knolcats: i’m in ur pedia, innovatin ur ass

It its never-ending bid to own every inch of your brain, Google has just announced the beginning of its competitor project to Wikipedia. You knew this was coming. You did really, because every time you search for something, you get a Wikipedia page, right? You thought Google wouldn’t notice… There have been some short posts by Esther and Henry at Crooked Timber, and all of us want to hear what Siva will say, since he’s made it his new project to worry about precisely this.

For my part, I find it to be an interesting confirmation that something has changed with respect to innovation on the internet. While it is comforting to suggest that innovation takes place democratically on the Internet because any little guy with an innovation can suddenly become huge and all of a sudden capture billions of eyeballs, or whatever, its pretty clear that Google is turning out to be to the Internet what IBM was to mainframes and Microsoft was to PCs. Which is to say, a monopolist. Only it’s in a totally unregulated environment, where the de facto ideology is that we live in a world of unconstrained free competition; we fool ourselves that this isn’t a monopoly because their tag line is “don’t be evil.”

But in reality, Google didn’t innovate here. There are a bunch of projects that have done what google is proposing to do with “knols” but they don’t have the massive resources and direct access to the most valuable data available that Google has (for instance, my own Rice Universities Connexions project has addressed exactly the issues Google claims that no one else has addressed). But for most net observers, anyone who says “we did that before google did” is just sour grapes… and in an era and an environment in which the intellectual property system is so drastically and so completely broken, it’s impossible to use IP rights to adjudicate who might actually deserve recognition for an idea. The best you can do is assume that if they are 1) bought by Google or 2) bought by Microsoft, they must have had a good idea, and some good lawyers. So I’m not sure how I feel about the new frontier; on the one hand, I, for one, welcome our new knowledge-ecology overlords, on the other hand, it feels to me like we’re on a primrose path towards the Wal-Martization of the Internet, with candy rainbow-colored everything. Or maybe I should just take the blue pill, and stay here, forever.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

6 thoughts on “knolcats: i’m in ur pedia, innovatin ur ass

  1. One of the reasons for Wikipedia’s success is its social architecture: multiple authors who are able interact with each other in the creation of an article, using citation, NPOV, and “no original research” as maxims to guide their collaborative efforts. And there’s even adjudication for the the really tough epistemic standoffs. (Sometime soon, I expect, someone will write a kick-ass article on the discursive construction of knowledge on Wikipedia, using ‘discussion’ pages as data.)

    It is completely unclear, however, if Google has seriously thought about the social architecture of their ‘knols’ (am I the only person who is reminded of gnolls?). On the one hand, they seem to be suggesting that ‘experts’ will write these pages — but if so, how would Google choose the experts? Google would need to develop a massive Office of Expertise to identify them, which would be costly, and given the granularity of modern knowledge, probably still miss huge areas that Wikipedia, in its anarchic manner, manages to cover.

    If, on the other hand, Google’s claims about expert writers are little more than a gimmick aimed at Wikipedia’s soft underbelly, then we can expect a blizzard of knol vanity pages, without all the benefits derived from interaction between writers that Wikipedia facilitates. Although, if there *are* any good knols, they will likely end up being cannibalized by Wikipedians anyway…

    Maybe I’m underestimating just how evil Google could get, but it’s hard to see these knols coming to dominate our knowledge ecology.

  2. well, I agree that there are some hard questions for Google to answer, but the thing about being a monopoly is that you let other people answer them for you, skim off the top and provide that service at a scale and scope that no one else can manage. Google owns our brains, maybe not your brain, but many brains I know, and thus even if people have strong commitments to an alternative, Google wins because that’s where we get our mail, keep our documents, search for info and so on. This isn’t news to anyone, I think, but I’m not sure people are properly afraid of it yet.

  3. As I understand it knols are just web pages, presumably created with something like Google Pages. They are ranked in search results according to the same principles that guide any Google ranking – so unless people link to them they won’t matter. But I suppose if just 10% of knols rank higher than the wikipedia pages for the same topic it will mean that many more people stay within the Google ecosystem, so its a win-win situation for Google.

    The way I see it, its a tool that will be attractive to some people. Someone who doesn’t want to setup a blog, but wants to write an authoritative page on a given topic they care passionately about without relinquishing ownership. They could do it on Google Pages already – but presumably packaging this as a “knol” with perhaps some special features for organizing the information, should make it that much easier.

    What I wish Google would do is get in the business of making it easier to share and store bibliographic information. They should buy up CiteUlike and Zotero and integrate these features into Google Scholar. That would be something …

  4. Great post, Chris. The puzzle to me is why Google hasn’t just bought Wikipedia the way it has just about everything else that has been made “for free”? I can’t believe all those Wikipedia users who send in their twenty bucks to support Wikipedia are any match for a fat offer from Google. What’s the skinny on this? Is Jimmy Wales really that committed to his own independence? How many people could hold out against Google? We’re talking billions by now. I should know the backstory on this but I don’t beyond W’s hold-out against Microsoft’s offer a while ago.

  5. Cathy… a good question, but I would say yes, Jimmy Wales is that committed, but only because he knows he would be lynched by 100s of thousands of rabid freedom-loving wikians. Which is not the same thing as being lynched by 10 patchouli-scented earth-loving Wiccans, but is probably as unpleasant. It really is something that has flourished because the contributers feel ownership over it, and Wales knows it, so despite however much actual ownership and control he may have over the endeavor, its not his to sell in a very deep moral sense. Of course that never stopped anyone… so there’s probably a deeper back story as well…

  6. I’m just glad I’m not the only one to distrust Google’s “do no evil” motto.

    by the way, I get this feed on my google homepage, which also gets my gmail feed and a ton of other feeds.

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