Google Knol into the Dustbin of E-history

After 15 weeks of non-stop work, a moment for thinking about something other than classes and budgets came available today. Recently, while googling about, I became re-acquainted with the idea of a “knol” — a unit of knowledge — and the associated web service that Google has run these last number of years. And the fact that it is going away. Or rather it is evolving: into something called Annotum which describes itself this way:

Develop a simple, robust, easy-to-use authoring system to create and edit scholarly articles
Deliver an editorial review and publishing system that can be used to submit, review, and publish scholarly articles

The google knol thing has been around since 2007. The initial beta announcement described the thithis way

Knols are authoritative articles about specific topics, written by people who know about those subjects.

I remember, now, encountering it back in the day — I may even have written some knols — but it didn’t stay on the radar screen for long. It was portrayed at the time as an alternative to Wikipedia — with it’s distinguishing characteristic being “authorship” :

The key principle behind Knol is authorship. Every knol will have an author (or group of authors) who put their name behind their content. It’s their knol, their voice, their opinion. We expect that there will be multiple knols on the same subject, and we think that is good (googleblog, 2008).

The divergence between Wikipedia’s modus operandi and that of Knol (now Annotum) provides a nice case study jumping off point for thinking aboutf how we are figuring out the relationship between crowd sourcing and authorship, peer production, open source, intellectual authority, and how platform as institution feeds into how we think about content legitimacy.

Wikipedia harvests (harnesses, makes possible the emergence or realization) of a potentiality that, in a sense, has always been there, but represents a completely new mode of knowledge aggregation and access.  A project like Knol or Annotatum, on the other hand, is about removing the friction from existing processes in a way that makes more of what’s already done happen more easily.

Both approaches thumb their nose at property-based organizational middle-men as the arbiter of intellectual legitimacy, but exploring the contrast between them is instructive.

I am, of course, not the first to think about this.  One knol author suggested that the real point of contrast is “Wikipedia does not allow the visionary or individualistic type of knowledge to be developed, because Wikipedia does not allow original content.” And if you google “knol vs. wikipedia” you’ll find lots of others — my initial, quick and dirty assessment is that most are boosters for one or the other approach but I’m guessing there will be some grist for the mill for the chapter in The Sociology of Information where I’ll talk about the social organization of information aggregation.

Bottom line: I’m back on the job.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

One thought on “Google Knol into the Dustbin of E-history”

  1. Social organization of information and information aggregation. while there are always recognized authorities on information publishing from ancient days, there are also amateur authors. Even today in India, some people find materials written palm leaves in their old abandoned house etc. There are practices of placing stones in temples with some writings in them. May be some people encouraged them. But online publishing platforms really gave a very big push for amateur publishing and the world got lot of benefit out of it. Many relevant things are now found in blogs as millions of persons have written on many issues on which one would have never found an authoritative book content.

    To what extent social institutions have supported this amateur publishing now? No doubt many are reading them seriously. Some foundations must have supported them. But I think it will be good if more foundations come and recognize large number of niche blogs and encourage millions to share their knowledge, ideas and opinions through blogs and other online article platforms. No doubt certain guidelines and suggestions can be developed and promoted to reduce junk, spam or other unwanted online content waste.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: