The battle to become the Web’s number one encyclopaedia took an interesting turn last week when the 240-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica decided to go all Web 2.0. New contributions will still have to be verified by one of the encyclopaedia’s 4,500 experts, but this is actually pretty similar to Jimmy Wales’s new vision for Wikipedia. So concerned is Wales that troublesome graffiti artists are ruining his beloved project’s credibility, he has decided that amendments will in future be vetted by Wikipedians higher up the food chain.
Journalists have since taken every opportunity to quote a few classics from Wikipedia’s ever-expanding canon of witless contributions. “Is Wikipedia cracking up?” asks the Independent. During Sunday’s Super Bowl, Bruce Springsteen, who performed live for the half-time show, apparently had his entry subbed to read:
"Bruce Springsteen. This guy kinda sucks."
Tellingly, media interest in Google’s rival encyclopaedia, which the advertising and search company calls Knol, has been rather thin on the ground. Google says Knol is a site that provides “authoritative articles about specific topics, written by people who know about those subjects”. After six months, the number of Knol contributions on a variety of subjects has grown to over 100,000. Google recently announced a commercial deal with dummies.com to try and boost the quality of the next 100,000. I can see why.
Taking one search term at random, try inputting “Silicon Valley” to see what Knol comes up with. As you might expect, there are plenty of entries that reference Silicon Valley—this is, after all, a beta for a tech gizmo. But the only entry I could find on the Knol database that attempts to actually describe Silicon Valley (What is it? Where did it come from?) is written by somebody called Grace Keng. It is 250 words long. Wikipedia’s entry on the same subject is almost 2,000 words.
Unfortunately, Keng’s entry adds very little to the story of the world’s pre-eminent tech cluster. There is a photo credit (with the picture deleted). There is also a short history of the region's early days in tech, which brings new meaning to the word “succinct”:
“The 1930 (sic), two engineering graduate students of Stanford University set out to do their work in a garage in Palo Alto.”
The identity of these mysterious students, or at least some idea of the kind of work they enjoyed, are trifling details that Knol users can presumably google for themselves. There is then a solitary reference—a link that goes straight through to Wikipedia.
Keng does at least find the time to offer us a special insight into Silicon Valley’s phenomenal success as a technology hub:
“One of the major reasons for Silicon Valley's success is the ability to attract people from all over the world to live and work in the valley. The cultural mix and the diversity of ethnic traditions have enriched all of us.”
Which sounds suspiciously like estate agent-speak. Oh wait: Keng is an estate agent. She even posts her details in the unlikely event that having read her enlightening précis, you might suddenly decide you’re in the market for some prime Silicon Valley real estate. Sign me up for some of that ethnic enrichment.
Wikipedians and other righteous defenders of Web Justice are concerned that if Google manages to acquire a dominant position in both content and search, we might as well all pack up and go home. Knol’s feeble arsenal of content suggests otherwise.