Iron Clouds

It’s nice when I can recycle concepts from many years ago for new releases of technology. Take, for instance, my concept of iron clouds and the release of Google’s Knols.

An iron cloud is a cloud–a resource accessible by anyone, anywhere–that is seemingly open and accessible but has, as its core, a heart of iron: it’s owned by a single entity. It is centralized by a single entity, regardless of its physical distribution. To me, there can be no true cloud when there’s ownership.

Udi Manber introduces Knols with the following:

The web contains an enormous amount of information, and Google has helped to make that information more easily accessible by providing pretty good search facilities. But not everything is written nor is everything well organized to make it easily discoverable. There are millions of people who possess useful knowledge that they would love to share, and there are billions of people who can benefit from it. We believe that many do not share that knowledge today simply because it is not easy enough to do that. The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal

We believe that many do not share that knowledge today simply because it is not easy enough to do that. This just isn’t true, and a rather backhanded insult to another Google property, Blogger. If a person is comfortable enough with the Net, they have all they need to be able to start contributing to the Net, through Blogger, Typepad, WordPress.com, and so on. There may be experts who refuse to put their material online until they’re paid for it, but then again, we have sites like Huffington Post, which provides both payment and place in which the experts may dabble their little toes.

If this is a snide aside to Wikipedia’s reliance on Wiki technology, I don’t think any of us has seen that Wikipedia suffers heavily from too many people constrained from contributing. The problems at Wikipedia are based on organization and clannishness, not technology.

In fact, nothing about what Google is saying about Google Knols makes sense, and therefore one has to treat this new ‘gift’ with suspicion, and indeed, some alarm.

People have been saying that Knols are a way for Google to get back at Wikipedia, but in actuality, they’re a way to get back at us. We have dirtied the pristine, perfect field of search, where only the cream floats to the top. We don’t use NOFOLLOW on our links, and link indiscriminately, without a care or thought to how the search engine may suffer under our abuse. We toss our own half baked opinions out into the void and are linked, in turn, to further sully search results. Frankly, we’re messy, and muck up the algorithms.

The whole point of RDF/OWL, first, and microformats and even HTML5, was so that we all could eventually annotate our material more properly, helping to make a better, more searchable knowledgebase that expands ever outward over time. We are the cloud. However, rather than trust us to form this knowledgebase on our own, Google has now taken matters into its own hands.

I feel like the time when I was a child, and sought to help my grandmother clean up after a holiday meal. I grabbed a dish towel and was reaching for one of the fine china plates, when my grandmother, reacting in horror, snatched it out of my grasp and told me to go play with the other children; before you break something going unspoken, but understood.

Danny Sullivan commenting on Knols, writes the following:

Why do Knol? Google vice president of engineering, Udi Manber, who heads the project, told me that is designed to help people put knowledge on the web that doesn’t currently exist, which in turn should make search better, since there will be better information out there.

Of course, Google already offers other content creation tools, such as Blogger and Google Page Creator. In addition, there are non-Google tools people already use to publish content, not to mention collaborative tools such as those I named at the opening of this article. Why yet another tool?

Manber said that Knol has a special focus on authors and a collection of tools that Google thinks is unique, and which in turn should encourage both content creation and readership.

“Knol is all about the authors,” he said. “We believe that knowing who wrote a knol will significantly help users make better use of web content.”

I can feel the plate being snatched as I read these words.

Leaving aside the worrisome effect of ‘knowledge’ being centered in and controlled by Google, via its search engine and now Knols, Google is making the same calculated mistake with Knols, as Microsoft does with IE: rather than work with the community, using community tools and specifications, it goes its own proprietary path–using its considerable market presence to ensure it becomes a force regardless of the soundness, or rightness, of its approach.

Google also undercuts the more or less altruistic nature of the knowledge web in the past, with promises of remuneration for those who choose to contribute Knols (and not so coincidentally, profiting Google at the same time). It reminds me of what someone told me a year or so ago: that not having ads in my sidebar makes my site look amateurish. I guess the days when people shared knowledge just to share are over.

update

Best title: Google Runs Out of Content to Monetize; Wants You to Build More.

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5 Responses to Iron Clouds

  1. Bud Gibson says:

    I agree that is correct to understand Google’s motivations from the perspective of their self interest. I also agree with Rich Skrenta’s point earlier this week that Google’s very presences and methodology for determining relevancy is responsible for link SPAM. In other words, Google had a giant hand in creating the problem it wants solved. Finally, Google’s monopoly power in how we find things is disquieting because it starts to mean Google has too much of a say in what we present and how we present it.

    With all of that, dealing with non-technical people day in and day out, I agree that online publishing tools are just too bedeviling. I also think serious content creation has to be compensated because it takes too much time and effort. I’d like to see things like knol hosted somewhere other than google and controlled by other entities.

  2. Shelley says:

    I remember the days when people shared knowledge without anyone profiting. There goes the new web, not like the old web.

  3. Bud Gibson says:

    So, do you give your books away for free?

    I’m a university professor, so I actually get paid for generating knowledge. I give a lot of it away for free. But the truth of the matter is that someone is paying me. If it takes significant time to generate the particular knowledge your providing, you have to be compensated somehow.

    In the original web, knowledge was given away for free, but it was paid for by the tax payer (CERN is a government funded entity).

  4. Shelley says:

    I’ve probably contributed as much online as I have in my books, Bud. I’m not saying that people have to sell all their goods and live off the land. But all the discussion now is on how much you can make. I don’t think that’s an improvement.

  5. gregbo says:

    Agreed, it’s kind of sad that the conversation is dominated by monetizing sites, rather than creating content just so folks can get access to it. I have to admit that sometimes I react less favorably to a blog with no ads. It’s not a conscious reaction. (FWIW, my journal has no ads currently.)