Like most of the blogosphere, I greeted the debut of Google’s Knol in July with deep skepticism. Perhaps two months is too soon to judge their endeavor, even in internet time, but I’m inclined to agree with Farhad Manjoo at Slate that Knol will never be as good as Wikipedia.
I maintain, as does Udi Manber at Google, that anonymity is overrated. All else equal, I’d like to know whose writing I’m reading. Author–or, in Wikipedia’s case, editor–reputation is a valuable signal, and Wikipedia all but obliterates it. In fact, reader can track a non-anonymous editor’s contributions to Wikipedia. But Wikipedia hardly facilitates or encourages readers to pay attention to identities of editors.
Still, Knol does not appear to be a credible alternative to Wikipedia, let alone a competitive threat. From all accounts, Wikipedia offers not only much greater quantity, but also higher quality. Why?
Here are my speculations, mostly borrowed from the conventional wisdom:
- First-mover advantage. Much of the information in Wikipedia is good enough and is easily found. Even if you write a better article elsewhere, few people will care. And those who do might suggest you could have improved the Wikipedia entry instead.
- Non-financial motivations. According to Manjoo, most Knol authors are financially motivated. In contrast, Wikipedia authors have no hope of obtaining direct financial benefit from their contributions–and Wikipedia strongly discourages contributions that reflect a conflict of interest. As a result, those who have contributed to Wikipedia have done so from non-financial motivation, and there are numerous studies suggesting that non-financial motivations trump financial ones.
- Ease of collective editing. Wikipedia makes it easy–perhaps too easy–to edit an entry. In contrast, on Knol, an edit must be accepted by the original author before it is effective. I know from my own experience with moderated comment threads, that the delay is often sufficient to quash my initiative to contribute.
Perhaps it is premature to write Knol’s obituary. But I agree with Manjoo’s conclusion: “The problem is that we don’t need the next Wikipedia. Today’s version works amazingly well.”