish they’d been a bit more humble and accepted that they aren’t going to build a better Wikipedia from scratch.