Who Wants to Scrawl a Knol? or, How Stickypedia is Wikipedia?

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“A modern-day Library of Alexandria!” –Anonymous

When a paper is accepted by an editor, each person listed in the byline must verify in writing that he or she agrees to serve as the author and accepts the responsibilities of authorship.–Publication Manual of the American Psychological Assocation (4th Ed.), 6.05, “Ethics of Scientific Publications”

When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope. –Jorge Luis Borge, “The Library of Babel”

Google is testing “knols.”

As everybody already knols full well.

The buzz — well actually, a Google exec lays this out fairly clearly — has it that the Wiki Wiki Web-like system — only not so much — will be structured in a way to encourage authors to take responsibility for their work.

Authors have both rights and responsibilities.

What an original notion.

And so we return full-circle to our starting point: The About.com native guide.

Everything old is new again.

Contrairement à Wikipédia aussi, les encyclopédistes “knolistes” ne seront pas anonymes. Ils devront sidentifier — avec nom, photo et profession — et mettre leur réputation en jeu sils veulent publier leur travail. “Nous pensons que connaître l’identité des auteurs aidera les internautes à mieux se servir du contenu du Web”, écrit Udi Manber. Cest d’ailleurs avec cet argument que Larry Sanger, co-fondateur avec Jimmy Wales de Wikipedia, a quitté cette dernière pour créer Citizendium, une autre encyclopédie en ligne rédigée uniquement par des “experts” identifiables.

Unlike Wikipedia, the knol encyclopedists will not be anonymous. They will have to identify themselves — with name, photo and profession — and put their reputation on the line if they want their work to be published. “We think knowing the identity of authors will help Internauts make better use of Web content,” writes Udi Manber. It was using the same argument that Larry Sanger, co-founder with Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, left the project to create Citizendium, another online encyclopedia published exclusively by identifiable “experts.”

Something may have gotten lost in translation. That is not quite how the project describes itself.

Outrageously false. How many times do we have to say this? We ain’t elitist. This myth does a huge disservice to the project, because it leads “non-experts” to think that the project isn’t open to them. It is. In fact, we have roles for the general public, which may become authors, as well as for experts, which may become editors. They work together very well every day in an open, bottom-up wiki project. If you didn’t know that was possible, we’re here to show you that it is.

And, by the way, is that true of “knols”? That you will not be able to publish without identifying yourself? Will you have to authenticate your identity?

A PBS blog, for example, ran an interview not long ago with an imaginary character. And ran a picture of the (nonexistent) guy, the “Brazilian tech blogger”

Daniel Duende. “Danny the Gnome.”

Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Jimmy “A Child’s Christmas In” Wales, who dresses like a Confucian sage, is tranquil and enigmatic, as always.

He has, after all, convinced an astonishing number of people to donate money to “help Wikipedia change the world.” Or so the donation thermometer says.

What does the Wikipedia Foundation spend that money on, anyway? And where does it get from exactly?

Its 2006 Form 990. Reading.

It spends maybe a third of it on Web hosting. It says it gets it all from Anonymouses with “free will.”

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said he was unconcerned about Google knol because it seemed to him that Google would end up compiling a series of blogs rather than an authoritative encyclopedia. With more than 75,000 active contributors, 2.1 million English-language articles and a dominant position in search results, Wikipedia has a huge head start.

Wikipedia is an authoritative source?

Blogs are journals presenting entries written in chronological order. Is there any indication that the knol space is actually going to be organized in that way?

Jimmy Wales says an awful lot of nonsensical things. Like the notion that Wikipedia has the conditions of becoming an authoritative source, without accountability, if only Jimmy Wales wishes upon a star hard enough for people to actually have blind faith in this Gnostic gospel:

The Wall Street Journal seems to miss this point, however:

Google’s key challenge will be to attract a critical mass of quality content contributors, which in turn will help drive readers to the knols. The company hopes to do so by highlighting authors, a feature that could draw some Wikipedia contributors have grown tired of toiling behind the scenes.

The ability to contribute — and censor, and gabble — anonymously are exactly what attracts martyred flat-earthers who demand equal time for nonsense in the first place.

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“You make my life so much easier. Thanks, Wikipedia!” Signed, Anonymous.

Contributions are anonymous by default.

You have the option of identifying yourself honestly, and disclosing your institutional relationships fully and accurately.

But finding contributors who actually do so is a bit like the prophet Lot scouring the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the handful of upright persons for whose sake the L-rd promises to spare the city

Wikipedia is a Hobbesian state of nature. There is good content there — the section on informal fallacies is a well-written “for dummies” explanation of the topic, for example, the last time I checked it, for example.

But it is fragile and ephemeral — subject to rape and pillage by marauding barbarians the moment it attracts the attention of someone with a commercial or political interest in having the theory of the luminiferous aether, or the hollow earth, be true, or at the very least credible enough to make the Second Law of Thermodynamics “controversial.”

