Memory lets me down when it comes to who said that the worldwide web would result in a situation where the average person could use it to find the answer to any question in a matter of minutes.
There is, of course, already an incredible amount of information available and it has already made the business of research much easier. Some of the sources are online versions of publications which date from before the rise of the web, but there are many more which were created online.
The leading example of the latter type of site has to be Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com), which currently houses nearly two-and-a-half million articles in English on various subject. It really is worth the visit, even if you don’t have a question in mind, because the front page always includes a lot of interesting things to get you reading.
Google has recently launched its own online reference site called Knol, which has been touted in some reports as a Wikipedia killer, as if there is room for only one source of information. I don’t see it myself and feel that the two, which tackle the accumulation of information in different ways, are more likely complement each other.
Anyone can write a Wikipedia article and anyone can edit it and the thought is that inaccuracies will eventually be eliminated as the article passes through many hands. The articles on Wikipedia are a sort of collective effort and you are never able to assess the qualifications and knowledge of the writers and editors.
You just have to trust that any mistakes have been eliminated although you’d be wise not to bet the farm on any fact that you haven’t checked, especially if it has to with an unpopular politician’s parentage.
Knol allows anyone to contribute articles on their areas of expertise and, although these can be commented on or reviewed by others, the article has the contributor’s name on it and cannot be edited without his or her consent.
Google’s idea is that users will be better able to assess the accuracy of the information in an article if they know about the author. If he is a university professor specialising in sleep disorders, for example, you can probably assume he knows what he is talking about when it comes to sleep apnoea.
The review feature allows authors to request others to review their articles and, if these are positive and the reviewers are also authorities in their fields, you can give more weight to the information in the article. The fact that readers can comment on articles will also help to point out if there are any inaccuracies in the text.
I popped along to the site at knol.google.com to find quite a wide selection of articles and, if there is any predominant subject at the moment, it is probably medically-related. On the front page, when I visited, were articles on migraines, pediatric sports injuries and making buttermilk pancakes.
An article by Ryan Moulton, on how to go backpacking, contained advice on everything from choosing boots to tying knots. A comment adds value to that article by pointing out that it doesn’t mention ultralight backpacking, which is apparently becoming increasingly popular, and gives links to further information sources about that.
I looked up a couple of other things and found entries on Winston Churchill but not on Florence Nightingale, gunpowder or Nelson Mandela. The Knol site has only been open to the general public for a few weeks and I’m sure that the coverage will improve, especially as entries are going to carry advertising and Google is proposing to share revenues with the article writers.
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