google-knol-logo1Anyone remember Knol, the Google-backed, “expert”-authored system that was supposed to be a more reliable source than Wikipedia? Yeah, I’d almost forgotten about it, too. But it looks like so has everybody else. A post on the Google Operating System blog notes that it last received any updates in December, 2009, and since then has been more or less abandoned. As Mike Masnick points out on Techdirt, it’s another example of how the big companies can’t always outcompete the community-driven efforts they try to improve upon.

Masnick refers to this as “cargo cult copying,” referring to the Pacific tribes that built new religions around technologically-advanced visitors to their islands during World War II. They would build replicas of airplanes without really understanding how they worked or what they were supposed to do. Similarly, Google built Knol as an imitation Wikipedia without understanding what actually made Wikipedia work.

It turns out that people don’t need Wikipedia to be authoritative, or 100% correct all the time. They just need it to be “close enough”, and the more eyeballs and keyboard hands can contribute to the project, the more likely it is to be closer to right. It’s not always perfect—its editors have sometimes made bizarre decisions, and have often been accused of pandering to their own biases—and no teacher in their right mind would let a student use it as a primary source. But then, teachers don’t let students use commercial encyclopedias as primary sources either. In both cases, they’re just thumbnail sketches that satisfy curiosity, or give those more than merely curious a direction in which to begin their research into better sources.

And other community-based knowledge resources have started springing up, too, such as question-answering service Quora—like Wikipedia, but with a narrow focus on specifically answering questions rather than providing information. These things are driven by users, not by corporations, so it’s not surprising that corporate efforts will find themselves abandoned and overgrown with weeds—like a certain grassy Knol.


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