Deriving knowledge from information

July 27, 2008

Google’s Knol is now open to everyone, causing turmoil in the blogosphere, particularly among those interested in the old battle of Turning Information into Knowledge.

An old battle that is! Leonardo’s famous notebooks were a way of organizing information into knowledge. Today, Google claims that it’s not easy enough for people to share their knowledge. Enters Knol.

Knol is seen by many as a direct competitor and threat to Wikipedia. Google’s official message underlines a key difference: the idea behind the Knol project is to highlight authors. Each article (dubbed Knol) is expected to be authoritative about specific topics. Unlike Wikipedia, Knols are driven by authorship. “Moderated collaboration” is also available, allowing authors to work together — yet, as far as I’ve seen, most articles are written by a single author and are set for “Closed collaboration”.

The blogosphere is currently boiling with posts on how Knol will fail and never defeat Wikipedia. I am personally not interested in that soup. I am more interested in the social implications of a platform like Knol. So I decided to plunge, choose a topic, and compare Wikipedia’s and Knol’s articles on that very same topic. The topic I chose is something I’ve been increasingly interested about: Bone Marrow Transplantation. Here are the articles.

After carefully reading both articles in a learning mood, here are some of my impressions:

  • Displaying the author’s name and portrait makes little difference to me as a reader. Both articles are quite extensive and contain probably more information than I was looking for.
  • I “trust” both articles’ content equally.
  • The single author vs. community of experts debate seems to make little difference to me, at least at first sight. The content is exhaustive on both platforms. I expect this to be the case on most topics, as experts in any fields are already influenced by the collective knowledge (learning in Universities, working in teams, collaborating in research projects, reading other experts’ articles, etc.). The exception to this could be very recent topics, news or discoveries, in which case the community has (in theory) a higher chance of updating the online information faster. But collaboration is already taking place, even if it’s not within Wikipedia.
  • Knol’s rating system is a way of tapping collective intelligence. The Common Internaut is already used to rating information online, from restaurants and movies to articles on online newspapers.
  • If I’m serious about acquiring knowledge on a specific topic, I would without a doubt read both Wikipedia, Knol, then keep on searching other sources of information. I would even take a walk to the local library and browse physical books.

One clear difference between both platforms, as far as I see it today, is that Knol appears to make it easier to anybody to write articles. Why? Simply put, a Knol resembles more a blog post than a Wiki page. Whether we (tech geeks) like it or not, Wikis are a bit scary to the Common Internaut (I can hear the screams of blasphemy already). In a sense, Knol lowers the barrier to entry for writters.

Continuing with the blog comparison, take a look at Knol’s article on Bone Marrow Transplantation and scroll down to the comments area. Read the first comment — it looks and sounds like a blog comment, doesn’t it? This particular comment is not related to the article, but to the author and his team. It discusses a story, a life and death situation — something definitely important, at least to the comment’s author and her family. This is something that would rarely take place in Wikipedia, or would it? Is that useful? Is that noise? Is that information? Is that knowledge? Should a collective panel of experts decide?

Will the quality of Knols be tainted by the commercial interests of the platform? Only time will tell. In the meantime, at least to my eyes, there is no single authoritative platform deriving knowledge from information. Knol and Wikipedia will certainly coexist for many years.

To regain the love of my fellow wiki-loving friends, here’s a geeky ending for this post:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

— T.S. Elliot, The Rock

Where is the information we have lost in data? And where is the data we have lost in noise!

— Gale Moore

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