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.