Wikia Search: Should Google be Scared?

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is creating a bit of a stir with his new project, a wiki based search engine temporarily called Search Wikia. Of course, the media are jumping at the chance to postulate whether this will be a Google killer. Wired.com has an interview with Wales that looks at the concept in a little more depth.

Wales definitely comes out swinging on the project website. First, he calls it “a project to create the search engine that changes everything”. Bold, if nothing else.

He then comments:

“Search is part of the fundamental infrastructure of the Internet. And, it is currently broken.

Why is it broken? It is broken for the same reason that proprietary software is always broken: lack of freedom, lack of community, lack of accountability, lack of transparency. Here, we will change all that.”

A community based search property is an intriguing concept, but not a terribly new one. Open Directory, GoGuides and others have gone here before. The difference here is the total opening of control, and using a wiki platform for collaborative development of the search index.

Here is the challenge, as I see it.

It’s dependent on the involvement of the community. Wales has no idea how the community will be managed, and doesn’t really plan on figuring this out. “I don’t think it makes sense to manage a community.” He’s right. You can’t manage a community, you incentivize them.  You give them a reason to participate. Wales seems to think altruism will be the motivating factor:

“It’s about building a space where good people can come in and manage themselves and manage each other. They can have a distinct and clear purpose — a moral purpose — that unites people and brings them together to do something useful.”

I disagree. There are a few altruistic netizens out there, but not nearly enough to help make this dream a reality. It’s not a scalable concept. But, you say, what about Wikipedia? Isn’t that based on the same premise? Yes, and no.

I believe that the main motivation on contributing to Wikipedia is to spout off on something you know about, and to leave a semi permanent footprint on the shifting sands of the Web. Whether it’s attributed to you or not, when you can contribute to Wikipedia, you can point to something and say, “I did that. That’s me..and this is how smart I am on this particular topic.” I don’t think altruism has much to do with it.

In a search engine wiki, your contribution would be hidden in a human powered algorithm. You wouldn’t leave a footprint. There’s no sense of you, no bragging rights. There’s no compelling incentive to participate. And to bite off something at the scope Wales is envisioning, you would need huge numbers of people participating.

Personally, I would like to see Search Wikia work. But there’s a reason why community based search hasn’t worked til now. It’s the same reason social tagging has questionable viability. Anytime you’re asking people to be involved, you’ve introduced a limiting factor. There are a handful of people that get involved in something like this. They’re enough to get a concept off the ground, and they’ll do it because they’re motivated by different things than the other 99% of society. But once you burn off that resource, you’re stuck. Wales dream depends on tapping into the other 99%, and I just don’t see that happening. We don’t want to work that hard. There’s no “whats in it for me?” reward for doing the heavy lifting.

But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Go ahead and take a few minutes to post a comment telling me why the average Net user is a more giving person than I believe them to be. I’ll even give you credit for helping contribute to the betterment of the online world 😉

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