Friday, July 25, 2008

The Knol Challenge

Will Knol take the "Wikipedia fight club" mentality out of the pursuit of documenting reference material? Wikipedia may like to present itself as the ultimate demonstration of the "wisdom of crowds;" but as I, and many others, have pointed out, the longest pole in Widipedia's ideological tent has been anonymity. This is a critical issue, because there is very likely a tight coupling between how "knowledgeable" a crowd can be and how accountable individual members are for their contributions. Google has been in the process of trying to address the problem of anonymity with a new product called Knol; and, as Jennifer LeClaire reported on NewsFactor Network yesterday afternoon, that product is now ready for public consumption:
On Wednesday Google took the lid off a new product called Knol. The search-engine giant first announced it was testing the product in December. Knols are authoritative articles about specific topics, written by people who know about those subjects.
My guess is that LeClaire got that last sentence from press-release material; and, on the basis of how it was written, I would classify it as "news," rather than "opinion" or "analysis." I therefore see it as fair game to question the validity of this particular sentence.

Note that the sentence actually makes two claims:
  1. Every article is written by someone who knows about its particular topic.
  2. Regardless of the credentials of the author, the content of the article is authoritative.
On my first visit to Knol, I decided to take a look at an article entitled "A Crisis In Leadership." In addressing the first point, it is easy to observe that the author of this article is Angelo Mastrangelo; and, to the right of the article, we see a photograph of him along with the description, "Entrepreneur, Professor, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY." Following the hyperlink attached to his name, we find the following Web page:

Biographical knol not published

The requested biographical knol has been unpublished by the author.
That is all we know; but, to invoke the "poetic wisdom" of John Keats, I would argue very strongly that it is a far distance from all we need to know. There is nothing wrong with asking an author to provide a biographical statement of credentials, as long as two fundamental questions are addressed:
  1. Should the author's article be released for publication if credentials have not been provided?
  2. What is the process for vetting those credentials (moving from Keats to Plato's "Republic" or, in more contemporary language, "checking your sources"), once they have been provided?
Under current Knol operations, we definitely know the answer to the first question; my guess is that the answer to the second is no better.

This is a sensitive matter, particularly where a topic like leadership is concerned. "Business school" articles cannot be reviewed in the same manner as contributions to scientific publications. It is not a matter of adhering to proven methods that address the collection and interpretation of data. Ultimately, it is a matter of argumentation, which is as likely to be supported by enthymematic reasoning as by the rigors of a propositional or predicate calculus. Thus, within the framework of the medieval trivium, the soundness of the text depends on some combination of sound logic and sound rhetoric. Unfortunately, in this particular article there is far more self-promotion than there is argumentation; and, as far as the needs of the trivium are concerned, there is a comment to this article (also by an author without credentials), which observes that the grammar is also weak! We are thus faced with an article by an author whose background we are justified in questioning (regardless of whether or not his background actually is questionable) providing content that reads more like an advertisement for the author (jumping from Plato all the way up to Norman Mailer) than an "authoritative" statement about leadership and its associated "question of crisis." All in all, then, this particular article puts a considerable strain on that "unit of knowledge" (which is what the designers of this system claim a "knol" is) epithet that sits at the top of ever page.

This brings us back to LeClaire's report. Rather than performing a similar exercise in evaluation, she did what reporters often do, which is to complement the promotional material from a press release with some source who can articulate the opposing point of view. This occupies her final four paragraphs:
Knol is a potentially valuable property, according to Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. But that potential, he said, depends on the content. It could take years for Knol to build the volume of content Wikipedia boasts, and the nature of the site -- relying on named authors -- could slow the content-generation process. That means Knol is not an immediate threat to Wikipedia, Sterling said.

"The difference between Knol and Wikipedia is that Wikipedia is edited by a group of people, a community or a select number of editors, and this has a single author," Sterling explained. "An individual expert or author is the source of the information, or at least has the byline."

Knol, then, offers pros and cons for its readers. The benefits, Sterling said, might be more authoritative or reliable content. The downside may be people motivated to write pieces as a promotional vehicle for books or other products.

"Maybe there's a subject like heart disease and both Wikipedia and Knol have articles. Both articles would both show up in search results," Sterling said. "People could look at them both and make their own determination."
Whether or not Sterling actually saw a "promotional vehicle," such as the one I just examined, his pro-and-con thinking was definitely running along the right lines. Now I have to confess to a certain bias towards Sterling, since his punch line is basically a reinforcement of my own caveat lector philosophy: In the world of the Internet, the reader must be actively responsible for being informed. Unfortunately, in its current state Knol provides little (certainly far less than Wikipedia) to support "reader actions;" but such a reader can still get considerable mileage out of the Google parent!

One final point is that any visitor to Knol would do well to take that "BETA" in print both fine and faint very seriously. It is not at all easy to figure out what content is worth looking for in the first place and the Browse hyperlink (also in very fine print) constitutes one of the greater abuses of terminology, even by Internet standards. It is only when you follow the link and find a page headed "Bag o'knols" that you encounter any truth in advertising. This is a truly unstructured list, and it currently runs to seven Web pages! As an alternative to browsing, my only test of the search tool did not surprise me:
Search Results:
No results found for Brahms
Don't like empty search results? Know something? Write a Knol
Thanks for the invitation guys, but I am currently making far better use than I might have anticipated from the Wikipedia entry for Johannes Brahms!

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