Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Test-driving Knol

"Crowd-sourcing" is really, really difficult, and Google has a spotted history with social software.

I took Knol for a test drive to see if it stands a chance of competing with Wikipedia.



Here's the video, if you can't see the embed.

Knol is different from Wikipedia in a lot of ways:

  • The creator of a page can "own" it, approving and rejecting other people's edits

  • There can be more than one page about a topic

  • There are no hard-and-fast rules, just a rating-driven filtering system

  • You can verify your identity (and not just by credit card!)

  • Google has money to burn, so the interface doesn't look like it was designed by an engineering student circa 1974. (It looks like it was designed by an engineering professor who drives a Volvo.)


I was skeptical when Google announced the project last year, but this is pretty impressive (even though it's not all that useful yet).

The biggest flaw is the front page, which is disorganized, lacks a human touch (despite being composed of manually-tagged items) and doesn't convey any sort of comprehensive sweep. Almost all of the spotlighted articles are about depressing medical conditions, which is a big mistake -- it makes it look like knol is a less-organized version of webMD or something.

If Google manages to cultivate a sense of community, Knol actually stands a chance of becoming a small but significant competitor -- which is good, because Wikipedia needs an external kick in the pants to cut through the introspection.

Google jumps into social search

They're testing a service where users can promote and demote search results, and leave comments -- all right inside the google interface.

Here's the techcrunch video:



You don't have to be William Gibson to get a looking-at-the-future quiver. But this is very bad news for Wikia, the startup run by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. They've spent the last year or so trying to build exactly what google just rolled out.

Wikia search had a noble goal -- to open-source bloody websearch, which is central to just about everything -- but they never had a chance against Google; they would have had to hire every PhD, ever. (I've said before that Wikia should concentrate on building communities, which they're great at, not building search engines.)

It's also bad news for Yahoo. It looks like Google is buying Digg -- which is social search in a very general way -- and unlike yahoo, they're willing to integrate their websites with each other.

Is Wikipedia Nuking the Fridge?

The short answer

No.

The medium answer

Not if you want an encyclopedia, but maybe if you want a kaleidoscopic window into the world.

The long answer

About Nuking the Fridge, Newsweek says:
Early in the new "Indiana Jones" sequel, our creaky, 65-year-old hero stumbles onto a nuclear test site, and the warning siren is blaring. Panicked, surrounded by Potemkin houses, he folds himself inside the lead-lined cavity of a refrigerator. Kaboom: the blast sends Indy hurtling across the New Mexico desert, a mushroom cloud rising behind him. He lands and, logic be damned, tumbles out unscathed. The franchise, though, will never recover.

[...]

The phrase was born on May 24—two days after the film opened—and it went viral on movie message boards. In barely a month, it has blown through several Web. 2.0 benchmarks: YouTube tributes, "fridge" haikus, merch-hawking Web sites, "Word of the Day" status on UrbanDictionary.com. "You're expecting [the movie] to be as great as you remembered it," says Beth Russell, creator of nukingthefridge.com, "and after the fridge scene, it was like, 'Oooo-K'." A new legend is born, for all the wrong reasons.

What say Wikipedia?


Well ... nothing.

The Nuking the Fridge article was actually deleted twice -- the meme was so powerful that someone who didn't know about the first deletion created the page again almost immediately. But this type of re-creation is actually against the rules -- instead, you have to propose re-creation at "deletion review" (even though, for the uninitiated, there are no hints that the blank page being edited was ever home to an article in the past). So it was deleted again immediately, without discussion.

How many people weighed in on that first deletion? One. It was "speedy deleted" after a single vote. ("Presumption is this was made up by the author and/or their friends (see author's username).")

One of many ironies here is that "Nuking the Fridge" is still a requested article -- which is to say that sometime after it was deleted, someone saw that the article didn't exist and added it to the collaborative to-do list.

This type of thing happens all the time. On one of my periodic safaris into deletion land, I saw that List of planets in Futurama had just gone under the axe, and I had an admin put a copy of it in my user space.

A couple days later, someone found my copy through the global search engine and wrote me a note:
I noticed you have a very nice article writen about the planets in futurama; would you consider adding it to the futurama articles, either split up as separate articles for each planet or as one big article? I made the "list of planets", which was missing from the link in the Futurama Portal (it was red).
I showed him the deletion vote. He said,
I dont understand -- if so many people voted keep, why did it get deleted? Now a list of planets is in the list of tasks for the Futurama Project. Seems like this is one of those situations where the right hand dosn't know what the left is doing.
Stability is good. Instability is bad.

Feeling like the words you type into wikipedia could be read in 100 years -- that's great. Knowing that an article you write might be deleted even if another wikipedian has specifically requested that article: bad. Rewriting an article without knowing that it's already been written and expunged? Terrible.

Feeling like you have to constantly push back against the deletion tide ... well, that kills kittens (where by kittens, I mean "the stuff that powers wikipedia").

Is there a solution?

I'm working on one, but it's a secret. In the meantime, Wikipedia's newest board member, Ting Chen, seems to be concerned about correcting this problem -- his wikimania talk was called "Keep the Community Open while Wikipedia matures".

Wikipedia Weekly had this to say about the talk:

These things that make wikipedia great, not just in english but in the other languages that he's fluent in, german and chinese -- it was interesting talking about how the "quality drives" that we have are driving us against this kind of open model, and driving us towards saying "well, really, if we're going to have stable versions, we want a highly vetted version we need someone with a phd to do that."


The foundation is also talking about making page-view statistics available for every article. WWeekly, again:

What Eric's talking about, using stats long-term, is not just to think of them as some numbers that you go to the website and pull out, but actually thinking about, longer-term, integrating them into the editing process.


That sounds awesome, and it means, among other things, that people will be confronted with the fact that they're deleting articles that get viewed hundreds of times a week.




For the record, I kind of liked the new movie. Indiana Jones was never realistic, and always had indy escaping in ridiculous ways. You just don't realize 'cause you saw the first movies when you were a kid.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Picture: the "Criticism of Windows Vista" article is slightly longer than the "God" article. See also.

Gut-wrenching Scream And Fall Into Distance (titled "Screams 3; Man, Gut-wrenching Scream And Fall Into Distance" on the compilation Hollywood Edge Premiere Edition, volume 13) is an often-used sound effect.

Like the Wilhelm Scream, it is an inside joke among sound engineers.

The Wilhelm Scream's revival came from Star Wars series sound designer Ben Burtt, who tracked down the original recording (which he found as a studio reel labeled "Man being eaten by alligator").

A Super-Earth is an extrasolar terrestrial planet that is more massive than the Earth, but less than 10 times as massive.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

2 more NYTimes dispatches from Wikimania.

First, A Book With 90,000 Authors, about the German Wikipedia's printed edition.

The Wikipedian, Mathias Schindler, said the credits page runs 27 pages “in a dense layout -– it’s a page full of names, separated by commas.” “I was able to spot my name within half a minute,” Mr. Schindler said. “And I was able to read it without any auxiliary devices.”

Second, A Wikipedian Challenge: Convincing Arabic Speakers to Write in Arabic. There are some interesting comments on this one; scroll to the bottom.