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Alun Salt, an archaeology PhD student and therefore a elitist expert by Internet standards, used to edit Wikipedia, but after five hundred-odd edits, he decided to give up and become Wikipedian Emeritus. In giving his reasons, he also made a prediction:

From the limited information available it looks like the combination of Knol [see here] and Wikipedia’s policies will be a Wikipedia-killer.

First off Knol will attract experts because of its emphasis on authorship. Additional features like collaborative authoring will attract people who can work together. You can also bet that Google will be marketing Knol as a tool to experts. Even without migration from Wikipedia that will be a blow. The material will be protected from plagiarism. If there’s one company that can find copies on the web, it’s Google.

I find the idea of having one company in charge of hosting content and providing search functionality a little, well, spooky — and yes, that already applies to YouTube and Blogger — but moving on:

Additionally, Knol will have entries on anything, which means it will cover material excluded from Wikipedia. Knol will start grabbing number slots from Wikipedia, which will make Wikipedia an even less attractive site for experts. But Wikipedia will have many legacy links from un-updated websites for decades, so it will slowly fade rather than disappear. It’ll be common to see Knol as result one for a search as it is for Wikipedia today, and Wikipedia will own the number two slot. It’ll also gain a reputation, because who will be left?

The people who don’t create content will stick around Wikipedia where they can police each other. So will cranks, who’ll have free rein on many articles when subject experts leave for Knol. Wikipedia will be known for giving an alternative opinion, in the same way that saying Elvis is alive in Des Moines is an alternative opinion.

The biggest question is how long will it take for Knol to overtake Wikipedia. My guess is that for 12 months after Knol’s launch, Wikipedia will still be number one, and the users remaining here will congratulate each other for seeing off the threat. The occasional search results where Knol beats Wikipedia will be seen as an aberration. Between 12 and 18 months people will notice that Knol beats Wikipedia for most major subjects, there’ll be attempts by Wikipedians to organise other Wikipedians in writing entries, but as the months go on it’ll be noticed that the creative people have disappeared somewhere. 24 months after Knol’s launch you’ll be able to tell if an entry really is notable is by whether or not Knol or Wikipedia is the number one search result.

I’m not sure whether Alun is right or not — Wikipedia is a big enough thing that it’s hard to get a representative sampling of the minds involved. (In the meantime, Wikipedia’s article on Knol should be interesting to watch.) Still, it’s nice to have actual numbers attached to a prediction. Yay falsifiability!

(Hat tip to Martin Rundkvist.)

7 Comments

  1. I was about ready to mock the guy for not understanding Wikipedia’s truly massive inertia and the failure of other Not-WP projects that tried to “vet” contributions… But then I noticed that Knol is run by Google, and everybody seems to flock to anything Google does. So I guess it’s a toss-up.

    • Alun
    • Posted Sunday, 18 May 2008 at 11:07 am
    • Permalink

    Naah, mock me if you like. Expertise on one thing, if I have it, doesn’t transfer to predicting the future of the internet. :) …and yes more power to Google is not necessarily a good thing.

  2. In this case, we have the additional problem that we’re prognosticating blind, or at least half-blind. We know about Wikipedia, although each of us has probably experienced a slightly different aspect of it, based on our involvement level and areas of interest; however, we have yet to see Knol in action.

    As long as we’re throwing numbers around, maybe we should take a stab at guesstimating when antitrust legislation breaks Ma Google into pieces? A box of cannoli says we’ll see an attempt within five years.

  3. Google really is getting scary big on the amount of information under its direct control.

  4. One thing I should have remarked upon, but didn’t:

    I’m not sure what the point of making Web pages “protected from plagiarism” is supposed to be. Yes, ripping off somebody else’s hard work for your own financial benefit is a skanky thing to do, but locking up information which should be made to benefit the public isn’t good either. This is what Creative Commons and the GFDL are for. Thanks to the GFDL provisions, if Jimmy Wales should turn into a money-grubbing, petty little sleaze machine, and if the project’s policies were leading it to disaster, we could still take whatever content we like out of Wikipedia and start up shop elsewhere.

  5. One should keep in mind that, at present, Knol is still vapourware – at present the only evidence of it is a single Google blog post.

    If it operates as described in said blog post, then it sounds a bit like about.com – useful articles on a subject signed by an expert. These will be usable as references in Wikipedia articles.

    The main thing is that new knowledge gets out there in a usable form. More good freely-reusable content is a win for everyone.

  6. Point.

    One thing to keep in mind is that we already have highly visible places where experts and specialists can write about their favorite topics and attract comments from readers. They’re called blogs. The question is, should Knol ever actually appear, what will make it different from a blog host? It’ll have to have some way of funneling contributions from multiple editors into the same text, the way a wiki does, so that the text can actually benefit from collaboration, while simultaneously preserving the author-ity of the original creators. (This isn’t just a matter of “keeping up appearances” and free-riding on an author’s credentials: without somebody caring about overall organization, wiki articles tend to die the death of a thousand cuts.) Nobody has yet invented an interface which strikes this balance and makes it intuitive — and, believe me, they’ve been talking about adding “stable versions” to Wikipedia for years.