On this subject, I always like to point out the autohagiography by proxy of a Brazilian politician who somehow forgets to mention that he once worked in DOI-DOPS — the political police of the military dictatorship. Some of whose officers may have (probably) conducted themselves properly, but some of whose officers made utter beasts of themselves. Not much information is available on that score.

The article seems to have anonymous gnomes assigned to it who censor this information when other contributors try to insert it.

Possibly even anonymous gnomes who do this on the Brazilian taxpayer dime.

On Wikipedia, you can passionately defend the thesis that 2+2=5 and not endanger your career as a chartered public accountant — a profession whose fundamental value proposition is precisely that it passionately — as passionately as a CPA is capable of getting — does not believe this.

On the Internet, no one has to know you are a Moonie.

But unless knols are going to have biometric ID, one can always, of course, pull a Tania Head and lie about who one is. Who are any of us, really, in the larger scheme of things?


We never promised you the Principia Mathematica:

We hope that knols will include the opinions and points of view of the authors who will put their reputation on the line. Once testing is completed, participation in knols will be completely open, and we cannot expect that all of them will be of high quality.

That truth in advertising is refreshing.

One really useful contribution of the project, it does have to be said, is the Wikimedia software itself.

I have an instance running on localhost on this machine, for notetaking (although I find that Tomboy is actually pretty hand for that purpose, and rarely use it anymore.)

It is really groovy. I have futzed around with all the Wiki software in my day, starting with the one written in, Perl, was it? by Ward Cunningham.

But it lacks fundamental quality controls. By design.

It seems like these “knols” might allow the author of a given article to choose between the closed-team model and open editing in the Wikimedia mode. It is not quite clear, though.

Knols will include strong community tools. People will be able to submit comments, questions, edits, additional content, and so on. Anyone will be able to rate a knol or write a review of it. Knols will also include references and links to additional information. At the discretion of the author, a knol may include ads. If an author chooses to include ads, Google will provide the author with substantial revenue share from the proceeds of those ads.

Submit edits, but always with editorial approval? Will Google be able, or try, to authenticate user identities? It says it will not edit the material in any way, but perhaps placing an emphasis on authorship will mean that users will “consider the source” more carefully. Or maybe not. Will we be seeing a Wikiscanner for “knols” in a few years if the thing catches on? On which see also

Just idle thoughts.

Somebody invite me: I want to see how this gizmo actually works. I could offer rare insight, with the help of my wife, into the history of Brazilian soap operas, or compile highlights in the career of prominent Brazilian opinionmaker Miriam Leitão:

Chávez did not win the referendum. Ecce Globo.

Rank speculation: Wikipedia content will migrate en masse by cut and paste if the thing is easy to use and catches on. Authors will be able to build on that content in peace, without having to engage in what is the biggest disincentive to contributing — the gabbling meme wars that grow up around certain factoids.

I was noticing, for example, that there was a significant push to cast definitive doubt on the notion that Friederich Nietszche was insane in his later years — possibly as the result of a venereal disease.

This would, of course, mean that when Hitler sent Mussolini the later works of the man with the biggest moustache in the history of philosophy (and philology), he may have been sending him the works of someone who was mentally unbalanced. (Mussolini reportedly never read them.)

Which some people would prefer not to believe, regardless of whether it is true or not.

Rank speculation: As Wikipedia content “forks” in this way, the migration could end up just adding to the Library of Babel effect in Internet search — the noisy, signal-obfuscating multiplication and amplification of “content” described by Borges in the short story by that name:

Others, inversely, believed that it was fundamental to eliminate useless works. They invaded the hexagons, showed credentials which were not always false, leafed through a volume with displeasure and condemned whole shelves: their hygienic, ascetic furor caused the senseless perdition of millions of books. Their name is execrated, but those who deplore the “treasures” destroyed by this frenzy neglect two notable facts. One: the Library is so enormous that any reduction of human origin is infinitesimal. The other: every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma.

And, presumably, examples like the “wicked” Bible as well: The infamous edition with the printer’s error that garbled one of the Ten Commandments as “thou shalt commit adultery.”

The good old APA manual states the downside of this phenomenon rather neatly:

Duplicate publication distorts the knowledge base by making it appear there is more information available than really exists. (Ethics, Principle 6.24)

The first principle of noise-machine engineering: ” … and that is a good thing.” Or rather, “… and that is a fact that is Beyond Good and Evil.”

One the other hand, Wikipedia content is already multiplied by the myriad of other sites that already cut and paste snapshots of a given article at a given point.

Which makes it sort of a vast search-engine spamming mechanism, a spam latifúndio toiled in by legions of click-monkeys and gabbling plagiarists.

Or so you often hear (unnamed or pseudonymous, usually) cynics say.

The image “The Alpha and the Omega
One of the more active editors on Portuguese-language Wikipedia identifies him or herself with a cryptic symbol. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Blessed are those who do his commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter in by the gates into the city.” — Revelations 22:13-14. In other words, Wikipedia is edited by God — or else by the Evil Demiurge of the Gnostic tradition. The theological implications remain controversial. 

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